16 Tips for Photographing Wildlife and Landscape in Antarctica

Zodiac Cruising - Prince Olav Harbour, South Georgia

Practical tips for photographing wildlife and landscape in Antarctica: for those shooting with DSLR or point and shoot cameras.

 

Having made the decision to return to Antarctica at the end of this year, I’ve been reflecting on my first adventure as I plan the second. Over the past two weeks, I’ve shared my answers to the most commonly asked questions in my FAQ series, focusing on planning, packing, photography equipment and the experience itself.

But one common question I haven’t yet addressed is this:

“What tips should I follow to make sure I go home happy with my photographs?”

First tip is to remember that you don’t need an expensive camera to return from your travel adventure with a collection of great photographs. You just need to know how to create a photograph with the camera you have.

Whilst some of the tips below are more relevant to those with a DSLR camera, many can be applied by photographers of all levels and with all types of equipment – even those who simply want to capture memories of their holiday on a compact point and shoot camera they carry in their pocket.

Antarctica photography tips for ALL types of cameras:

1. Know your equipment

The first question most people ask about photography in Antarctica is “what type of camera do I need?” The answer to this depends on the type of photographer you are and your budget, but one rule applies to everyone: know your equipment. You are more likely to capture a great shot with a point and shoot camera you are comfortable using than a high end DSLR that you don’t understand. If you are buying a new camera for your trip, practice using it first and confirm it meets your expectations before you board the ship.

MERV5373

2. Shoot a variety of compositions

One of the most incredible things about Antarctica is its diversity. And the best way to portray that in your photographs is by shooting different compositions. Don’t fall into the trap of zooming in for a close up portrait of every cute penguin you see – or you’ll go home with a collection of penguin portraits and not much else! Experiment with each subject – shoot wide, zoom in close, shoot portraits, shoot behaviour, shoot landscape, shoot wildlife, shoot from the ship, shoot from the zodiac, shoot from land – the options are endless.

3. Create a sense of place

A great travel photograph is one that captures the essence of a location. It is a photograph that conveys a mood and atmosphere that has the viewer feeling like they were there. It is a photograph that tells a story. You can create a sense of place in Antarctica by shooting wide to combine elements of the landscape with the wildlife, by focusing on wildlife behaviour or by including subjects like ice floes, glaciers and icebergs that make the location unique. A close up photo of a whale’s tail is a whale’s tail. A wide angle photo of a whale’s tail in front of an iceberg is a whale’s tail in Antarctica!

Zodiac Cruising - Petermann Island, Antarctica

4. Create a sense of scale

One of the most overwhelming features of Antarctica is its size: towering icebergs, vast landscapes, crowded penguin colonies and intimidating whales. But it’s difficult to convey just how impressive this is in a photograph without a point of reference. Zodiacs, the ship, birds, animals, ice floes and other passengers are great subjects to include in your frame to create a sense of scale.

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

5. Shoot wildlife at eye level

The most effective wildlife photos are those that create an intimate connection with the subject, rather than a feeling of being on the outside looking in. A great way to do this is to shoot at the subject’s eye level. This can be a little challenging when shooting from the ship, but the opportunities are endless on land excursions. So get down and get dirty and look those penguins in the eye!

Grytviken, South Georgia

6. Observe the behaviour of wildlife

Whilst everyone loves a portrait of a cute penguin or endearing seal, the most captivating wildlife shots are usually those depicting natural behaviour and interaction. Capturing an aspect of a bird or animal’s behaviour is one of the most challenging and rewarding types of wildlife photography. It requires patience and an understanding of behavioural patterns. This is best achieved by putting down the camera and observing the scene in front of you. Of course this can feel challenging when you have limited time on a landing that is rich with wildlife and other highlights. So try heading to the end of the location first and slowly make your way back to better manage the time you have available.

7. Expect the unexpected

The unpredictability of Antarctica is one of its most spectacular features. So embrace your inner Scout and “be prepared”. Stepping out on deck without your camera is like asking for a humpback whale to suddenly start breaching in front of you. Standing amongst a penguin colony with your camera turned off is like asking a skua to fly in and steal an egg. Not carrying a spare memory card is like asking for a leopard seal to open wide with a yawn when your card is full.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica

8. Get creative with your composition

Get creative with your composition:

  • Apply the “rule of thirds”
  • Break the “rule of thirds”
  • Look for lead-in lines
  • Fill the frame and look for texture
  • Add an interesting foreground
  • Keep it simple
  • Try different aspect ratios

Learn more about different composition approaches here.

9. Use the Light

Effective use of available light is often the difference between a good photograph and a great one. Avoid shadows, especially ones falling across the face of animals. Look for light hitting sea ice or icebergs. Shoot wide to include a dramatic sky or zoom in to exclude a dull one. And don’t hit the bar straight after dinner! Some of the best light in Antarctica is when the sun dips towards the horizon, even if the longer days mean it never gets truly dark.

10. Review your images along the way

Bringing a laptop allows you to review your images throughout the expedition, on a screen larger than your viewfinder.   This is a great way to correct errors and improve your technique whilst you still have the opportunity to do so.

11. Get social

If the expedition crew on your ship includes a photographer, there will be lectures to join where you can ask questions and learn more about photographing Antarctica. But it doesn’t need to be that formal. Chat to other photographers out on deck, at dinner and in the bar. Seeing someone else’s images often trigger composition ideas you may not have thought of. If you aren’t happy with the shots you’ve been taking, ask others for some tips. Photographers love talking about photography!

