Antarctica: Photography in Extreme Conditions

Antarctica is the windiest, coldest and driest of all continents. Temperatures of minus 20° C (__° F) or even lower are not uncommon. Given these circumstances, the crucial question arises as to whether it is possible to take pictures at all.

Of course it is! I am travelling with a combination of the Olympus E-M1 Mark II plus the 12-100 4.0 Pro lenses which reliably do their job throughout the whole expedition. To be honest I have no alternative! During the stressful days before departure I actually managed to pack only one spare body. Second or even third lenses? Negative.

However, first things first.

From my point of view the most important rule is to feel comfortable! You will never be able to summon up enough energy to take pictures if you are not dressed properly and shivering with cold or if you have overexerted yourself and therefore are only preoccupied with yourself.

In the Antarctica the following rule applies regarding proper clothing: The loss of your gloves means the loss of your hands. Frostbite and tissue damage of the fingers will occur after only a short period without gloves. So it is important to have spares and to fasten them at your wrist to prevent losing them.
Furthermore: never work without gloves. Next to hypothermia damages, the skin can also freeze up against the ice-cold metal body of the camera. Detaching it definitely is not a fun experience. So when looking through the viewfinder take care that your nose or cheeks never touch the metal.

Many a time, even with my gloves on, I reach my personal cold limit, regarding the motto “just one more picture”. I am lucky not to suffer from frostbite and every single picture I take is worth the pain.

A lost lens cap is not dramatic, however not helpful either. My camera tends to lose the cap even at the slightest push, for example from the backpack when trekking. With my pocket knife I therefore drill a hole into the cap and with a tear-proof cord I fasten it to the camera.

I think it is also important to be well organised. If possible, I try to stow all of my things in their usual space. Under extreme conditions, when quick actions are required, each movement must fit. Rummaging through several pockets, for example to find the battery, can make you lose a – or even THE – perfect shot.

Talking about the battery: it won’t last long in the extreme cold. From 100% of charge, the remaining battery charge is only around 20% after four or five hours. Then I swap that battery for one of the two warm batteries I carry in my chest pocket. After warming up it will show a capacity of 40-50% and is ready to be used again.

Unfortunately the E- M1 Mark II cannot be charged via USB. For older Olympus camera models, special charging cradles are available – the M1 Mark II however is too new a model for those. Thus I carry enough batteries, approximately two for every planned expedition day. After all, pack size and weight of these are not much worse than the alternative of one or two bigger power banks plus a solar panel.

Apart from the Equipment, other factors and settings must be considered and perhaps altered. As an example there is the white balance which sometimes is not perfectly set and a blue colour shift may appear.
Although the quality of Olympus JPG-pictures is really good and usually more than sufficient, I generally shoot pictures in RAW format. This allows me a wider range in editing, which I do only after the tour at home, all cosy and warm, with a cup of coffee at my computer.

Due to the mainly white environment and all the reflections, exposure metering quickly reaches its limits. In Antarctica most of the times I correct by +0.5 to +1.5 f-stops. Here the snow is supposed to still show faint contours without letting the main motive get too bright. Turning on the histogram and the over-exposure warning can help.

In theory attention has also to be paid to night scenes of snow and ice – however not relevant to me with 24 hours of constant brightness in the Antarctica 🙂

Taking pictures under extreme Antarctic conditions is far less complicated than expected. Previous to the tour I had been quite apprehensive – this, fortunately, turned out to be unnecessary. At the end of the day, when considering some simple rules, taking pictures in the Antarctica it is just normal photographic work, like on any other tour.

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