Several photographers have asked me about the equipment I used on the Elysium expedition to Antarctica and South Georgia, as they prepare to go themselves. I did a lot of research on equipment and technique before the trip and it really did pay off. I’m indebted to the many photographers out there who’d posted their own experiences on blogs and my advice to anyone going there is to read up as much as you can and learn from the experience of others. So here are my own thoughts on what worked for me.
Before we even start on camera gear, let’s talk about the most important thing of all
Underwater: Undersuits and drysuits
I used the following Fourth Element layers, all worn at the same time to great effect:
Drybase, top and bottom
Xerotherm, top and bottom
Xerotherm Arctic, top and bottom
The inherent stretchiness of these garments still allowed me considerable manoeuvrability, and their wicking qualities kept my skin dry, despite getting me hot before entering the water. They also dry in no time between dives as they are constructed of man-made Polartec.
These were worn under an O’Three Ri crushed neoprene drysuit.
I also experimented with a heated waistcoat – a topside version powered by an attached lithium battery. The problem with this is that it needs to be turned on before you zip your suit up. I then found that I perspired so much before the dive that all of its warming abilities were offset by the fact that my suit became so damp with perspiration before entering the water (not to mention the aggravating affects of dehydration with regards to susceptibility to decompression sickness). I therefore found absolutely no difference between wearing it or not – it seems that all the heat it provided was offset by the fact that I was soaking wet. However I think that the specific diving versions that can be turned on and off in the water have a lot of potential despite their expense (~ £500 mark).
I interchanged the Arctics and Xerotherms for Fourth Element SubX’s if they got damp (your drysuit will get very damp inside due to condensation caused by the temperature difference between the wall of your drysuit and the warmth/humidity inside your suit – so take a spare undersuit! Actually I have yet to be convinced that a neoprene suit is really the answer in Polar conditions – I found that it was difficult to dry the inside of the suit when compared to a membrane and it is restrictive when it comes to wearing ultra high performance under suits such as the Fourth Element SubX. Also, most of the action in Antarctica involves snorkelling, and the manoeuvrability of a membrane suit is therefore another bonus. Nonetheless it did the job, and the neoprene seals were definitely a benefit as I noticed a number of latex seals on other drysuits bit the dust during the expedition – if you have latex seals on your suit, take spares!!
My body core stayed warm throughout the dive: it was normally the pain in my hands that forced my out of the water. Normal dive times were 30 to 45 minutes however I spent over 2 hours in the water on one stretch – suffice to say I had to keep active during this period. Which brings me onto the subject of hand protection…….
I used the Northern Diver dry glove system which readily accept the SHOWA PVC chemical/work gloves. Underneath I used a pair of Polartec 200 fleece gloves, such as the Lowe Alpine Tibet. I could have layered up more, but it’s always a trade off between warmth and maintaining enough dexterity to operate the camera. Suffice to say, my hands always went first, and on a number of occasions I let them get way too cold, suffering the resulting agony as the blood flowed back after the dive. Keep your hands moving throughout the dive!!
Incidentally my drysuit has a custom made double seal on the wrists (neoprene underneath which seals to my skin, and a latex outer seal which the dry glove rings attach to: contact me (or O’Three) if you want more info), so if my dry gloves flooded, I could simply remove the connecting airflow tube to seal my suit and prevent a catastrophic flood. Some of the other divers preferred to use polar mits from Waterproof or 5mm Extreme semi dry gloves instead. I think the performance difference is negligible, it’s really down to personal preference
I used twin hoods: a 5mm Size Large Fourth Element and a 3mm Size Extra Large over the top: my head never felt cold – this was completely adequate head protection.
