My top photo lessons learned from Svalbard

My wife and I were on an expedition cruise to Svalbard end of August 2016 - you can read more about the trip in general here. I would like to share my top photography lessons learned from that trip.

Lesson 1: 600mm is enough

Before the trip, I was thinking a lot if I should invest in a better telephoto lens. I already have a pretty good lens (Olympus Zuiko 50-200 SWD, which is equivalent to a 100-400 on a 35mm sensor), so getting a better one would have been a big expense for a lens I would probably use only rarely. I decided just to buy a 1.4x teleconverter, so I had up to 560mm (35mm equivalent).

Here are some sample shots with this lens and my Olympus OM-D M1:

I noticed that there is less detail in the pictures than anticipated, and I was not sure if there is something wrong with my camera, lens or converter. However, after the trip, I organized a photo exchange with fellow travelers. When I looked at pictures taken with e.g. a Nikon D750 or a Canon 5D Mark III with 600mm lenses each, they also did not have more visible detail, even with their higher resolution.

So my conclusion: dust, haze, air swirls limit the details you can make out at the usual viewing distance for wildlife in Svalbard. Bird viewing might be an exception, you might get closer to them, but we did not have this opportunity on that trip. So for most other wildlife, 600mm is enough.

Lesson 2: Always have your camera(s) ready

Even the tour guides can not always anticipate when wildlife will show up. When we had a party on the aft deck, a whale showed up in the distance, but the tele lens was in the cabin. We had an arctic fox crossing our path just a few meters in front of the group, but I had my wideangle lens equipped. When we encountered a puffin (rare at that time of the year) on the sea in the Zodiac, I was lucky to be the only one in the boat who could quickly pull out the camera and make this shot, just before the bird took off:

Also keep an eye out for the light on the landscape if you are interested in this type of photography. Light and weather change quickly, and the ship moves, so often you only have a few seconds to get a shot.

Life on board is pretty relaxed, so there is no problem to bring your camera whereever you go. Also it is a good idea to have both tele and wideangle lenses ready - either by using a wide range lens or two bodies.

This is the picture of ice breaking of a glacier ... with my wideangle lens :-(

Lesson 3: Don't forget the details and the snapshots

While looking for stunning landscape photos or spectacular wildlife pictures, it is easy to forget the small details or the snapshots of everyday life. While you would probably not upload such shots to your photo sharing sites, they are important to tell the story of your trip when you are back home.

Gin Tonic with glacier ice

Chinese scientific station. Everybody laughed when we walked by, so did everybody at home when they saw the image.

Lesson 4: Don't forget to show the whole view

This is similar to the last lesson. It's great to have a closeup picture of a polar bear or whale. But people are probably even more interested in the experience you had, either because they know you or they would like to do the same journey. So you should also take pictures of the environment, otherwise the closeups will not look much different than from a zoo. Also include some pictures how you got to a certain location or what happened before or after - this will help you to tell a more compelling story.

Polar bear walking off into the sunrise

Our ship moving through pack ice