Arctic Photography Advice from Shannon Wild

Shannon Wild

05 Sep 2017

How to capture the perfect Arctic shot

Our specialist leader, Shannon Wild, who leads some of our photography trips to Svalbard, has tips on how to capture the perfect shot whilst out in the Arctic.

The Arctic offers a wealth of subjects for photographers and isn’t limited to stunning landscapes and impressive icebergs.  Sailing around Svalbard treats you with an abundance of various wildlife from birds, reindeer, foxes and whales to the formidable polar bear.

It can often be hard to decide what to bring and what not to bring on such an adventure, especially when baggage weight and air travel is a consideration.  However, it is possible to cover all of your bases with three simple lens choices.

Equipment Suggestions

Wide angle lens

It’s no surprise that you will want to capture the grandeur you will continually encounter when exploring the landscapes and glaciers of Svalbard and it’s surrounding islands.

I use either my Nikon 17-35mm or Tamron 15-30mm for these situations and often still find myself taking several shots to combine into panoramas even when shooting this wide.  It’s hard to describe just how large and impressive this part of the world is.


For mid-range shooting I find the 70-200mm perfect to cover a whole host of shooting possibilities including wildlife, icebergs and general shooting subjects such as my fellow explorers.


You might actually be surprised by how many wildlife encounters you can capture with your mid-range lens, but there will also be times when a bit more reach is needed.  Sometimes it’s necessary to maintain distance from a subject for your safety and theirs.  Other times your subject may be shy or nervous, meaning you want to capture images before they spook.

In this range I work with a 150-600mm zoom lens.  By all means bring your big prime lenses if you have them.  I personally find them too cumbersome to shoot with for long periods and especially from a moving zodiac or carrying on a trek but I am quite petite and this certainly contributes to my choice of a lighter option.  I also like the flexibility of working with a zoom lens which allows me to capture a variety of compositions without potentially scaring off the animal by moving around too much, or if I’m stuck within the confines of a zodiac or shooting from the ship.

If you want to work with a telephoto prime lens, such as anything 500mm and over I’d certainly recommend a monopod.  This can be especially handy for those times when you need a bit of extra stability, and also a way of supporting the lens when you’re not shooting.

Shooting in the Arctic

Once you get your head around how your cameras metering system works, exposing properly in bright conditions, such as with large amounts of snow and ice, becomes much easier.

If you shoot in manual mode, then it’s simply a matter of finding the balance between your aperture, shutter speed and ISO and check your histogram to make sure you haven’t over or under-exposed. 

If you are shooting in any other mode, such as Aperture priority, or utilizing Auto ISO for example, then your camera relies on metering the scene to determine what it thinks is a correct exposure.  Sometimes the meter can be tricked by all that white, and as such, it will often slightly under-expose your image, potentially giving a muddy appearance.  To counter this you can use Exposure Compensation (+/-) to override the camera.  You can then increase the exposure until you are satisfied.

This is also where your histogram is essential. Once you learn how to understand that often intimidating little graph you can quickly make informed decisions about your exposure. I never trust the LCD preview, especially when working outside in bright light, so always rely on my histogram. It’s actually quite simple once you understand the basic concepts of it and it's one of the key points I teach on my expeditions.

When working in the outdoors I don’t want a bit of rain, condensation or ocean spray to deter me. That’s why I bring some sort of rain protection for my gear. This can range from wrapping your gear in something like your jacket, to a waterproof bag that you keep you gear in when not shooting. My preference however is a rain cover so I can keep shooting and know my gear is fully protected. I use ThinkTank Photo Hydrophobias (70-200mm and 600mm) and couldn’t imagine life without them.

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