A photographer’s paradise: Spitsbergen

02/02/2017 / By / , , / Post a Comment
Peregrine offers a range of expeditions to the Arctic. We sat down with Darran Leal of World Photo Adventures, who’s been guiding photography expeditions since 1989, to find out more about what passengers can expect on a tour in the icy waters surrounding Spitsbergen.

What you’ll see

Spitsbergen is an iconic Arctic island in the Svalbard Archipelago and is locked in snow and ice in winter. However, during the warmer months, it becomes a photographer’s paradise. May temperatures allow melting to reveal rugged rocky mountain peaks, deep gorges and blue glaciers smashing the surrounding rocks; all stunning subjects to capturing some great imagery. Imagine shooting floating blue ice, with a rugged mountain landscapes as a backdrop?

Stunning blues in Spitsbergen © DARRAN LEAL

As the months progress, puffins, guillemots, whales, arctic foxes, deer, arctic terns, walrus and so much more comes to life, both in the water and on land. Flowers seem to grow in every meadow and in the nooks and crannies of rocky ridges. Of course, a highlight is to photograph is a polar bear; to cruise through calm waters and hear the call, “Bears at 11 o’clock!”. You’re out on the ship’s spacious deck with your long telephoto lens (at least 400mm) searching for the bear; it’s like being a hunter, except your shot will capture a unique moment in time of one of the planets most graceful predators.

Imagine gliding through icy Arctic waters in a Zodiac, camera at the ready, as you look for patterns, colours, ice in the foreground, or a landscape that stands out as something that you can personally capture for prosperity. No one else on earth will get the same image. Now imagine that shot on your wall at home.

Amateur or Pro: your skill level

Three yawning bears. © DARRAN LEAL

From a beginner to a seasoned professional photographer, everyone is guaranteed to take some lovely rewarding images. The sheer grandeur of the location, mixed with unique wildlife, has everyone on board capturing his or her own special moments in time. I highly recommend taking a course or workshop before departure, and really understanding how your camera works. Keep it simple too; you don’t need to use complicated techniques and avoid using the Manual Mode setting on your camera – this will become very frustrating very quickly, as it is slow and cumbersome to use! Leave that to the professionals and stick with the Automatic settings until you’re comfortable with your camera, the conditions and the environment.

Smartphone, compact or D-SLR: what’s best?

Anything from a smart phone to the best professional camera gear will work in the Arctic. Brand has no relevance, but knowing how to use your equipment does. Invest in a ‘LifeProof’ case (with strap) for your smart phone and you can use it underwater (this works beautifully from a Zodiac for those half under water, half above water shots!). Compact cameras are also good due to their size and weight.

I love shooting with mirrorless D-SLM or D-SLR cameras. You can change lenses, which allows you to be really creative with your shots. It is amazing when you add a long telephoto lens to magnify a subject, like a polar bear, that is several hundred metres away for an ‘up close’ result. Wide-angle lenses are great for landscapes, and some macro ability will help you to shoot flowers and leaves. Don’t be scared to crop your images to help get you in close to subjects, or for creative interpretation.

Clothing & equipment

Birds in flight © DARRAN LEAL

Invest in a pair of gloves that allow the fingers to be free so you can feel the buttons and knobs on your camera. You also need to consider protecting your camera equipment; water shields are available for about $20 (perfect for keeping your camera dry when you’re in the Zodiac). I use a LowPro ProTactic 350 backpack. It holds all of my gear, has a splash-proof cover and fits the carry-on size restrictions on flights. Your expedition company will offer a list of suggested clothes to pack for your adventure.

Lighting conditions

Lighting in Spitsbergen can vary from heavy overcast clouds, to perfectly clear blue skies. Todays modern meters and sensors handle such conditions well. I actually love shooting on cloudy days as it limits contrast and can offer beautiful light. Shooting from the ship deck is just as good as shooting on shore; you just need to be a careful that your shutter speed is not too slow.

Visualisation is the key with light and photography. When I look at light in a scene, I consider the needs of the meter, but also understand that I can lighten, brighten or darken points using simple programs like Adobe Lightroom – I can be a creative artist!

Personal highlight

A young polar bear with a kill. © DARRAN LEAL

My favourite experience (although it’s hard to pick as there have been so many) was seeing a young polar bear on a kill. We had already enjoyed several magic nature experiences that day, but to see a bear with its kill was truly amazing (not so good for the seal, but that’s nature). Sitting in a zodiac and spending over an hour watching his natural life, at a close but safe distance, was fantastic. Other highlights have included capturing huge guillemot colonies, arctic terns nesting, reindeer and one of my favourite birds – puffins.

One more thing 

The Arctic is a big place, with expeditions available from Russia to Alaska, Spitsbergen to Greenland, Canada to Greenland… you get the idea. The key to capturing great images is to keep your techniques simple, know your equipment and set yourself goals. Target the best locations and you’ll build up a fantastic library of images (there are lots of great printing services that will collate all your images into a bound book).

Don’t be shy to go back on the same tour again. If you enjoyed it and it offered a lot of key subjects for you to photograph, then you can guarantee that you’ll get even more (perhaps better) shots on your next trip. I have guided photographers that have been with me to the same destination several times – they love it that much!

Join Peregrine on the adventure of a lifetime on an Arctic voyage or let us curate the perfect photography-themed private group tour for you and your friends.


Darran Leal is a professional photo guide and owner of World Photo Adventures (worldphotoadventures.com.au). He writes regular features for Australian Photography Magazine. All images are Darran’s own and used with his permission. 

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