How to Choose the Right Ship Based Polar Photography Expedition

If you subscribe to my Podcast, I discussed the issues surrounding choosing the right ship-based photography expedition in Episode #12 yesterday. This blog post is a transcript of that episode and will also available as a PDF download from my website in coming days.

Introduction: Choosing the right ship-based Polar Photography expedition can be a bit of minefield if its your first time travelling to the Polar regions. There are a lot of places where what might seem the smart or logical choice at first blush will end up resulting in a sub optimal experience if photography is your primary goal. Choosing a large luxury cruise liner will certainly secure you a wonderful luxury experience, but it does come at the cost of significant photographic opportunities. One of the first decisions you are going to have to make (after deciding where you want to go) is are you going to choose a dedicated photographic expedition; or a mixed tourist trip? And what are the differences between the two?

Dedicated Photography or Mixed Tourist Expeditions: Perhaps the best place to start is by defining the differences between a dedicated trip and a mixed trip. A dedicated trip is almost always a full ship charter. The photography leader (or leaders) has chartered the entire vessel for the sole purpose of putting on a photographic expedition. The emphasis of the expedition and main drive is photography and to provide its participants the most optimal experience for photography. Meal times are moved around to accomodate the best light of the day and locations are chosen based on prevailing weather and the best possible photographic experience. Time ashore is always optimised for light and conditions and you are likely to get far longer ashore than you otherwise would on a regular tourist trip. On a trip such as this you can expect to be rubbing shoulders with other like minded individuals who share the same passion as you and have kudos respect for what you do. By contrast, a mixed trip is a general tourist trip that ‘may’ have a small specialised photography group along for the ride. This small group will try and operate as an independent unit, but ultimately is subject to the whims of the expedition leader (not the photography leader). The results sub optimal and not pretty.

Before we get too much further, it is important be clear at this point: Any ship-based photography workshop or expedition you choose to participate in will be a serious compromise if it is not solely dedicated to photography and guided by an experienced photographer who has control of the charter vessel. The problem with mixed photographer / general tourist expeditions is that the photography on these trips is always classed as the poor second cousin. It doesn’t matter how good your photography leader might be on a mixed trip; his or her hands will be tied by the expedition leader who will without doubt put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few. In other words, expect your time in the field photographing to be severely curtailed by the needs of the general tourists on board; who will no doubt want to keep their meal times inline with their regular home dining habits and be back on board in time for afternoon tea and scones. The expedition leader on these trips will always work his or her daily timetable around set meal times and is unlikely to allow your photography guide and small group to conduct special excursions for photography during the golden light of morning and evening. In fact, you are unlikely to even have your own dedicated zodiac. Usually the expedition leaders like to have everyone safely back on board prior to dinner and then use the best light of the day to steam to a new location. You might get lucky and score one or two great light opportunities; but who wants to travel half way around the world at vast expense and hope to get lucky?

An additional consideration to selection of a mixed or dedicated expedition is the question of photographic etiquette. Photographers who are passionate about their craft are far less likely to walk in front of you when you are photographing because they are acutely aware of how much they hate it when it happens to them. By comparison, general tourists often walk around with their head in the clouds and wont think twice about stepping in front of you and your carefully planned composition. Should you elect to travel on a mixed tourist trip you can fully expect to have to spend quite a bit of your time shooing the tourists away from your chosen shooting location. Part of the problem is tourists are attracted to tripods like flies to manure – I have set up a tripod alone in a remote location many times, only to find myself surrounded by tourists who are all trying emulate my composition on their iPhones. I have even had tourists step in front of me and destroy the foreground snow I was trying to include during a workshop to Lofoten in winter. It isn’t a pleasant experience and it will frustrate you if serious photography is your goal.

