The Art of Polar Photography: How to Take Your Best Travel Pics

May 18, 2017 Acacia Johnson

Some passengers shoot thousands of photos on a single polar expedition, surprising themselves with the sheer volume and diversity of images captured. The immensity and extreme conditions of Antarctica and the Arctic offer great rewards, but unique challenges for photographers of all skill levels, as well. The landscape here is constantly shifting, and wildlife are always on the move.

Igloos aren’t used as permanent shelter today, but many Inuit in the Canadian High Arctic still know how to build one.

Igloos aren’t used as permanent shelter today, but many Inuit in the Canadian High Arctic still know how to build one. Photo: Acacia Johnson

It was that evolving, surreal quality of the Arctic that inspired my ‘Under the Same Stars’ photo series shot during the dark winter months in Nunavut, Canada, during my time as a Fulbright grantee. People expect to find flat, white, empty space in the polar regions, but in truth, both the Arctic and Antarctica come alive with color and life in the times we visit on expedition--qualities you can easily capture in your travel photos, with a bit of practice.

On each expedition, we offer workshops to help you get the most out of the photography equipment you have available on your trip, whether that’s a DSLR with interchangeable lenses or a smartphone. We try to run these early in the expedition when conditions permit, so you’re ready to go once we head out to explore. You may be able to experiment with your camera from the ship’s open decks, as well.

In this post, I’ll share a few of the Golden Rules employed by the pros to help you frame better shots, understand your camera settings and ultimately capture more beautiful, artistic photos in the field. Try practicing these at home before your expedition with a few of your favorite subjects.

Polar Photography Composition

Remember, photography is a very personal thing; what looks great to one person might not appeal to another at all. It’s completely subjective so don’t ever feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t follow these rules. They’re meant to inspire, not constrain!

The Rule of Thirds

Imagine your photo sectioned into thirds to make wildlife and human shots more compelling.

Imagine your photo sectioned into thirds to make wildlife and human shots more compelling.
Photo: Acacia Johnson

People are naturally inclined to place the main subject of their photo dead center.  Instead, try dividing your frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, aligning the aspects of your photo on those lines.

This is especially useful when shooting animals (like penguins!) or people. Having them on one of the intersections creates a strong focal point in the picture. Try to make sure the eyes are in focus and on an intersection, if you can.

Play with Symmetry

Symmetry--where both sides of your photo are identical--creates beautiful images. Imagine the reflection of an iceberg off the water below, or an animal captured perfectly centred, staring right into your lens. To make it even more exciting, try to find instances where things are almost a mirror image, but one element breaks the symmetry.

A seal peers into the camera, its face nearly symmetrical but for one noticeable difference that captures the viewer’s attention.

A seal peers into the camera, its face nearly symmetrical but for one noticeable difference that captures the viewer’s attention. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Both the Arctic and Antarctica offer fantastic opportunities to practice this technique, thanks to the often mountainous terrain and your vantage point from the water (whether by small expedition ship or by Zodiac).

Leading Lines

Imagine a penguin in the foreground, with a ridgeline behind it that naturally intersects with the subject. Leading into your subject with a strong line naturally draws the viewer’s eye to it.

The human eye perceives diagonal lines as more exciting than straight ones, so you have a lot of room to play.

Pro Polar Photo Tips:

  • Try to leave negative space behind a person or animal; imagine empty sky, empty sea. Leave breathing room around your subjects to allow them to really stand out.
  • Don’t worry about capturing the perfect shot in the field. A lot of professional photographers are out there trying to get the most neutral shots, but shooting in RAW. This allows them a great deal of flexibility in editing, when they can bring out as much color and contrast as they wish. Shooting in RAW means you have the exposure in the file, but it also compresses several versions both lighter and darker so you have tons of information to work with in editing. The file sizes are therefore huge--you can’t just upload the file to a sharing platform. You have to be willing and prepared to individually edit and export to JPEGs. RAW is a lot of work, but if you want that extra flexibility in editing and high quality, it’s the way to go. You’ll need a lot of memory on your cards and a way to offload your images each night. Even without shooting in RAW, editing can really bump up your image quality.

Shutter Speed & Technical Settings

If you’re going to shoot on manual settings, you may want to prioritize either aperture or shutter speed (you can learn more about aperture and shutter speed in this post). A lot of people find that in the polar regions, prioritizing shutter speed to freeze motion is important. You’re constantly moving in the Zodiacs and on the ship’s decks, and while on land, wildlife may be moving fast.

A low aperture is a great technique for telling the stories of the polar animals you’ll meet, as with this penguin who’d just left the water and was headed back up the penguin highway to its nest.

