Going Off The Grid – The Svalbard Adventure Begins
Svalbard is one of my favorite places to visit. Svalbard is a group of several islands in the polar circle and is a part of Norway. It offers incredible photography opportunities. The landscape is dynamic and always changing. The light is so different. I call it arctic yellow. As you will see in the images, when I return, the horizon has a special beautiful gold / yellow glow to it.
I am writing this from Longyearbyen, which is the only major population center in Svalbard. We leave on the M/S Stockholm on Friday, September 16, 2022. This is a 12-passenger ship and all the folks on this trip are photographers. It is part of my desire to do workshops with smaller numbers of people. Eight of the passengers have traveled with me previously on one or more of my workshops.
The Stockholm is the perfect ship for this kind of photo expedition. The ship is small and the main deck is close to the waterline. This makes photographing wildlife like Polar Bears, whales, and walrus from a good perspective.
The ship has comfortable cabins with bunk beds. You’ll feel like you are on a real expedition. The food is exceptional and the lounges provide a great place where we will work on our images, dine, and for 12 days, have continual talks about photography.
We will have two guides with us. One guide is an expedition leader. His job is to put us on the shot. They also are responsible for driving the zodiacs as well and always being on the lookout for Polar Bears. This means they will be armed in case of an unexpected encounter. The bottom line is we do our best to respect Polar Bears and their habitat. We will not go onshore if there is a polar bear. And, when we are on shore, the guides check the perimeters at all times so there is no surprise.
Our goal is to photograph polar bears, arctic foxes, whales, walruses, and other wildlife. In addition, we will visit a number of glaciers where we may be lucky enough to see some calvings. We will push our way through a lot of ice floes. Most likely, we will land on some big ice floes. Our GPS trackers will show us walking on the Arctic Ocean. It’s all pretty cool.
Prepping For The Trip
I am leaving behind weather in the mid-’80s (F) back home. When I arrived in Longyearbyen, there was fresh snow on the ground. How cool is that? Packing for a trip like this takes a bit of work. The key is layers.
I bring a duffle bag. We need our own boots for this trip and I use Muck Boot Company, wetlands boots. They are insulated and comfortable. They are needed when we do landings since we need to jump off of zodiacs. I bring a few pairs of warm boot socks.
I pack several pairs of gloves and my favorite are gloves you won’t find in most outdoor stores. I use lobsterman gloves. They are warm, very waterproof, and have great gripping ability. I can adjust all my camera controls with these gloves. I also have glove liners if needed. These are very thin gloves that are worn under gloves.
Long underwear is a layer that is worn all day long. My regular clothes go over these. This keeps me warm on the ship and I am ready for cooler weather in case a photo opportunity comes up. I then have an insulated vest, a down jacket, and a waterproof outer shell. Plus, I have waterproof pants that slip over my regular clothes. Sounds like a lot but it is comfortable and warm and most important keeps me dry from spray when on the zodiac or in bad weather.
Camera Gear (Maybe A Bit Of Overkill)
Camera gear for a trip like this is always a challenge. What do you bring and what stays at home? Luckily, because we are getting on and off the boat at the dock, we aren’t encumbered with weight restrictions.
So, I am bringing a Think Tank, Airport Security rolling bag with all my gear. I use this roller and have for as long as I can remember. Having had back issues, I do everything I can to avoid heavy loads on my back. I’m not a young guy anymore. The Airport Security bag holds a lot and is built to take a beating. I can’t recommend it enough.
I also packed a backpack that I will use on excursions and out on the zodiac. I load it with only the cameras I need. I try not to change lenses while out in the elements. I have a bunch of lens wraps that I can wrap cameras and lenses with and everything is put into household trash bags, to keep water off. Not glamorous, but it works.
Inside the ThinkTank, roller bag is a Sony a1 and a7r iv. These are my favorite cameras of all time. The a1 for nature photography is an incredible workhorse. Super fast focus, animal eye lock-on, and a very fast shutter frame rate. This is perfect when shooting Arctic foxes, birds in flight, and polar bears. The a7riv is also good at that, but there mainly for the landscapes I will shoot.
I have the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 100-400mm, and 200-600mm lenses with me. I am anxious to give the 200-600mm lens a workout on this trip and feel it will be an excellent choice for much of what we will be shooting. Needless to say, I have spare batteries, ND and Polarizing filters, chargers, card readers, a tool kit, a blower, and some other smaller stuff.
