I visited Antarctica in February 2014 with Quark Expeditions on board the Sea Spirit. I had thought about this trip for years and I wanted to maximise my chances of taking high quality photos. Having now been on the trip I thought I would share key learnings.
Tip 1: Do your research
Before the trip I did a lot of reading about equipment people recommend taking to Antarctica. I tend to take a lot of equipment but I was surprised when I discovered taking two DSLR bodies was commonplace. However, in the end I was pleased I took two bodies myself. I also took an 18-270mm zoom lens because I didn’t want to be swapping lenses much in the harsh environment. Normally, I had a 200-500 zoom on my other body (although I also had an 11-16mm lens with me). If I had just been visiting Antarctica on the trip I would have taken a monopod but not a tripod. In the end I took both (as I wanted to tripod in other destinations) and I used the tripod on the night I camped on the ice. However, the monopod went with me on all landings and was used all the time (it also came in useful as a support when walking down icy slopes).
Tip 2: Keep your gear safe
There would be nothing worse than having gear failures in the Antarctic. When Zodiac cruising, I used rain sleeves to protect the cameras and when going ashore my cameras were kept in dry bags.
It goes without saying but make sure you have all essential camera gear as carry on when flying to your destination. Although weight limits can be severe (my flight to Ushuaia allowed 15kg checked and 5kg carry on) I kept my essential gear with me. My carry on was over the limit but was never weighed. Had I been pushed, my next step was going to be to wear a camera around my neck.
Tip 3: Take the photos when you can and make the most of good conditions
In my six days around the Antarctic Peninsula the sun was out for very limited periods of time (due to cloudy skies). Luckily one of those times was shortly after sunrise. This was a perfect time to capture landscape/seascape images.
On another morning we were woken up by the Expedition Leader at 5.15am who suggested we come up on deck to view humpback whales. I suggest always following the leader’s advice – they know what they are talking about.
Tip 4: Do not approach the penguins too closely
There are rules about approach distances for the wildlife on Antarctica. If you ignore these rules, not only will you have an adverse effect on the wildlife but you will also end up with mediocre images. In terms of penguins, this will take the form of lots of black from retreating penguins.
You can find more about penguins in my post entitled: Penguins of Antarctica.
Tip 5: Even if the conditions aren’t perfect still take the photos
Our time zodiac cruising was in the middle of the day and usually under cloudy skies. These conditions do not yield perfect landscape photos. However, as a minimum, you must still take photos to record the moment, and for me I was still happy with the photos I took at such times, such as below.
Tip 6: Put your camera down
There is a huge temptation to spend all your time with your camera up to your eye when on excursions. If you resist this temptation, you will better recall details of your trip and you will also end up with better photos.
To take truly inspiring photos, you need to take time over the scene and understand the behaviour of the animals. One of the challenges in photographing penguins in particular is to isolate penguins to avoid having ‘half penguins’ in the frame.
Once you start observing different behaviours the photographic opportunities become endless. To see more on this please see my post on Penguins of Antarctica.