How to Photograph Arctic Wildlife
Arctic wildlife comes at the top of the bucket list for many wildlife photographers. Whether its polar bears, Arctic foxes, walrus, or something else, this region provides incredible photography opportunities.
First, what actually is the Arctic? It is the region surrounding the North Pole that consists of a large ocean surrounded by land.
The Arctic as several definitions and boundaries. It can be defined by the tree-lines, by the Arctic Circle at latitude 66°33’N, by the permafrost, or even by the maximum sea ice extension. Here, as we will have a look closer at the wildlife that inhabited this region, we will define the Arctic region as the area where the average temperature for the warmest month is below 10°C.
Millenia of evolution has prepared Arctic endemic species for life on and around the sea ice. Perfectly adapted are animals such as narwhal, beluga, walrus, polar bear, Arctic fox, reindeer, the bowhead whale, and several varieties of seals. The extremely cold temperature and harsh weather have limited the activities of these animals, especially the species that live on land.
During the spring and summer months, many sea mammals and birds return to the Arctic to feed on fish and krill as the cold waters of the polar regions are one of the richest places on earth.
Places to spot Arctic wildlife
You can encounter wildlife anywhere within the Arctic. Sometimes this might be even outside of the common Arctic border, such as the polar bears in Hudson Bay or the musk ox in the south of Norway. These areas are called the sub-Arctic regions.
There are two options: either you have a specific species that you want to see and document and you are going to this special location to get it (like the wolverine or Arctic wolf), or you choose a location where you might encounter a large variety of species and have a higher wildlife density to experience.
Svalbard is one of those places with a high wildlife density, and many species can be spotted there. It is located between the mainland of Norway and the North Pole.
The northern coast of Svalbard is only 1100km from the North Pole. It has cold water coming from the north, but also more temperate water on the west coast where the Gulfstream ends. There you will certainly have the chance to encounter polar bears, Arctic foxes, reindeer, belugas, plenty of birds nesting on the cliffs, humpback whales, and blue whales (which can be common during the summer).
The Lancaster Sound and the area of Baffin Island in Canada is pretty similar to Svalbard in terms of density and opportunity to spot wildlife. It is, however, less accessible.
Greenland also has diverse wildlife. However, the country is very large and, in my experience, I have encountered a lot less wildlife there. But again it depends on what you want to see. There is plenty of whales in some parts of Greenland and the country also has a huge population of seals.
Pick the best time to go to the Arctic regions
It is possible to encounter some specific Arctic species in winter, however it will mostly be dark the further north you go. Also, this means that the wildlife activity remains pretty low.
One great option is to go there in spring. In the Arctic, spring is not the spring you are used to knowing elsewhere in the world. Here we refer to spring as when the sun and light returns. For instance, if you go to a high latitude (like Svalbard, Greenland, and northern Canada) in April or May the landscapes will still be white. You will have a great chance to spot polar bears and other wildlife on the sea ice.
On top of it, you will also have the best light to photograph, as the sunset and sunrise feel eternal and magical. Keep in mind that the forecast in the Arctic is very overcast, but it will provide even better images of the animals than a clear blue sky would. With a grey sky, the ice will naturally look bluer.
Spring and summer are the best times as a lot of species, such as whales, return to the Arctic to feed.
Photography equipment to bring to the Arctic
Here you want to have a long telephoto lens. If you want to show the animal in its environment, and you are fortunate to have the bear approaching you enough, then you can also use a wider angle lens.
I like to work with two cameras at the same time: one with a longer zoom lens, and one with super long prime lens (or one mounted with a wide-angle). This way I can quickly switch between them without having to change lenses.
It is very important to be working with a camera that you know like the back of your hand, and make sure you don’t end up spending time looking at your camera instead of looking at the animals.
Here are a good range of focal lengths to look at when choosing a lens:
- 24-70mm for the widest images. It can happen that an Arctic fox comes right in front of your lens
- 70-200mm for polar bears in close proximity, and landscapes at a distance
- A longer zoom 400mm or 150-600mm for more distant wildlife (probably the range I use the most)
- A super long prime lens with a converter (equal to 700mm or 800mm)
- A good pair of binoculars to spot the animals and be able to observe them.
Arctic wildlife photography tips
- Practise photographing moving subjects before your trip. Animals will ultimately move. You might see them resting, but if you encounter them moving or hunting, you don’t want to miss this shot.
- Start with your zoom lens. The approach can be long and you will always start from far away. If you only have one camera, you should have the bigger lens on your camera at the beginning.
- Snap quickly and often. Such is the beauty of today’s digital cameras. Doing this will compensate for the animal’s random movements and improve your success rate immensely.
- Consider manually overexposing your photos by 1/3rd or 2/3rds of a stop. When the snow comes to an Arctic environment, you’ll want to pay particular attention to how your photos look when shooting a white bear on a white background. Because of how cameras measure the light, you may get shots that look very grey and dark.
- Use a fast shutter speed. Animals often move quickly or unexpectedly. As you are also using a long lens, this will tend to amplify any movement you will do. Working with a shutter speed that is at least not below your lens size (e.g. 1/400th for a 400mm lens) will help you. When you are in a stable situation, you can try to reduce your shutter and get the polar bear action in movement.
Tips for working with kit
- Avoid flash. Some animals are startled easily. The use of flash can put animals on edge and cause them to move off or simply disturb them.
- Disable all camera sounds. As mentioned, wildlife can scare easily and even the slightest beep from your camera could cause them to move off.
- Keep the eyes in focus. Keeping the animal’s eyes clear and in focus when shooting is crucial to the photograph’s overall quality.
- Shoot at different angles. Try wide, close up, and show the animal in its environment.
- Make sure that your image stabilisation system is active. Image stabilisation will greatly assist in reducing the vibrations that are inevitable when hand-holding a camera as you are working with a long lens.
- Always have an extra memory card and charged batteries. There is nothing more frustrating than running out of space or batteries when on a photographic expedition (the latter a particular problem in the cold).
- Shoot in raw. To have more options during the edit and be able to correct the exposure as well as the white balance properly, working in raw will provide you with greater flexibility.
- Auto white balance for shooting usually works well. If you see the animal on the white ice, view it on a white background in Lightroom to get the best result with your white balance during the editing, as well as for the exposure.
- Above all, be patient. It is wildlife photography after all, and you can never predict when you will see something. Once you have spotted a target, the approach can take hours as the main goal is to not disturb the animal.
In the end, don’t forget to put down your camera
Remember to live in the moment and not only photograph things. There is no better feeling than being close to these incredible animals and sharing the space with them.
When I find myself in the remote Arctic, co-existing in harmony with the wildlife that calls it home, I know that this is where everything makes total sense and it gives me the inspiration I need to bring home meaningful images that can bring a better understanding of the world.