Spitzbergen – Exploring world’s northernmost inhabited area
I was hired as an expedition guide and photography instructor for a three weeks sailing expedition around Spitzbergen, which is situated between 74° – 81°N. Venturing into the Arctic on the sailing ship Antigua requires proper preparation concerning photography gear and clothing.
The weather conditions in September are rather changeable and because winter is close, from rain to snow to sun to fog everything is possible within a couple of hours. You cannot predict the light and weather anyway, but temperature is not as big an issue as many might think.
Temperatures in September are typically above freezing or a little bit below. Lower temperatures and condensation can therefore present challenges. Just make sure your equipment is wrapped in waterproof bags or cases when bringing it inside and first and foremost that it is reliable and the results are proven. Usually I leave my gear on deck and in doing so I don’t have to deal with condensation. If I have to use a tripod I use a very sturdy one, because there will be always wind.
Protection against environmental influences
The tripod also helps to compensate the movements of the ship when shooting wildlife or landscapes, it just behaves a little bit different than on solid ground. One of the biggest problems when sailing is salt water and salt water spray. There is always the danger of spray water or waves hitting the ship or the zodiacs. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere and I am always prepared to be totally soaked. A little salt water on the wrong part of equipment can be enough to render it useless, sometime after weeks. The more weatherproof your gear is the better! It is as simple as that and I only use watertight bags, cases and backpacks. But since I have so many other things like safety gear to carry around, it is also about to find the right balance between weight, stability and functionality.
In addition to the weather conditions, there is the danger of getting too close to the wildlife you are photographing. This can be dangerous for yourself. The polar bear for example moves fast on land and the ice, and will actively hunt people. But it can be also dangerous for the wildlife itself. Animals are not models and I try to modify my behavior in a way that I never cause stress to them. If I have the feeling that something may cause distress to birds, polar foxes, reindeer or polar bears, or damage its habitat, I am backing away and keep a safe distance.
September – The best time to travel to Spitzbergen
From a photographers point of view September is one of my favorite months. The first snowfall can add a beautiful layer to the already amazing mountain landscapes of Spitzbergen. Day by day the nights start to get longer and the chances are higher that during the night polar lights can appear above the mountains or the icy sea. I have witnessed some of the most spectacular, vast and unique landscapes during this time in the Arctic and I have never seen them anywhere else. Frozen tundra, sublime glaciers and very characteristic mountains make for dramatic photography, be it with or without the diverse wildlife. From often monochromatic sceneries to uncounted shades of blue and turquoise to be found in the drift ice and on glaciers Spitzbergen offers a continuous changing landscape and photo opportunities of a lifetime.
During expeditions like this I shoot with Canon cameras and lenses because of size/ weight vs. image quality. If weight is of no concern I usually shoot with digital medium format cameras. ZEISS kindly loaned me the Milvus 1.4/85, the Milvus 2/135, the Otus 1.4/28 and UV Filters + POL Filters to use it on this three weeks trip.
Working with a high resolution camera body
All my gear needs to operate perfectly in arctic conditions, withstanding everything form of severe weather conditions and the three ZEISS lenses offered unbeatable build quality and reliability. I did not had a single problem using them. The Milvus with it’s dust and moisture sealing was not concerned at all by the weather conditions. I was absolutely satisfied with the precise and smooth manual focusing, even when temperatures dropped below zero. Sometimes the focus mechanism of my other lenses become very stiff when it is getting colder and it is not so easy anymore to reliably establish focus. Since image quality is highly dependent on accurate focusing when using a high resolution body like the Canon 5DSR I could not have been happier!
Next to the mechanics and overall design the optical performance is most important to me. Especially my landscape images are being published in calendars of the GEO or MARE magazine and the print size is therefore rather large. Any optical flaw would be immediately visible and I could not find any after making some fine art test prints when I had retuned home. The prints were as big as 180cm x 120cm and color, sharpness and contrast were just fantastic! The ZEISS lenses are a perfect match for high resolution DSLR bodies and when the dynamic range is not to large, the printed results are very close to digital medium format resolution wise.
When Arctic sunsets bath the landscape in a warm and unbelievable light, it is also the time when I have to deal with low light situations. There are not so many options, except dialing in a higher ISO or shooting wide open. The image quality when shooting with the Canon 5DSR above 320 ISO is not acceptable anymore for big prints and therefore I am always struggling to find the right balance between Aperture, ISO and image quality. The most surprising aspect when using the ZEISS lenses were the extremely good results when shooting wide open. I have used the Otus 1.4/28 at f/1.4 for most of my landscapes and nearly the entire frame was razor sharp. Above f/2.8 the edge to edge sharpness was brilliant and I got the same results with the Milvus 1.4/85 and the Milvus 2/135. This enabled me to almost shoot in any light situation and capture stunning landscapes. Until now edge to edge sharpness was my biggest concern with the Canon lenses and using the ZEISS lenses I have one less problem to worry about. The only thing I would like ZEISS to think about, would be a longer telephoto lens. A 135mm telephoto lens is still not long enough for a polar bear!
About the Author
Hi, my name is Alexander Lembke and I am from Hamburg. While being a professional photographer based in Germany I am specialized in the northern hemisphere and prefer working at temperatures below zero. Usually I spent several months a year in Finland, Norway or Spitzbergen where I am also working as an arctic expedition guide. Next to my work as a photographer I am actively involved in different research projects concerning environmental and climate change.