Spitsbergen is probably the high Arctic place which is the easiest to reach. The nature has a high Arctic caracter, but due to the warm gulf current the climate is reasonable warm and there is open sea along the west coast during most of the year. And finally there is a regular plane connection to Longyearbyen.
All these factors make Spitsbergen a very good place for nature photographers who want to take pictures of the high Arctic.
As a nature photographer there are two choices. You can either stay around Longyearbyen, or join an expedition cruise. Both options has their own advantages and disadvantages.

An Arctic Skua on the tundra

Many of the high Arctic specialities can be seen from close to Longyearbyen. Birds like the Brünnich’s and Black Guillemot, Little Auk, Puffin, Common and King Eider, Fulmar, Glaucous and Ivory Gulls can be seen inside of near the village. Waders like Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin can be seen in the delta near the village. Mammals like Svalbard Reindeer and Arctic Fox are often seen inside the village and sometimes Beluga can be seen swimming in the fjord.
The advantage of staying in Longyearbyen are the relatively low costs and the use of a hotel as a basecamp. Another advantage is that you can take as much time as you want with a specific subject without a guide forcing you to move on. The main disadvantage is that you have to take care of your own protection against Polar Bears. This means you will have to bring a rifle every time you go out, and have at least one member of the group that knows how to use it.

A Polar Bear on the pack ice

If you can see most bird species and some mammals from around Longyearbyen, why spent all that money to join a cruise going around Spitsbergen? There are several reasons to do so. First of all, the scenery. The scenery of Isfjorden are nice, but can not be compared with the mountain scenery and the icescapes of the north and east. The second advantage is that you are far more likely to see mammals like Polar Bears, Walrus and Bearded Seals. And finally you don’t have to bother about Polar Bear safety, the guides will do that for you. The disadvantage is that you are part of a group. This means that, especially while on land, you cannot spent as much time with your subjects as you would like. Because of the danger of Polar Bears, you always have to stay with the group. However, with the key subjects like the spectacular scenery and the mammals I mentioned, you’ll often have quite some time. And as most of the guides are photographers themselves, they will recognise photographic opportunities and will try to give you the best chances to get the nicest shots. However, even though most groups have some photographers, most tourists don’t take a lot of time for their pictures. To solve this problem, some tour operators offer special photographic cruises where there is extra attention for photographic opportunities. This way you can choose what trip suits your interests best.

Moss Campion close up

Like with normal tourists it is a bit difficult to give the best timing for photographers. For the ones that decide to stay around Longyearbyen the second half of June will be the best option. With most of the area still snow covered and the birds returning to their breeding grounds, this will offer the best photography opportunities. Later in the season the snow will be replaced by a nice flowery tundra, but the birds can be a bit harder and some of then (e.g. the male King Eiders) will be gone already.
For the cruises the best time wil be July. Earlier in the season there will probably be too much ice to go to the fun places in the east, while later in the season most of the ice can be gone. July will show breeding birds in the seabird colonies, hopefully Polar Bears and Walrusses on the ice and the first flowers.
However, keep in mind that nature sets the itinerary here, so even though the guides try very hard, nothing can be guaranteed.
If you have any questions about what the best trip will be for you, feel free to sent me an e-mail and we’ll try to work something out for you.

a female Red Phalarope

What kind of equipment is best to bring? For my wildlife shots I use a 300mm f/4 often with a 1.4 converter. This way I have 420mm, which is almost always enough. Most birds and mammals are not used to humans, so they are easily approachable. In some cases it might take some time, but I never really needed a bigger lens. If you join an expedition cruise you might be lucky with a Polar Bear coming close to the ship, in which case 400mm is also more as enough. In most cases however 500mm will be needed for frame filling shots. On the other hand, for flight pictures 300mm will be enough, as the birds often fly really close to the ship.
Also don’t forget to bring a wide angel lens for the spectacular scenery. I use a 10-22mm wide angel for this purpose.
As it can be quite cold, don’t forget to bring enough batteries, as they tend to run empty quicker in colder temperatures. And, needless to say, bring enough memory for all your pictures. It would be a photographers nightmare if you’re just out of memory when you have a mother and cub Polar Bear walking at a few meters distance.

high arctic icescape



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