Lastly, tourists generally care about getting a few snapshots at best and quickly get bored after thirty minutes or so ashore and want to return to the ship for tea or coffee. By contrast photographers prefer to spend as much time as they can ashore in order to maximise their experience and photographic session. In a mixed trip, it is not uncommon for photographers to be scalded by the expedition leader and proverbially dragged kicking and screaming back to the ship because the majority of the ships tourists have finished and want to move onto the next location. It is extraordinarily frustrating to have to return to the ship when conditions are ideal because the majority of your fellow shipmates were bored, cold or otherwise couldn’t care a less about your photography. Slowing down, and having ample time ashore is critical to a great photographic result. No photographer wants to travel half way around the world at significant expense and be told they have only limited time ashore because the ship chef wants to serve lunch.

If you are serious about your photography and you want to have the best possible photographic experience then I strongly recommend you choose an expedition that caters to photographers and not a mixed expedition where you may be part of a small photographic group that is expected to co-exist with a larger number of tourists. If you do choose the later, be forewarned, the tourists are likely to consider you the odd balls on board and go out of their way to make your life less than optimal. It is unfortunately human nature to ostracise and exclude those we see as different and I have personally experienced this sort of behaviour – again, it isn’t pleasant.

Choosing the Right Ship: Once you have reached the conclusion that a dedicated photography ship-based expedition is the only real choice if you want to give yourself the best possible photographic opportunities the next most important choice is the ship itself. Outside of the photography leader on your next ship-based photographic adventure the choice of ship will have the biggest impact on your photographic opportunities and experience. So how do you choose the right ship?

Passenger Numbers: The first consideration when looking at ship choice is how many passengers does the vessel accomodate. Typically, you want to travel and photograph with as few people as possible. The more people on board, the more chance that they will get in the way of your photography. Imagine being ashore in Antarctica with 99 other people all wearing yellow high visibility jackets, all trying to photograph the same rookery of penguins! Again, this isn’t a very pleasant experience and far removed from an immersion into Polar Nature photography. Additionally, the more participants, the less time you will have access to your photographic leader (this may or may not matter to you depending on you experience). Ultimately the number of passengers is a bit of a balancing act between not too many and the right number for social interaction ‘after the shoot’. Part of the joy of any photography expedition is the ‘post shoot’ social gatherings in the bar or lecture rooms. After all, the best experiences in the world are those that are shared with like minded individuals.

Antarctica: Typically most vessels operating in Antarctica are capable of accomodating more (and in many cases a lot more) than 100+ people. This is just too many people for a serious photographic expedition. IATO has special rules in place in Antarctica that must be followed including a landing limit of not more than 100 people at a time (including guides). If you have chosen a ship with more than 100 people on board then you will have to wait your turn to go ashore with frustrating impatience (especially if the light or conditions happen to be optimal). This is lost time and missed opportunities. Therefore my recommendation for Antarctica is that you look for ships that carry sub 100 passengers. Somewhere around 50 passengers is the sweet spot for an Antarctica expedition in my experience. If you want significantly less than 50 you really have to look at either sail boats (these are not fun to cross the Drake Passage) or high end luxury ship charter that will easily run a group of ten photographers twenty five to thirty thousand dollars plus per person for a ten day expedition.

The Arctic: The Arctic offers different and broader ship choice opportunities to the limited choices on offer in Antarctica and it is generally much easier to find vessels that accomodate less than 30 people. Depending on the nature of the Arctic expedition my recommendation is that somewhere between 12 and 20 people is close too ideal for an Arctic photography expedition. The real problem with larger numbers of people on an Arctic expedition is that someone is far more likely to call out in excitement and scare away an approaching Polar Bear. General tourists are a disaster around Polar Bears and if you have chosen a mixed trip in the Arctic your chances of having a decent encounter with a Polar Bear are unfortunately slim at best. If you have a good photography leader they should be providing briefings to all on board regarding how to behave around wildlife in order to obtain the best possible photographs. On the whole, photographers are in my experience far better at this sort of thing than general tourists.

