Svalbard is a beautiful landscape destination, with jagged mountains, fjords, glaciers, and icebergs. At the same time, it is a terrific wildlife destination, one of the few in the world where you can see and photograph walruses, Arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer, and of course, the marquee species, the polar bear.
It will be up to your boat’s captain and your trip’s expedition leader to determine your shooting situation. With polar bears, this will often be from the mother ship, or occasionally from a zodiac for a bear on the shore.
For safety reasons, shooting polar bears from land will be rare occasions. If you are lucky and find bears on sea ice to shoot from the ship, you may be able to make use of a wide-angle lens, including portions of the ship and the scene, or a medium telephoto. Most of our opportunities were from the Antigua, which is relatively low to the water, with the ship positioned off-shore from the bear. My workhorse lens for most of my wildlife shots was my Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens on my Fujifilm X-T2 mirrorless digital camera, often combined with a Fujifilm XF 1.4x TC WR teleconverter. Most of the time, I really needed this amount of reach. Racked out to 400 mm, on a cropped sensor, with a 1.4X teleconverter, I had a focal length equivalent of 820 mm. I also made much use of this set-up shooting icebergs and more distant landscapes from the boat.
This rig can get heavy over time. The lens has a collar, and there were times when we could set up tripods on the deck of the ship to take the weight off. Some people made use of monopods in this situation. Our closest polar bear encounter was from the water in a zodiac, requiring handholding and use of VR (vibration reduction). Shooting from a zodiac, I find it easier to stabilize by kneeling on the floor and bracing the rig with both elbows on the gunnel, using your body to form a tripod. There usually is not sufficient room to set up a tripod in a zodiac, but using a monopod may be possible to offset the weight of a heavy rig.
On land, there was ample time to set up tripods for landscapes. Some animals were too fleet of foot (Arctic foxes) to follow without handholding, but we did encounter a situation in which they reliably returned to the same scene where we were able to use tripods (a reindeer carcass on which multiple foxes were feeding until a polar bear chased them away).
I used a mix of WR (weather resistant) Fujifilm lenses for landscapes. To acquire panorama components, I relied on two lenses, the Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R WR and the Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR. I used the Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4 R WR lens when a wider angle was necessary, such as one morning with an amazing overarching cloud.
Fujifilm’s XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR would also cover this range and would be a good alternative choice. I elected to bring fixed focal lengths, anticipating (hoping) I would need a faster wide-angle lens in Lofoten for the Northern Lights, the 16mm f/1.4 R lens.
To shoot the boat from a zodiac, I needed an even wider-angle lens. The Fujifilm XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS lens was perfect for this application. It was dry and during the day there was plenty of light, so it was no problem that this is not the faster lens or WR.
Steve was shooting with his Nikon system. His wildlife workhorse lens was the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR on a D500 cropped sensor camera, but he was eyeing with interest the results our friend Brad was obtaining with his Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens. Our friend Ilya had wonderful results on his Svalbard cruise using longer and heavier glass than any of us were willing to lug (or fund), the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens. This might be a situation to consider renting a special situation lens like this (a sample 14-day rental runs under $1000 vs. more than $12,000 for this lens new).
I’m not willing or able to carry or hoist such a heavy rig, so 400 mm is about my limit. As I’ve mentioned, I eek out more focal length by using a cropped sensor camera and often, a teleconverter, and generally limit myself to one camera backpack full of gear. Mobility and being able to handle my own gear are priorities for me, so each choice is weighed carefully when packing! I hope this post inspires you to consider Svalbard as a future photographic destination. I found its landscapes inspiring and I hope to return one day!