I am delighted to tell you all about my experiences during my recent week-long sea voyage to Svalbard.
Before setting sail for Svalbard aboard the Quest, Iceland was the northernmost point I had ever visited. I was a little nervous before setting off, wondering if I had the right clothes for a journey into the cold and what camera equipment I needed to take. It’s not every day that you travel to a place that is so isolated. Once you are underway, you can’t just pop to the shops and pick up any equipment or clothing you may have forgotten.
In the end, I decided on the OM-D E-M1X due to its ability to withstand harsh weather conditions. I also took a M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO for landscape photos and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4 IS PRO for standard pictures. For animal photos, I opted for two long lenses: the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS PRO. And just in case the animals were further away than expected, I also took the MC-14 and MC-20 teleconverters.
With all this equipment, I was ready for the adventure ahead. We flew from Hamburg via Oslo to Longyearbyen, and once we arrived we were given a safety briefing. I was impressed by how professional the briefing was and couldn’t wait to board the Quest straight away but things weren’t that straightforward! The ship wasn’t at the quayside but was moored just off the coast. We had to be taken to the ship on Zodiacs (small, motorised dinghies). As soon as we boarded we were asked to take part in an evacuation exercise to prepare us for any emergency. Then, finally, we set sail –
Although not northbound, as expected, but southwards due to the wind. Many of my fellow passengers were disappointed by this as polar bears are most likely to be spotted on the pack ice in the far north. But the disappointment didn’t last long as we prepared for our first excursion just a few hours into the journey: there had been a sighting of a polar bear. We jumped into the Zodiacs and headed straight for the mainland to get closer to our target. Our guide tried to explain where we should look but it’s not easy to spot a white animal against a white background.
We finally saw the polar bear and my decision to bring both the MC-14 and MC-20 teleconverters paid off. The bear was around a kilometre away and we weren’t able to get any closer. The combination of a small, moving dinghy and the 300mm plus MC-20, which has an equivalent viewing angle to a 1200mm small format lens, did enable me to capture the polar bear but made it more difficult to take sharp pictures.
Luckily, the 300mm has built-in image stabilisation, which works perfectly with the E-M1X’s integrated image stabilisation in ‘SyncIS Mode’. Thanks to this functionality, I was able to frame the image and take a few pictures in focus.
On the third day, having already been out in the morning and the afternoon, we were asked to prepare for another trip at 22:30 as a bear had been spotted near the edge of the ice. Anywhere else in the world, taking photographs at this time of day would be out of the question but in the north in May it was still daylight. This time we had no trouble spotting the polar bear: firstly, because he was only about 500 metres away from us, and secondly, because we had had time to practice in the days beforehand. When we reboarded the Quest a couple of hours later, I had some excellent photos of a polar bear in its natural environment.
Of course, polar bears aren’t the only attractive photo subject in the Arctic. During my trip I came to understand why bird photographers are so fond of eiders and also fell in love with little auks. But it was also the walruses, seals, and above all, the unique landscape and the extraordinary light that had this photographer’s heart beating faster. In retrospect, my concerns about my clothing and equipment had been unfounded, the long lenses combined with the teleconverters were perfect for photographing the wildlife, while the shorter lenses came in handy for capturing the fascinating landscape.
Author & Photographer: Michael Guthmann