Gentoo penguin, with a colony in the background.
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Antarctic penguin photography: techniques & tips for amazing shots

One of the most beloved and photogenic animals found in Antarctica are penguins, with their playful personalities and charming waddles making them a favourite subject of wildlife photographers. However, photographing penguins in their natural habitat can present unique challenges and requires a certain level of skill and preparation. In this article, we will share some essential techniques and tips for capturing amazing penguin photos in Antarctica, allowing you to master the art of Antarctic penguin photography.

Understanding Antarctic penguins

Antarctic penguins are one of the most iconic and fascinating creatures found on the southernmost continent. They are well-adapted to life in the extreme and inhospitable environment of Antarctica, and their unique behaviours and physical features make them a captivating subject for wildlife photographers.

There are several species of penguins that can be found in Antarctica (specifically the Antarctic peninsula), each with its own unique characteristics and habitat preferences. The most commonly sighted penguin species in Antarctica include the Adélie penguin, the Chinstrap penguin (you will see plenty if you go to Orne Harbour), and the Gentoo penguin (although there are Emperor Penguins in the deep South of the Antarctic, and King Penguins in the sub-Antarctic, like South Georgia).

Adélie penguins

Portrait shot of an Adelie penguin.

The Adélie penguin is one of the smallest penguin species, about 46 -71 cm in height. They are usually found on ice-free rocky areas close to the shore and have a distinctive black head, white eye ring, and a broad white chest. Adélie penguins are known for their comical waddling and their tendency to jump out of the water onto ice floes.

Chinstrap penguins

Chinstrap penguins are slightly larger than Adélies, around 71 to 76 cm in height. They are named after the narrow black band that wraps around their chin and are often found on rocky beaches or steep cliffs near the ocean. Chinstrap penguins have a dapper and sleek appearance, making them excellent swimmers and divers.

Chinstrap pengion seen from the front.

Gentoo penguins

Gentoo penguin, with a colony in the background.

Gentoo penguins are the most common penguin species on the Antarctic peninsular and the largest of the three. They have a distinctive triangular white patch above their eyes and red/ orange beaks. Gentoo penguins are known for their bold and curious nature, and they are often seen interacting with humans or investigating camera equipment.

Photographing unique behaviours of Antarctic Penguins

For wildlife photographers, understanding the behaviours, habitat, and lifecycle of Antarctic penguins is essential to capture stunning photos. Penguins are social animals and gather in large colonies, providing opportunities for photographers to capture interesting interactions between individuals. They also have unique breeding behaviours, such as forming monogamous pairs and sharing parental duties. And they can make for heartwarming and engaging photos.

Penguins are one of the most fascinating birds to watch in Antarctica. Their entertaining behaviours also make for great opportunities for photos.

We travelled in late December, expecting to see chicks. However, due to late snowfall, the penguins were unable to find sufficient rocky areas to lay their eggs and keep them safe. Therefore, we were able to see nesting birds instead and observe their behaviour around their nests.

Wherever there is a penguin colony, there are Skuas! These birds, prey on penguin eggs, which can be sad to see. Look out for them swooping around attempting to intrude on a nest catching a penguin off guard. You could get a dramatic action shot if you’re lucky!

Penguins also look to spend most of their days stealing stones from their neighbour’s nests! This is a hectic behaviour, and challenging to capture on camera. But find a good spot and wait for an opportunity for a good shot. Petermann Island was our favourite landing for observing this behaviour.

Penguin trying to stop another penguin from taking stones from its nest.
Gentoo penguin stealing stones from a neighbour’s nest.

Preparing for Antarctic penguin photography

Gear considerations

As always, lens choice is far more important than the camera. Remember, if you’re thinking of an upgrade, always consider lenses before your camera body.

One of the most exciting aspects is how close you can get to penguins. However, during our expedition, there were strict guidelines on not getting closer than 5 meters due to the risk of the avian flu.

In my view, a telephoto zoom lens is preferred for penguins as it helps to achieve the following:

Close-up portraits: Even if you’re 5 meters away, a telephoto zoom can enable close-up portrait shots of penguins, allowing the capture of details of these unique birds. Check out the backwards-facing fleshy spines inside the mouth of the Gentoo penguin below! The shallow depth of field also leaves the background out of focus, further emphasizing your subject.

chinstrap penguin seen from the side.
Chinstrap
Close up of adelie penguin head.
Adelie
Gentoo penguin moving rocks around on its nest.
Gentoo

Lens compression: It also enables compression, in terms of making the foreground (a penguin) and background look closer to each other than in real life. This allows for a wide range of compositions, using different backgrounds. It also helps to fill the frame, without including large areas of sky or snow.

Gentoo penguins making a lot of noise with mountains in the background.

Bokeh: What is Bokeh? This is the word used for the out-of-focus areas of the image, which are outside the depth of field. Highlights are typically the stand-out areas, e.g lights of reflections.

If you’re reasonably close to a penguin a telephoto zoom lens helps increase bokeh if the background is far away, even using relatively small apertures. The best bokeh will be rendered from expensive, large long focal-length prime lenses. Although these are incredible lenses for wildlife, they are not always a practical solution in Antarctica due to their size and cost, especially on a zodiac.

TOP TIP: To create the best bokeh with your telephoto zoom, consider the following:

  • Reduce the distance between you and your subject (if possible).
  • Increase the distance between your subject and the background.
  • Long focal length.
  • A wide aperture (low f-stop, where possible).

If you don’t have a fast (wide aperture) lens, e.g f/2.8 zoom or an f/1.8 prime, don’t worry. A telephoto zoom can achieve similar results by applying the above rules.

