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Polar photography

Equipment and tips

Polar photography: Rolf Stange

Pho­to­gra­phy is beco­m­ing incre­a­singly more important to me and many others, and ques­ti­ons about it, about how I am working, are get­ting more fre­quent. I’ll ans­wer some of them here. I may add stuff as ques­ti­ons come up.

You can get nice pix with any litt­le came­ra. But to get high-qua­li­ty images, you need some serious equip­ment. In other words: pro­fes­sio­nal equip­ment is expen­si­ve and hea­vy. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, the­re is no way around this, if you want to get ever­ything out of uni­que oppor­tu­nities, qua­li­ty-wise. You’ll see what I mean espe­cial­ly in dif­fi­cult situa­tions, for examp­le low-light, when pho­tos taken with small aper­tu­re len­ses and small sen­sor came­ras will turn out to be of infe­riour qua­li­ty. Or with ani­mals that are far away. You can’t just blow up a wild­life pho­to with a 2-pixel-polar bear on the com­pu­ter and expect it to be gre­at. At least when you look at it more clo­se­ly. If you don’t care too much about it – the bet­ter for you, it will keep your life a lot simp­ler.

I take a lot of pho­to­graphs many mon­ths every year on a dai­ly basis and I am using the results pro­fes­sio­nal­ly. That should be kept in mind when rea­ding my equip­ment list, espe­cial­ly when you look the pri­ces up. A fre­quent ques­ti­on is: do I real­ly need a lot of expen­si­ve stuff for a trip to the Arc­tic or Ant­arc­tic? The simp­le and true ans­wer is: no. You can get beau­ti­ful stuff with much less equip­ment. It’s only if you care about the very last bits of qua­li­ty that you can get out of all kinds of situa­tions, to get 110 % qua­li­ty, then you need pro­fes­sio­nal equip­ment. Most peop­le will be per­fect­ly hap­py with 95 % of that qua­li­ty, and that’s some­thing you’ll get with most smal­ler up-to-date came­ras. If you want to gear up for a trip to Ant­arc­ti­ca or Spits­ber­gen, but you haven’t real­ly had much inte­rest in pho­to­gra­phy so far, then some­thing like the Canon 700D or the 70D (or equi­va­lent bodies of any other com­pa­ny) ill be good choices. If you want to enter on a hig­her level and you have, say, wild­life as a main inte­rest, then con­si­der the Canon 7D (dito). Advan­ced rea­ders know what they want.

Here is my own com­men­ted equip­ment list. And no, I am not spon­so­red or paid by Canon or anyo­ne else for this, I pay for my stuff just as anyo­ne else. Of cour­se I pack my bag for the situa­ti­on to come, it is impos­si­ble to car­ry ever­ything in the field.


  • Canon 5D Mark III. My main work­hor­se and some­thing I recom­mend to anyo­ne loo­king for a pro­fes­sio­nal body, unless you are alrea­dy sett­led on ano­t­her sup­plier with your len­ses etc. Full-frame sen­sor, fast, robust, HD-video-func­tion.
  • Canon Mark IV. Very fast, with a slight­ly smal­ler sen­sor, opti­cal­ly incre­a­sing the focal length of len­ses, which is advan­ta­ge­ous for wild­life pho­to­gra­phy. But you won’t be able to make full use of your wide-angles with a crop-fac­tor-sen­sor. Big­ger and hea­vier than the 5D Mark III, so I use the Mark IV main­ly for wild­life pho­to­gra­phy from ships.
  • Canon 5D Mark II. The pre­de­ces­sor of the Mark III. Full-frame sen­sor with good image qua­li­ty, but com­pa­ra­tively slow auto­fo­cus. That’s why I deci­ded to upgrade and get the Mark III. But still an excel­lent back­up and I use it hap­pi­ly whenever speed does not mat­ter.
Polar photography: photography: damaged camera body

Even the best and most robust came­ra body won’t like it when you tre­at it bad­ly. An over­thrown tri­pod cost me almost 1000 Euro in a second here. Insuran­ce cover for your expen­si­ve equip­ment is defi­ni­te­ly a good idea.


I am doing a lot of my pho­to­gra­phy while tra­vel­ling with groups on ships and while hiking on shore. So situa­tions are always chan­ging quick­ly, and I need to be able to adjust at any time. As a result, I use most­ly zoom-len­ses to be fle­xi­ble in my ever­y­day work. Whenever pos­si­ble, howe­ver, I like to use prime len­ses with fixed focal length becau­se of their bet­ter opti­cal qua­li­ty and light strength. But they are hea­vier, more expen­si­ve and less fle­xi­ble.