Ice Class: The next consideration (and this applies to Polar expeditions only) is the ice class of the vessel. Ideally you want a ship with the highest possible ice class that you can find (not actually an ice breaker). Importantly, not all ships are built to an ice class. Building a ship to an ice class means that the hull must be thicker, and more scantlings must be in place. Sea chests may need to be arranged differently depending on the class. Sea bays may also be required to ensure that the sea chest does not become blocked with ice. Most of the stronger classes require several forms of rudder and propeller protection. Strengthened propeller tips are often required in the stronger ice classes as well. More watertight bulkheads, in addition to those required by a ship’s normal class, are usually required. In addition, heating arrangements for fuel tanks, ballast tanks, and other tanks vital to the ship’s operation may also be required depending on the class.

A ship with a high ice-class will enable the captain to venture into the pack ice and to be able to push ice out of the way. The ability to navigate into the ice will allow you to get closer to icebergs and wildlife and will greatly increase your photographic opportunities. My recommendation is that if you are considering a ship based expedition to the Arctic or Antarctic that you immediately discount any vessel without an ice-class that would prevent it entering pack ice. Ships with stabilisers are a bit of a double edged sword. Although ships equiped in this manner can be more comfortable in rough seas they usually cant enter the ice for fear of damaging the fragile stabilisers.

Deck Space: Deck space is an important consideration for ship-based photography expeditions, but you shouldn’t sacrifice Ice-Class, passenger numbers or a dedicated trip for photographers just to secure additional deck space. Think of deck space as the ‘icing on the cake’. Its really nice to have, but you don’t need that much of it to have a fantastic experience. If you have made smart decisions about the type of expedition, the number of passengers and the ice class of your vessel then chances are the trip leader will have already taken deck space into consideration. It is really nice to have different level decks from which to photograph (it never hurts to have some height for landscape) and its fantastic to have a low deck for wildlife. The main consideration though is simply that there is enough deck space for everyone. You absolutely want to avoid having to be crammed into a narrow place, two or three photographers deep, struggling for a point of view from which to shoot. Watch out for ships that have closed bows or sterns – that severely limits your shooting options.

Zodiacs: The only real consideration with zodiacs is to make sure the ship you choose has sufficient zodiacs for everyone on board at the same time. Typically you can comfortably get eight to ten photographers into a MKV Zodiac with their equipment so a 50 person vessel will need at least five or six zodiacs to provide an optimal experience and usually the ships Captain will want to keep one in reserve for emergencies.

Leaders and Guides: You should also do your research on your expedition leader and photographic leader. Try and find out what sort of experience they have working in the Polar regions. It is of critical importance that your expedition leader have experience working with photographers and that they understand the needs and requirements of photographers looking to capture stunning images in the best light of the day. The expedition leader is in charge of daily operations and therefore is going to make all of the decisions pertaining to shore landings and zodiac cruises. If those operations are planned for midday light to accomodate standard meal times you can expect a very poor experience from a photographic perspective. You absolutely must have an expedition leader who is willing to shift meal times to ensure you are out in the best light of the day. Typically in the Polar regions this is very early in the morning and very late in the evening. It is the responsibility of your photographic leader to liaise with the expedition leader to ensure you get the best opportunities.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for photography guides to have little to zero real world Polar experience. Such guides should generally be avoided as they are likely to be far more interested in their own photography than in helping you or others on the expedition. If possible, try and select an expedition that includes a photography guide who specialises in polar photography or who otherwise has significant experience operating in these regions. Such guides know what to look for in terms of subject and know how to position a zodiac for the best backgrounds and to take advantage of prevailing light. Such leaders also know how to liaise with expedition leaders to deliver the opportunities you would otherwise miss.

The photographic leader and expedition leader you choose are going to have as much bearing on the success of your expedition as the ship you choose to travel on. They are critical elements to your success that should not be overlooked. In fact, you should equally weigh your leader and ship choice for any expedition to the Polar regions.

Conclusion: Wether it is your first time, or you are a polar veteran, give some consideration to your next polar ship-based expedition. Of course, much depends on your wants, needs and desires, but a few minutes spent in consideration of all of the above is very likely to yield you far more profitable photographic results than snap decisions without consideration of photographic opportunities.

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