I prefer long zoom lenses as they allow me to follow an animal and recompose within the frame as it gets closer or farther away. I did a story and video about this kind of lens a while back. My Favorite Lens – The Sony 100-400mm G-Master Lens
I have also brought an Insta 360 camera for doing some 360-type videos and photos. A camera that is with me just about all the time is the Sony RX100vii. It’s like a mini a9 and allows me to take photos with a small pocketable camera with a viewfinder, fast AF, and all the things you’d expect from a larger camera. I have this camera on a lanyard that hangs from my neck.
And, of course, I have the iPhone. I’ll shoot a lot with the iPhone as it records my GPS locations and also gives me easy access to photos for use right away on social media or sharing with the group. I can’t wait to get the iPhone 14 Pro Max which is scheduled for an October 10th delivery.
With e advent of cameras like the Sony a1 and a7riv, I have cameras that can work really well for the type of photography we will be doing. There are no tripods on this trip. They are useless on the ship due to deck vibration, in a Zodiac they won’t work and for the most part, there is nothing on land that can’t be shot handheld.
My technique is simple, and I have proven it works time and time again. I set the camera to manual, and then pick a high shutter speed for the subjects being photographed with the lens being used. The 200-600mm lens will most likely have a shutter speed of 1000 – 1500th/sec. I then choose an f-stop, maybe f/8 to start, and then use auto ISO. The auto ISO lets me have all the ingredients to capture what I want in focus and without motion blur. The auto ISO can change wildly as we shoot going from the darker and lighter backgrounds. I do not worry about noise. Apps like Topaz deNoise do a great job at helping reduce noise. I have done articles about this in the past and will do so on my return. I also may use Topaz sharpen as needed but many times I wait until I get home before I take deep dives into post-processing.
While onboard I do my best to cull and rate images and do some preliminary editing just to get an idea of what will work.
Processing my images onboard and sharing how I do it is part of the workshop. Post-processing can make a big difference to what some may see as a mediocre image and one that can turn out to be a winner.
I have with me a fully loaded out MacBook Pro 16 inch (2021) with 64GB RAM and 4 TB SSD. In addition, I have an SSD drive with my Capture One catalogs as well as a separate SSD drive with my Lightroom Catalog. I have Capture One, Lightroom, the TOPAZ suite, NIK Collection, and many other apps like PTGui and Helicon Focus. I also have the Luminar Neo and 4 as well as Auroa HDR. So I am pretty loaded up for anything I may need.
I have also brought my iPad Pro 11-inch fully loaded. I’ll use this for note-taking and GPS route tracking. I’ll have an article on this when I get back.
I will use Capture One Pro for my image editing and will also load some images up into Lightroom for any demo purposes or to help attendees.
There is a lot that goes into prepping for a trip to a place like Svalbard. The effort is worth it though as I will return with a ton of images that will keep me busy in post-processing way into this winter. I have a number of plans to try something different with the images from this trip. In short, I plan to make a few volumes of prints that will be displayed in portfolio boxes and possibly some more of the photo tin boxes that I have been making. I’ll do a wrap-up when I get home and share what happens after a trip like this.
The trip so far has been no hassles at all. The airports were quite manageable. All flights were on time and no lost bags. Frankly, I was stressing out about things based on what we have been seeing in the news and all, but everything went just fine.
On my way home, I fly from Longyearbyen to Oslo where I will overnight. Then I fly to Amsterdam, where I’ll spend two nights and then I fly to Detroit and a final leg to Indianapolis.
When in Amsterdam I plan a whole day of dawn to night photography. I brought a Peak Design tripod with me and I’ll try some night shots of the canals and buildings. I am looking forward to that.
Once home, I have a very full October. We have been asked to vacate our studio in the Stutz as the remodeling that is going on needs to work in the area I have my studio. They have no other space to move me. At this point, I have nowhere to go and I may completely rethink what I am doing. I’ll share this new challenge and adventure with you. I have a lot of gear, printers, tables, paper, and such that must be moved. What should I do? I am hoping some evenings on the back deck of the Stockholm will give me some reflection time on where I go next.
Thanks for reading this. If you have any ideas of what I should do next as far as studio and teaching space goes, feel free to email me or open up a topic on the forum.
While I will have no Internet connection for a few weeks I do have a few articles prepared and Chris will publish them. Off The Grid. It will be so nice to get away from social media, emails, and all the distractions that come along with being connected. It will provide a great time for thinking and reflecting.
See you in early October. Thanks for being part of the photoPXL family.
Photography is my passion and has been for 50 plus years. My career in photography has allowed me to travel the world, meet some of the most interesting people on the planet and see things I could never have dreamed of. My goal is to share the passion of picture taking through photographs and teaching with as many people as I can, hoping it brings them as much joy and happiness as it has me. I do this through photoPXL.com, this site, as well as Rockhopper Workshops, and other projects, as well as teaching as Artist In Residence at the Indianapolis Art Center.