Four approaches to landscape photography in Antarctica

For most of us the landscapes/seascapes you will experience in Antarctica are very different to those we see at home.  When I travelled with Quark Expeditions the main opportunities for land/seascapes took place:

  1. on board the Sea Spirit
  2. while zodiac cruising
  3. while on land on our twice daily excursions
  4. while on land for a night’s camping on the ice.

Back at home I use a tripod for landscapes most of the time and take my landscape photos around sunrise and sunset.  When on a trip of a lifetime to Antarctica the situation is quite different and the question of what camera support to use varies by your shooting location.

Capturing landscapes from on board you boat

Apologies if this is stating the obvious but there is no point using your tripod on board the boat.  The boat is moving and rocking so a slow shutter speed will result in blurred images whether the camera is on a tripod or not.

The perspective is also different when shooting from on board the boat – the sea is always some distance below the outdoor decks  so any icebergs that you want to include in your image will be below you.  This will result in those points of interest being smaller than if you were shooting from a zodiac.

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However, the greater interest might be on land and often taking a photo on a telephoto setting works well then.

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Sometimes the primary interest is on board the boat.  The following photo was taken with a wider angle lens.

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Zodiac cruising

Zodiac cruising does not occur in those golden hours around sunrise and sunset.  As you will realise from the photo above it is difficult to obtain a stable position while on a zodiac but being on the water level emphasises the size of the icebergs.  There were typically ten passengers and one driver in each zodiac.

When the point of interest was on your side of the zodiac you were encouraged to kneel down.  You were therefore in a more stable position and could use the side of the zodiac as a support at times.  When the point of interest was on the other side of the zodiac you could stand up (once the driver gave permission). It was more difficult to obtain a good shot in this circumstance – I had many crooked horizons.

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One more very important point about zodiac cruising – think about your equipment.  I used rain sleeves to keep my camera dry.  See more on this in a previous blog post here.

Daily excursions to land

I have a big interest in natural history so when I went ashore on the twice daily excursions my focus tended to be on the animal life.  I used a monopod for these animal photos.  Therefore, my tripod was not used on these excursions.

As with the zodiac cruising, the land excursions did not take place during prime landscape photography time but being a trip of a lifetime you still have to take photos even if the prime purpose is as record shots.  Despite those limitations, the photographic skills you use will seem familiar with all the normal composition and exposure considerations. Don’t forget to compensate for the snow/ice to avoid underexposed/grey snow.

I wrote about the equipment I took here but suffice to say that the 11-18mm lens I took with me came into use at this time.

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Camping on the ice

One of the reasons I chose to camp on the ice was to take photos as the sun was going down.  This is the one time my tripod came out in Antarctica.  Unfortunately things didn’t quite go as planned as the sky was overcast on the appointed evening but the tripod still came into use.

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Concluding thoughts

I gave some tips on Antarctic photography in a previous blog post (find them here). They sum up key considerations.

A trip to the Antarctic is a fantastic experience and I hope the above both whets your appetite if you are thinking about going or helps your planning if you have decided to go. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed with the experience.

If you have any questions about your upcoming trip feel free to add a question in the comments. If you have already been to the Antarctic feel free to add other thoughts.



Six tips for taking great photos in Antarctica

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



Penguins of Antarctica

If you visit Antarctica you are going to see lots of penguins. However, the type of penguins you will see depends on where you go.

In February 2014, I visited the Antarctic Peninsula with Quark Expeditions on board Sea Spirit.  I was on the Antarctic Explorer trip which meant I did not go south of the Antarctic circle.  On this itinerary I was expecting to see Chinstrap, Gentoo, and Adelie penguins.  Little did we know when we left Ushuaia that we had a surprise awaiting us on our first day of landings.  This surprise took the form of an Emperor penguin on Deception Island.

Emperor Penguin

We later learnt this sole Emperor penguin left Deception Island two days after our visit.  It was a mark of how unexpected this visitor was that all the expedition guides on our trip who could come over to see this penguin did so with great enthusiasm.

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Feeding penguins

In general, the penguin chicks we saw were around six weeks old when we visited. This enabled viewing of feeding behaviours, as shown in the following photo of Gentoo penguins.

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Penguin behaviour around water

Watching the penguins near water was a fascinating experience. They look quite awkward approaching water,  often stand and contemplate for a long period of time at the water line (see below a chinstrap penguin) before entering the water but once they enter  they are very swift swimmers.

There are strict guidelines about approach distances in Antarctica but I found that if you chose a place to sit and observe by the water line penguins will emerge from the sea and walk right past you (this is permissible as you are not approaching them).

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Groups of penguins  versus lone penguins

Survival is much higher for penguins found in groups. Sometimes penguins are found huddled together and this huddling often occurs if a predator is nearby.

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Do you tire of photographing penguins?

On our last landing of the trip one of the Expedition Guides commented that I was still photographing penguins.   I immediately commented that you can’t take too many penguin photos.   At that point I was taking photos that were showing different penguin behaviours.   For me, each landing yielded plenty of opportunities and I made the most of the time available on land (usually about 2-2.5 hours on each landing).

This was my first trip to Antarctica and of course the travel season is short.  However, it strikes me that if you are to go on repeat visits, doing so at different times of the year will reveal a whole lot of different behaviours.

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Herein lies an important decision to make before visiting Antarctica – the question of what time of year do you most want to visit.  It is worth spending time researching this and thinking about what stage of the penguin life cycle you most want to observe in what could be your only visit to this fascinating land.

Antarctica: how often is it the seventh continent we visit?

I visited Antarctica for the first time in February 2014.  With this visit I have now travelled to all seven continents at least once.   It was my travelling companion’s sixth continent.  I wonder how often Antarctica is the seventh continent we visit?

Is there a lack of interest in travelling to Antarctica?                             

My suspicion is that Antarctica is the last continent most people visit and this isn’t because of a lack of interest in travelling there.  For me as a nature lover and photographer my visit was fantastic.  To wake up to landscapes like the following was truly inspiring.

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Safety concerns                                                                                          

Throughout my trip I felt very safe.  I travelled with Quark Expeditions.  From my reading and talking to other travellers and my travel agent, Quark has a good reputation and were a joy to travel with.  Yes, there is the question of “will I be sea sick with that journey across the Drake Passage” but I would be surprised if that puts many off.  Even during my night camping on the ice (more on this in a future post) I felt very safe.  I wonder how many put the trip off because they feel it isn’t for them?


I live in New Zealand.  I could have gone straight from Australia, New Zealand or South America to Antarctica but for me it came down to the amount of time I would be at sea and the most common route used.  Therefore, South America became my point of departure.  So, yes, it was a distance from home but with travel these days this was certainly not a problem as far as I was concerned.   

Questions for you

  1.  If you have been to Antarctica: When you visited Antarctica how many of the other six continents had you already visited?
  2. If you have not visited Antarctica: How many of the seven continents have you visited?

Future posts

In future posts I will:

  1. summarise responses to the questions if there is sufficient interest
  2. provide more details on and photos from my trip to Antarctica.

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