Keep it as simple as possible!! Anything that can snag or is fiddly to get on and off on a cramped zodiac with 8 divers needs to be left at home. I used my favoured Halcyon Eclipse wing for buoyancy control. The tanks we used all had H valves so I used twin regulators – an Apeks XTX 40 and a Scubapro Mk17/G250V (I decided to hedge my bets as I’d used neither of these current regs in freezing water for any duration). Note that both these regs share the same characteristics:
– Diaphragm first stages
– Environmentally sealed
– Plenty of metal in the 2nd stage
They performed flawlessly, the G250V being my primary reg. I didn’t even get a hint from it that it was going to freeze, even in -1.8 degrees C
All said, the best opportunities in Antarctica in my opinion involve snorkelling not scuba. If there is one spare piece of kit to put in your bag (other than a spare mask) – it’s a spare snorkel. I lost mine, so ended up scrounging one from the ever helpful Göran Ehlme…….
Getting everything nailed before you leave home is so important. Your time in the water in Antarctica is so limited by the temperature: This is not the place to be testing new equipment so make sure you are totally happy with your rig and weighting whilst wearing your full undersuit in salt water before you leave home
Staying warm above water
It’s not nearly as cold as you might think: which doesn’t mean to say that you don’t need warm clothes, you do, especially when lying motionless for hours in the pouring rain in South Georgia, covered head to toe in penguin poo. However if you just gear up with an 800 weight duvet jacket, you may well find yourself overheating when you have a bit of distance to cover. The frequent rain in South Georgia also made Polartec fleece the material of choice rather than down – down is pain once it get wet as it loses its thermal qualities, as well as being difficult to dry. Man Made fleece has none of these drawbacks. For topside excursions my clothing comprised the following: A Gore-tex water/windproof jacket, sailing Salopettes – these have the advantage of being heavier duty than waterproofs designed for walkers, so more able to tolerate abuse when lying down amongst rocks etc.
For warm layer I wore a zip up fleece (200 weight) and winter walking trousers, my mid layer was a micro fleece (100 weight) and my baselayer comprised Icebreaker Merino wool garments or the Fourth Element Drybase. Again the different materials have different characteristics – the Merino wool resists odour well whereas the man made Fourth Elements dry quickly and are lighter.
In our boat itself it was typically 23 degrees so summer walking trousers are useful for wearing around here. You can layer these up with thermals under your waterproofs if necessary as well.
Gloves wise I use Gil helmsman gloves when out in the zodiac, but though incredibly warm and waterproof, they are too bulky for camera operation. When shooting I used a pair of Rab Phantom Grip gloves: These have sticky plams and fingers so have great grip, they are thin for dexterity and are made of Polartec Windstopper so are warm even when windy: they are the best gloves I’ve ever used whilst photographing !
For headwear I alternated between a Fourth Element Xerotherm beany and a Karrimor winter peaked waterproof cap. If like me you wear specs, the peaked winter cap is indispensable – it keeps your head warm whilst keeping spray and rain of your glasses. Another simple item design that made a huge difference – the alternative would have been cleaning my glasses every few minutes, as even a hood wouldn’t have been effective when the rain was driving.
One word – wellies! Some of the team used the Arctic Muckboot and raved about them – they certainly looked the business being made of thick neoprene. I just used a good pair of Hunter boots with several layers of Merino wool socks underneath – this suited me fine. A good pair of wellies will also let you cover quite some distance comfortably as they are designed for it. Forget about hiking boots – they will get soaked as soon as you step foot of the zodiac and you will not get them dry again.