And, by the way, I have rea­li­zed that it is too expen­si­ve to buy cheap len­ses. Get good stuff righ­ta­way rather than buy­ing some­thing cheap today and some­thing more expen­si­ve later. Two good len­ses will ser­ve you bet­ter than three cheap ones.

Zoom len­ses

  • Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4,0 L IS USM. This len­se covers many situa­tions in ever­y­day use. If I could take only one len­se with me, it would usual­ly be this one.
  • Canon EF 16-35 mm f/2.8 L II USM. I love wide-ang­le pho­to­gra­phy, so this is a len­se that I am using a lot.
  • Canon EF 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. My tele-zoom that I have almost always with me, also during hikes.
  • Canon EF 8-15 mm f/4 L USM (Fishe­ye zoom). Spe­cial len­se that most nor­mal peop­le won’t need. Only used for spe­cial artis­tic effects and for pan­ora­ma pho­to­gra­phy. It’s the lat­ter that I am using it for, and qui­te a lot. Not much else.
Polar photography: Rolf Stange at work with the wide-angle lense

At work with the wide-ang­le len­se

Addi­tio­nal­ly, I have the fol­lowing prime len­ses with fixed focal length:

  • Canon EF 24 mm f/1.4 L II USM. Very big aper­tu­re and my secret wea­pon for the Auro­ra borea­lis (nort­hern light). And in any other low-light situa­ti­on.
  • Canon EF 50 mm f/1.2 L USM. High-qua­li­ty stan­dard focal length. I don’t use it too much, alt­hough the opti­cal qua­li­ties are exci­ting. I just find the per­spec­ti­ve a bit boring. Well, I am pro­bab­ly just not able to use it pro­per­ly. Gre­at len­se for por­trait pho­to­gra­phy. But polar bears rare­ly come that clo­se, that’s the pro­blem.
  • Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM. Short tele, main­ly used as macro, for examp­le for flowers. Very enjoya­ble. Excel­lent qua­li­ty, so I also use it for land­s­cape whenever I can.
  • Canon EF 600 mm 1:4 L IS II USM. Others buy a motor­bike when they are pas­sing 40, I bought this len­se. A gre­at thing! Of cour­se an extre­me focal length that can only be used in cer­tain situa­tions: obvious­ly wild­life that is far away and that doesn’t move too quick­ly. For­get about pho­to­gra­phing an Arc­tic tern with it that is chan­ging flight direc­tion and speed by the second, but impos­si­ble to beat when that polar bear just doesn’t want to come any clo­ser with his seal meal. Ama­zing opti­cal qua­li­ty. But too big and hea­vy to car­ry around during hikes, so I use it almost exclu­si­ve­ly from the ship. A smal­ler tele len­se will make most peop­le per­fect­ly hap­py (and still lea­ve you with enough cash to go for a trip …).
Polar photography: Rolf Stange with the 600 mm-tele lens

At work with the 600 mm len­se. It does almost not mat­ter any­mo­re how far the ani­mals are away. Well, almost.

And what else:

  • Canon Exten­der EF 1.4x III, a tele con­ver­ter. When the polar bear is still too far away for the 600 mm len­se.
  • Flash­light. Never far away, alt­hough I don’t use it too much. I pre­fer avail­ab­le light as much as pos­si­ble. But insi­de, when the­re is no time or space for a tri­pod, it can be very use­ful, or out­side with very bright back light.
  • Tri­pod. An important thing that is never far away and I use it as often as I can.
  • Pan­ora­ma head. In my lug­ga­ge sin­ce ear­ly 2013 and now fre­quent­ly used for my gro­wing collec­tion of polar pan­ora­mas. You can take a hand-held pan­ora­ma of the sce­ne­ry in the distance, but for­get about it when things are clo­ser, then you need pro­per pan­ora­ma equip­ment.
  • Fil­ters. I don’t use them too much, main­ly the sim­ply ones to pro­tect the front len­se. But it is important to get high qua­li­ty fil­ters. Why ruin the bene­fit of a high-qua­li­ty len­se with a cheap fil­ter.
  • Don’t for­get regu­lar clean-and-check of your equip­ment. Don’t come with half a kilo of desert sand on the sen­sor to Ant­arc­ti­ca and expect qua­li­ty images ☺

A 24 mm tilt-and-shift would be the next thing to buy for me if I could afford it, to pho­to­graph sett­le­ments and huts without opti­cal dis­tor­ti­on. So if you want to spon­sor me, that would be an opti­on ☺ but in the mean­ti­me, if you buy some of my books or a calen­dar, you’ll also help me to get the­re.

Polar photography: Rolf Stange with a completely different toy ...

A com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent toy …


last modification: 2014-05-09 · copyright: Rolf Stange