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Top tips for photographing wildlife on an Arctic cruise

06 May 2015 | by Charlotte Bradley
Updated July 2017

In recent years cruises to the Arctic have become increasingly popular, as intrepid tourists look to get further off the beaten track than ever before, and explore new destinations that are well and truly wild. The Arctic offers unique landscape and wildlife, attracting a great number of visitors who wish to sight all it has to offer.

Depending on when you visit, it is possible to spot humpback whales, killer whales, walruses, and seals; however the undisputed star attraction is of course the polar bear. Even though sightings of these magnificent creatures are fairly common on Arctic cruises, there are no guarantees - when you're this far into the wilderness you really are at the mercy of fate.

Regardless of which animals you happen to encounter on your trip, you're sure to want to take some great pictures, which is why it's a good idea to brush up on your photography skills before heading off. Getting the right shot isn't always as easy as just pointing your camera at your subject and hitting the shutter button.

Here are a few hints and tips to help you get the best wildlife photographs you possibly can when visiting the Arctic.

Take the right lenses

Photography is a pretty technical hobby, and it is really up to you how much time, money, and effort you want to invest in it. This is something you'll notice as soon as you board your vessel, as you'll come across some passengers who seem to have brought an entire photographic studio with them, while others are equipped with nothing more than a basic point-and-shoot camera. It is thought that the Arctic is one of just a handful of places where it can be really beneficial to have some decent gear, in order to get the best photos, particularly because you are likely to be shooting subjects that are far away at times. That's not to say you have to splash out on a fancy camera and an array of different lenses, as it is entirely possible that you'll get the pictures you want using nothing more than your phone. Having said this, the chances are that the better your equipment, the better photos you will get.

Having some sort of telephoto or zoom lens can be a real advantage when you're taking photographs of wildlife, and wide-angle lenses tend to come in very handy for capturing landscapes - especially in a place where the scenery is as vast as it is in the Arctic. At the end of the day, however, it's up to you to decide how much you want to spend on camera equipment for your holiday. Obviously, if you're never going to use it again it doesn't make sense to splash out just for the sake of one trip.

Learn the basic rules

Photography is often described as painting with light, and as with all art forms, there are no hard and fast rules that you have to stick to. There are a few basic concepts that many photographers like to employ however, and these can be particularly useful starting points if you're a beginner.

Perhaps the most well-known of these is the ‘rule of thirds’, which states that pictures always come out better if you position your subject one-third of the way in from the side of the frame and one-third of the way up or down from the top or bottom. It's helpful to bear this in mind, as it normally seems natural to just aim your camera so that the subject is slap bang in the centre of the shot - but these pictures often come out a little lifeless. By using the rule of thirds, it's possible to add a sense of motion and drama to the image. However, as previously mentioned, this is just a basic guideline and not a requirement – many brilliant shots often come about when the so-called rules are broken.

Have patience and always have your camera handy

It's said that wildlife photography is all about being in the right place at the right time, although anyone who has ever tried taking pictures of animals before will tell you that this normally involves spending a lot of time in the wrong place before finally getting that perfect shot. The key to it all, therefore, is patience.

Don't expect to simply turn up and find a polar bear posing exactly how you want it to. Instead, be prepared to have to wait - a lot. Usually the captain and his crew will keep a constant lookout for polar bears on the tundra or pack ice as you sail, and will alert all passengers over the PA when there is a sighting. However, it is possible that they could miss a bear as the animals are notoriously difficult to spot, so if you want to increase your chances of seeing one, spend some time up on deck searching the landscape yourself with a pair of binoculars. You'd be surprised at how often passengers spot bears before the crew do, so don't assume that you should leave all the searching up to them. Put in a shift and you could well be rewarded.

Finally, make sure you have your camera to hand at all times. The call can go out at any moment that a bear or whale has been spotted, and so you'll want to make sure you're ready to capture the perfect shot before the opportunity passes.

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