At Sea in the South Shetland Islands

Antarctica Photography Tips for DSLR photographers

12. Use a shallow depth of field to create a blurry background for portraits

Use a wide aperture (ie small f-stop such as f/4) and zoom in on your subject to create a blurry background. This helps eliminate a distracting background and draw attention to the subject of the photograph.

Zodiac Cruising - Neko Harbour, Antarctica

13. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze movement.

To capture a sharp image of wildlife in motion, you need a fast shutter speed. How fast? This depends on a number of factors including the speed of the subject, where you are shooting from and the weight of the equipment you are holding. Penguins diving alongside your ship require a faster shutter speed than those waddling on land. Shooting from a moving ship or zodiac adds additional risk of camera shake than shooting from the ground and a 400mm lens is harder to hold steady than a lighter 16mm. The general rule for capturing moving subjects in Antarctica is to shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible, without introducing too much noise. Experiment with your settings by decreasing the f-stop and/or raising the ISO to increase shutter speed, and critique your images along the way.

At Sea in South Georgia

14. Over-expose in snow

Photographers shooting snowy landscapes for the first time are often disappointed to see the magical white scene in front of them morph into a dull, grey colour in their photograph. Without getting too technical, this is a result of your camera’s in-built metering system. To combat this, over-expose by 1.5 – 2 stops when shooting snow-covered landscapes.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica

15. On the zodiac

Zodiac cruises provide a unique vantage point for capturing wildlife on ice floes, wildlife in the water and for getting up close and personal with icebergs. But it can also be challenging as you will be sharing the small boat with up to nine other passengers, the subject you want to photograph may not be on your side of the boat and the movement of the water increases the risk of camera shake. Useful tips include:

  • Be respectful of other passengers on the zodiac. Photographers who get irritated by non-photographers entering their frame can be just as annoying, with their big telephoto lenses getting in the way of someone who just wants to enjoy watching the scene in front of them. Better still, find a group of other photographers and share the same zodiac.
  • Give yourself a little more space on the outside edges of your composition than you would when shooting on land. The movement of the boat may require you to straighten your horizon or crop a little more than usual.

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

16. Shoot in RAW

All DSLR cameras and some bridge versions will give you the option to shoot in RAW, in JPEG or both. So what is the difference? Put simply, a JPEG file is the camera’s compression of the RAW file. Shooting in RAW allows you to process the uncompressed file instead of the camera, giving you greater opportunity and control over creative decisions and corrections.

I only shoot in RAW, but if you haven’t done this before it’s not a bad idea to start with selecting both formats until you are familiar processing RAW files. Why?

  • You won’t be able to see the image on your laptop until you open it in specialist software (I use Adobe Lightroom), process it and convert it to JPEG or another file format). If you don’t have this processing software with you, you won’t be able to view your images until you get home – and this prevents you critiquing your files along the way, which is a great opportunity to correct errors and improve your shots whilst you still have the opportunity.
  • As you learn to process RAW files, having the JPEG to ‘compare to’ is helpful. This comparison also helps illustrate the benefits of shooting in RAW.

NOTE: shooting in RAW takes up a lot more space on your memory card with each image approximately 25MB and shooting in both RAW + JPEG increases that yet again.

 

Have you been to Antarctica? What additional photography tips do you suggest?

 
 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Carol Darby says:

    Hi Kellie,

    Another great post.

    A suggestion that may help some. I am taking a lightweight monopod. It will give me a bit of respite when shooting with a heavy lens. I tried it out at the zoo and was impressed in how well it worked.

    The other benefit with the monopod is that it makes a great hiking stick for traversing rough and rocky ground. I can be rather hesitant when the going is uneven and having the monopod is such a help. It doesn’t weigh much and I didn’t have to think too hard to add it to the collection.

    You must be getting excited. I know I am as I head off in 12 days time. It will be my first visit and it has been great learning from all the things that you have shared from your previous visit.

    Have an awesome trip.

    Cheers Aussie Carol

    • Great tip re the monopod Carol. I have rubbish knees, so often use my tripod as a walking stick when hiking, definitely helps! I’m getting very excited now, counting the days. Have a fantastic trip, nothing compares to seeing Antarctica for the first time, you are in for an incredible experience. I’m looking forward to exchanging stories when we both return. Safe and happy travels 🙂

  2. Kellie!

    I am so happy to have found your site. I am headed out for my own photographic adventure to Antarctica next week! I can’t wait. Thanks for sharing your tips and experiences.

    -Allison

  3. Allan Seabrook says:

    Hi Kellie,

    Your pictures and writing blow me away! I spent six weeks in Antarctica in 1980, not as a tourist, but as a scientist. Have to get back again!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Allan

    • Wow, what an amazing experience it must have been to be a scientist in Antarctica, I often wish I had the skills that could take me there in that capacity. I’m actually in Ushuaia now, setting sail again to Antarctica on Wednesday – so lots of new photos coming!!

  4. Excellent tips. I have always shot in JPEG format. I will have to switch to RAW and see the difference. You make it sound like it is pretty significant. Thanks

  5. Astounding tips. I have constantly shot in JPEG group. I will need to change to RAW and see the distinction. You make it sound like it is really huge. Much obliged

    • Yes, I only shoot in RAW now, it gives me so much more creative control over the final processing. Takes some getting used to and the files are a lot, lot larger but pros outweigh the cons for me. Good luck!

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