Photo Fumbling #2 – Selecting a Camera for Antarctica

Penguin photo courtesy Lisa Mclean

Penguin photo courtesy Lisa Mclean

“Take lots of film SD cards.”

When I talk to people who have been to Antarctica, photography is always emphasized.

After all, if you are going to spend your children’s inheritance a lot of money on traveling to a remote location, it is probably a good idea to be able to bring something back that you can share with others; some proof that you were actually there. “Bring me back a penguin,” is the most common request I hear. I intend to do just that if someone can reassure me it won’t poop in my luggage – in picture form.

I began looking into cameras around Christmas. The Boxing Day flyers offered many tempting solutions. There was no shortage of information on the web and elsewhere. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that cameras are a lot like computers – there are very loyal camps behind each of the different major brands and none of them have nice things to say about the other. For someone who thinks his iPhone and Instagram are just fine for photography, the prospect of making an informed decision was a tad daunting.

I started with the advice everyone who went to Antarctica seemed to agree on: “Take the best camera you can afford.” In my case, I settled on a budget of around $1000. The sky is the limit when it comes to camera prices, but the annoying need-to-eat thing my overall trip budget made identifying a price point fairly easy.

I also knew I wanted to get a digital, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, because it’s virtually impossible to put your finger in front of the lens while taking a picture being able to change lenses for different sites and subjects on the trip was important. Obviously I wanted a camera that would work well for the trip to Antarctica, but I also wanted a camera that would survive my other travels, especially tropical climates. I also wanted a DSLR that I could use to record video for a couple blog projects I have planned.

At this point, I found myself out of my knowledge zone, so I sought advice. I went in supplication to The Google online and also sought help from my photography literate friends.

My video requirement initially led me to consider purchasing a Canon 4i. As one of the only cameras in its category that has constant autofocus in video mode, it was very tempting. Canon is also one of the major players in the photo industry and going with one of the “majors” has its benefits. However, no one I talked to would outright recommend a Canon camera in my target price range. Even my most photographically talented teacher friend, currently a Canon owner, was looking to eventually switch to Nikon. I also heard a story from a Twitter friend who actually witnessed a couple Canons die on an Antarctica trip a few years back. These non-recommendations were enough to push me away from the brand. Reliability and photo quality are super important for this trip, so I would have to compromise on the video side. And when I actually thought about it, most of my blogging would be done with of a tripod and without a lot of motion anyways, so continuous autofocus would only serve to highlight my wrinkles was less important than I initially considered.

Part of the problem with asking friends/experts about their favorite cameras in a price range is that no two people will say the same thing. However, it quickly became obvious that Nikon was a front runner. The number of lenses for the D 5100 (or now the D 5200) is absolutely amazing. I think if I was going to pursue photography more vigorously, I would have selected the Nikon. Just like with computers, it is the applications, in this case the types of lenses, that make the tool useful.

I came very, very close, but ultimately, I did not choose the Nikon. However, my requirements are a little different than most. As I did not see myself purchasing more than about five lenses in my lifetime, the lens selection didn’t mean much to me.

What did matter to me were two other criteria.

First, I was looking for a camera that was reliable and preferably weather resistant. I was going to Antarctica and I am also likely to use the camera on surfing trips and in the tropics. I eventually bought a Pentax K-30. It meets the criteria of being durable in these harsh conditions. It has a sealed body that, in its price range, can’t be matched. It is also one of the few cameras rated for low-temperature operation. Apparently it is cold in Antarctica.

The other reason I now own a Pentax K-30 is because, sometimes, it pays to be a copycat. One of my best friends recently purchased a K-30. That means that we can share lenses, and geek out together, learning the features of the camera. As a photography noob, this means a lot to me.

Whether or not I made the correct decision, only time will tell. Here is hoping it at least allows me to bring home that penguin so that others can enjoy it along with me.

Question: Have you taken photos in Antarctica? What equipment did you use? Any tips?

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Greg Tjosvold is a teacher, writer, and innovator. One of the first to crowdsource his biography, he is apparently 12 ft tall, has no body fat, is always polite, and is the only living recipient of an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Stanley Cup, Pulitzer, and two Nobel prizes (Economics and Break Dancing). He is currently reevaluating the merits of crowdsourcing.

He is the father of two amazing children and currently lives with his wonderful wife in the wilds of suburban Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.