A low aperture is a great technique for telling the stories of the polar animals you’ll meet, as with this penguin who’d just left the water and was headed back up the penguin highway to its nest. Photo: Miranda Miller

Another setting you may wish to prioritize is aperture, which allows you to control depth of field--how much of the image is in focus, from foreground to background. A low aperture will allow you to blur the background and emphasize the foreground subject, whereas a high aperture will bring everything in focus far into the distance. It's a great storytelling tool that helps you tell the viewer what the picture is really about.

Photography is all about priorities, and they’re as individual as they are flexible when you’re out on expedition.

Pro Polar Photo Tips:

  • There are no best settings for your camera; the polar regions and lighting conditions within it are changing dramatically all the time, minute by minute. You need to be flexible and know how to experiment with your settings as you go.
  • Consider leaving the tripod at home, unless you want to shoot video or have a heavy lens. People traveling to the Arctic in late August and September may find enough darkness to see Northern Lights, but photographing the Northern Lights from a moving ship is challenging. If you’re going to shoot the Northern Lights, you need everything to be perfectly still, but the perpetual motion of the ship means long exposure shots are typically blurred unless you are at anchor.

Unique Polar Photography Challenges

Point & shoot cameras or smartphones without viewfinders are challenging in the bright conditions of the polar regions, where pristine ice, snow and water are so bright that it makes it difficult to see your screen. If you don’t have a viewfinder, see if you can find an LCD hood or shade before you go, to help block out that light. Worst case scenario, we’ve seen people build viewfinders out of duct tape on the ship, but that’s not ideal!

Remember too that if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, you may not be able to see your screen. However, they are highly recommended and will make it easier for you to see wildlife in the water.

In a white and/or grey environment like Antarctica, you’ll have to make sure your pictures are bright enough. This seems counterintuitive, but in all-white conditions, the camera overcompensates and your pictures can turn out more grey than in reality. Use your exposure settings to ensure your photos have enough light.

The stark whites of the landscape in the polar regions can create challenges; leave yourself room to create contrast and purify colors in editing.

The stark whites of the landscape in the polar regions can create challenges; leave yourself room to create contrast and purify colors in editing. Photo: Miranda Miller

People are often inspired yet overwhelmed by the depth or vibrant blue of the ice. Trying to capture the color accurately can be a challenge and a project while you’re in the field. You might instinctively adjust your exposure, feeling your images are overexposed, but the number one setting used to control the color of your pictures is white balance.

Different kinds of light have different color temperatures, and your camera needs to consider this, too. For example, indoor tungsten light is very orange (warm), while outdoor light on a cloudy day is very blue (cool). The White Balance setting in your camera helps compensate for the color temperature, to give you an image that looks "normal." If you don't like the result you get on Automatic, you can experiment by changing this manually to alter the color temperature of the image.

If you’re struggling, an expedition team member will be happy to help you out!

Pro Polar Photo Tips:

A polarizing filter removes surface reflection, allowing you to bring out truer, deeper colors and produce better images of objects in water

A polarizing filter removes surface reflection, allowing you to bring out truer, deeper colors and produce better images of objects in water. Photo: Acacia Johnson

  • Consider bringing a polarizing filter. It removes surface reflection, which is important if we’re looking at something in the water from the ship. Some have a feature where you can turn them on and off, so you don’t have to take it off when you aren’t using it. I shot the above photo of the kayaker in Greenland with a polarizing filter.  To get that deep green color, I needed to remove the surface reflection on the sea. Otherwise, it would have reflected the blue sky.
  • Make time for editing, if you can. There can be great joy in revisiting your trip in the editing process, and you may surprise yourself with what you can pull out of your images! Lightroom is a powerful and friendly editing program. If you use a Mac or iPhone, the photos app will allow you to adjust crop, exposure, color saturation and more. Even online sharing programs like Google Images and Facebook now offer photo editing that can make things more colorful and vivid. Editing tools can really bring your photos to life.

Want to learn more about taking beautiful photos your Arctic or Antarctic expedition?

 

About the Author

Acacia Johnson

Acacia was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, where she spent much of her childhood immersed in the outdoors and around wildlife, particularly grizzly bears. Later, she studied in Northern Norway above the Arctic Circle, which ignited her passion for life at polar latitudes. She now speaks fluent Norwegian and considers Norway to be her home. Acacia is primarily a photographer, artist and writer, holding a BFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design and exhibiting her work internationally. In 2014, she overwintered on Baffin Island on a Fulbright grant to create photographs about human relationships to the Arctic winter landscape – an experience which sparked new interests in Arctic indigenous culture. With an expeditionary process and love for polar light, she has devoted her artistic career to conveying the profound awe and wonder of the Polar Regions through photography and writing. Acacia is particularly interested in the diverse ways humans have related to the

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