There’s 5 main classes of shot that I came across in Antarctica: seals, split level over/unders, seascapes (incl. Icebergs), penguins and the critters. There is not much in the way of fish life. To this end the most used lenses are ultrawides. For my Leopard Seal images I chose the Nikon 16mm fisheye on the D700. This worked for me as the best choice of the kit I had with me. My other option would have been the Tokina 10-17 fisheye zoom on the D2X. To be honest, I would have preferred the Tokina – I often found the 16mm FE too wide on a full frame camera, however Leopard seals require fast shutter speeds which would have meant bumping the ISO of the D2X out of its rather limited comfort zone. Also the D700’s autofocus handled the fast action far better. In an ideal world I would probably have chosen the Tokina mounted on a Nikon D300 or Canon 7D given the current market absence of a full frame fisheye zoom. I did have the 14-24mm in the bag also and suspect this lens would also have been very useful but did not get the chance to use it on the seals. For critters a Nikon 60mm micro is fine given its 1:1 capability. I didn’t bother with any longer macro lenses, preferring to save room for more topside lenses. Penguins are notoriously difficult to photograph underwater – they move like bullets and don’t hang around. For these you need to be extremely patient in freezing conditions and catch them as they enter the water from the rocks. A mid range zoom is an ideal tool for this. As for seascpaes, again the fisheyes come into their own here.
Being unable to resist the DIY element, I made a few equipment modifications before leaving. Firstly, I made extra large knobs for the camera strobe controls so I could adjust settings quickly whilst wearing dry gloves. They worked perfectly when diving from the shore in the UK before hand, but once on a crowded zodiac, they all fell off :o) Secondly, one of the most useful ways to spend a fiver on ebay is to purchase some bungee balls, those used to secure tarpaulins. Attach these to your dome protector caps and you’ll find it’s much easier to remove them whilst wearing thick gloves.
For topside work, my most used lens was the 70-200 F2.8, followed by the 80-400 and the 14-24 (which I used on both FX and DX bodies). Other shooters were using the 200-400 and 300 F2.8 with teleconverters. I also made use of mid range zooms but not as much.
Rain covers are essential: I had a decent nylon cover in the bag however this didn’t allow a flash to be attached. I found that in the overcast conditions a kiss of fill flash was essential to lift the detail out of the shadows, so I resorted to the wonderfully cheap and cheerful Optech rain covers, which covered my flash also. To be honest these did the job perfectly when combined with an already shower resistant pro camera body and lens – I didn’t have any camera or lens failures despite shooting in the rain for hours on end. If the heavens had really opened I would have donned the nylon rain cape. Don’t think for a moment that a pro camera bodies shower resistant features will be enough – the team had at least one casualty amongst the pro bodies in use that were not protected by a rain cover. So if you can’t justify several hundred pounds for an Aquatec or Thinktank, at least take some Optechs. It’s not unusual for it to rain the whole day on South Georgia. You won’t notice it as there is so much to see, but your cameras will.
I carried my gear in a Lowepro Dryzone 200. I honestly can’t think of a better bag for Antarctic and Sub Antarctic conditions. On several occasions it’s Waterproofness was put to the test and it never failed to protect my gear. It’s also close enough to hand luggage size…. bonus!
Attached to the Dryzone I carried a tripod and monopod. I found a beanbag useful when on board ship – forget about a monopod when shooting from deck as it will transmit the engine vibrations straight through to the camera.
Battery life is shorter due to the cold, so keep spares and keep them warm. Coming from the cold deck inside a warm ship will cause condensation: allow your cameras adjust to room temperature before opening them. If you’ve removed a battery or flash card from a housed camera that’s staying out on deck, then pop it in a zip lock bag and let it warm up for a couple of hours inside the ship before dealing with it. Some shooters preferred to leave their underwater camera housings out on deck overnight. Personally I didn’t as I did not want any ice forming around the o-ring grooves. However if your housing is kept inside overnight then get it out on deck as soon as possible in the morning to let it cool down – otherwise you may well find your housings dome will mist up on the inside as soon as you enter the water, due to the higher ambient temperature inside the housing. This can apparently be alleviated with silica gel sachets but I prefer not to have anything loose rattling around inside my housing. With a bit of discipline in getting the camera outside early, I didn’t have any problems at all.
I suppose after writing all that I’d better get round to actually publishing the shots on my website – these are under wraps at the moment and I’ll be releasing them later in 2010.
Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or want to post links to other good blogs on polar experiences.