Antarctica is an absolute playground for photographers. It is filled with wildlife willing to get up close and personal, amazing icebergs, and a landscaped blended between sea and glacier-covered mountains. Getting good shots in Antarctica is easy; getting great shots takes a little bit more talent. This is a guide to shooting photography in Antarctica. And if you’re interested in my photography on the Continent, feel free to check out my gallery.
Whether you shoot a point-and-click or SLR camera the type of equipment you pack will greatly affect the type of photos that you will be able to capture. To simplify things as best as possible, I will break down the equipment into two categories, Point and Shoot and SLR.
1) Point and Shoot:
a. If you are buying a camera specifically for photography in Antarctica you will want to buy something that fits more into the category of prosumer. These cameras fit nicely in the pocket, don’t require changing lenses, but still offer a nice distance on your zoom so you can get some great close up on the wildlife. Also, if shooting one of these cameras, like the Canon G11, consider buying a multiplying lens so you can get a little more distance when photographing cute little penguins.
b. It is also worthwhile to pack a small tripod for you to set your camera on. This will do wonders to stabilise your shots and will help you get shots lower to the ground without spending your time lying in penguin guano.
c. Pack a ziplock bag. You’ll be on the zodiacs a bit and can get wet. A wet camera is a broken camera.
a. When it comes to lenses, you’ll want to pack at least two types. You’ll want a wider angle lens to take in all the amazing landscapes and also a zoom lens to get tight in on the wildlife and pick out features from the landscape. Personally I brought my 70-200mm lens which did wonders getting tight to the wildlife, but was still wide enough to use as a walk-around, or zodiac cruise-around, lens. Only on a couple occasions I found myself wanting more lens, and not nearly enough times to pack around the weight of a 300mm or 400mm as well.
b. Packing a tripod seems like an obvious thing, however, I really used mine much less than I expected. Instead I found myself using my monopod. The light levels during the day are high enough that the tripod isn’t necessary, and the active wildlife rarely allows you time to set up. Also, on the ship the constant rocking of the boat doesn’t allow the use of tripod (well, not if you want a level horizon), the monopod is much more flexible in its use in Antarctica. To save space in your bag, you can also just buy a tripod that has a removable tree to use as a monopod.
c. A UV filter is an absolute essential as are lens hoods. The glare of the light on the snow is very strong if the sun is out. Also, to get some interesting shots of glaciers consider packing a polarising filter.
d. Your flash will not fire once on the trip, leave it at home.
e. You’ll probably want to pack some waterproofing equipment as well as a drybag. Personally, while shooting in the rain I simply take a ziplock bag, poke a hole in one end and wrap an elastic band around the lens, and that does to the trick. A drybag is great for carrying the equipment while on the zodiac.
Get to Eye Level – In amazement I stood and watched as people shot the wildlife from a standing position. As a result, the penguins especially turned out flat, lifeless, and small in their photos. Get down to a kneeling or sitting position and you will be able to fill the frame with the penguins in your shots. Similarly, you will get great life and reaction from the penguins. Also, simply taking a seat on the beach and watching the wildlife will often bring the penguins to you, as their curiosity will have them within feet and sometimes inches.
Exposure – Dealing with exposure while shooting Antarctica is complicated, but luckily it has a simple fix. Due to the large amounts of snow and ice, the exposure metres in cameras think that the light levels are very high. As a result, most cameras shoot very dark or grey pictures. This is cured by simply setting your exposure to somewhere between +0.5 and +1 which will expose your photos a little bit more and compensate for the confusing light levels. If you shoot a DSLR, shoot in RAW and the exposure problem can be corrected in the editing process, although it is best to get it right in your camera.
The right light – Shooting the right light can be very difficult in Antarctica. As you will be on a cruise or expedition the hours are set for you. When the sun is out in the middle of the day it can make photography very difficult - strong light levels “burn out” detail on anything white (snow, the chests of penguins, etc.). The best light then, in this situation, is under a cloudy sky. This is also the case for icebergs and glaciers. Under the cloudy sky the blues in the ice will come through much more forcefully. Of course this isn’t something you have much control of, just remember, if it is cloudy don’t be discouraged from taking photos – these shots will come out the best
You might also want to stay up for sunset and sunrise to get the soft lights and colourful skies. The only issue is that in the Antarctic summer the sun goes down around 10:30pm and comes up at around 3am and never really gets completely dark. It is worth getting up and staying up at least once to capture this amazing scene.
Don’t get intimidated - some serious photographers come to Antarctica on every single journey. You will see people carrying thousands of dollars worth of equipment and shooting in a very professional manner. Don’t be intimidated by these people, and remember that the equipment doesn’t take the pictures, you do. Those with point and shoot cameras can shoot just as amazing shots as those with big lenses and fancy cameras. If you think you need some help in this regard, check out my ebook on how to shoot travel photography with a point and shoot camera.
Don’t forget to enjoy the moment - When it comes down to it, photos are great but enjoy the moment while you’re in it. Stop, take in a deep breath and enjoy the view. Walk down to the beach, grab a seat on a rock and watch the penguins in all their awkward glory without worrying about shooting the perfect photograph. Enjoy the moment because you will never be back in that moment ever again.
***Brendan also recently posted "Ice: A Photo Essay." Look out for Brendan's upcoming analysis on choosing a trip to Antarctica: "Expedition vs. Cruising."