Adelie penguin close up.

It is worth using a prime lens?

On one landing I took my 50mm f/1.8 (75mm full frame equivalent), I expected that due to the close proximity of the penguins, the wide aperture would help with achieving a shallow depth of field and nice Bokeh (smooth, out-of-focus background making the subject stand out).

However, I found with a minimum distance of 5 meters (IAATO Guidelines) from penguins, 50mm wasn’t long enough in terms of focal length. I found lens compression with a telephoto to be far more effective and flexible for getting the best shots of penguins.

If you have an 85mm, 135mm or you’re lucky enough to have a 300mm, 400mm or 500mm prime, then this would likely be a great lens for wildlife photography.

It’s worth considering that you often need to keep to paths to avoid disruption to the environment. This doesn’t always allow you to get closer or move to adjust compositions with a fixed focal length prime lens.

GEAR USED

For all the penguin photography shown within this post, the following camera and lens combination was used.

Camera: Nikon D7200 (crop sensor DSLR, around £580)

Lens: Tamron 16-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II, (around £400)

Read more about Essential camera gear for Antarctica photography

Techniques for Capturing Great Penguin Photos

Landing site action shots

Keep your camera ready when approaching and leaving the landing site. It’s a great opportunity to get action shots of penguins diving or slipping and sliding into the water! The photos below were taken between the small gap between two people sitting on the zodiac, making use of a telephoto zoom.

Gentoo penguin diving off a rock.
Gentoo diving into the water.
Gentoo penguins entering the water.
Gentoo penguins slipping and sliding.

Patience is key!

Although you may have a perfect composition lined up, part of the challenge is the penguins themselves. They are very entertaining to watch, with their unique character! However, understandably, they don’t always like to stand and pose in perfect positions! Being patient and observant is essential to capturing the perfect shot.

Take plenty of photos, and always be ready! Anticipate that you will get out-of-focus shots, account for this with your shutter speed and shooting mode. Remember many professionals don’t only take “keepers”. Generally, with action, the more shots you take the higher the chance of capturing something special.

Chinstrap penguin standing on a rock spreading its wings.
Chinstrap penguin spreading its wings.

Penguin eggs

Depending on when you choose to visit Antarctica, you may be lucky enough to see penguin eggs or chicks. Read more about the best time to visit Antarctica for amazing photos. It’s important to be responsible and respect the fact we’re visitors to their environment.

There are sometimes opportunities at landing sites to get close-up and personal, as you walk past nesting penguins. Although you may only have a few seconds as you walk by, it’s an opportunity to make use of a telephoto zoom to get shots such as the one below. Typically, during landings, there are flags and cones put out by the expedition operators to ensure visitors do not too close to nesting birds.

We would recommend choosing an operator who takes the IAATO guidelines seriously.

Maintain an appropriate distance from wildlife. While in many
cases a greater distance may be appropriate, in general don’t
approach closer than 5m. Abide by any guidance on distances in
site specific guidelines.

Antarctic Treaty General Guidelines
https://iaato.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Antarctic-Treaty-General-Guidelines.pdf
Gentoo penguin looking after its eggs on its nest.
Gentoo penguin watching over its eggs.

Penguins on icebergs

It probably goes without saying, but look out for penguins on icebergs, especially when cruising out in the zodiac which gives a low perspective. Try to frame the penguin(s) against a light/ uncluttered background where possible to ensure they stand out. Penguins on icebergs can make iconic photos, but set your shutter speed fast enough for a long focal length from a moving zodiac to get in-focus shots.

Ieva spotted the Adelie penguin in the distance which is captured in the photo below. The driver of the zodiac kindly circled around from a distance to enable everyone to get photos. Waiting for the white snow to come into the frame directly behind the penguin gave the best composition.

Adelie penguin standing on an iceberg.

Penguins to show scale

Penguins are the perfect focal point for the impressive mountain scene backdrops. They help to give a sense of scale. Look for leading lines, such a “penguin highways” which can help lead your eye through the scene.

Gentoo penguins with a dramatic mountain backdrop.

Weather

Believe it or not, snow, rain and mist can make great conditions for photography. It helps to tell a story and add drama and interest to your photos. Although it wasn’t heavy snowfall, the snowflakes against the black penguin feathers bring added interest to the photo of the Chinstrap penguin below.

TOP TIP: Consider the wind direction, and where possible find compositions facing away from the wind to avoid snow/rain drops on your front element. Ensure you always have lens cloths, see more in How to protect your camera gear in Antarctica?

Chinstrap penguin at Orne Harbour.

Shots from the ship

Last but not least, spend as much time as possible out on deck. Penguins are incredibly fast in the water, therefore it may take many attempts to get a nice shot. Spending time out on deck increases your chances of spotting incredible wildlife such as penguins, while also giving opportunities for photos.

Penguins leaping out from the water taken from the ship.

Ethics and responsibility

Photographing penguins in Antarctica is a unique and exciting experience, but it comes with a great deal of responsibility to ensure that these animals are not harmed or stressed in the process. As with any wildlife photography, it is important for photographers to follow ethical guidelines and laws to minimize their impact on the animals they are photographing.

When photographing penguins in Antarctica, it is important to maintain a safe and respectful distance from the animals. Approaching too closely or interfering with their natural behaviour can cause stress and harm to the animals. Photographers should also avoid using flash photography (not that you will ever need flash in Antarctica) or other artificial lighting that can disorient the penguins or interfere with their natural behaviour.

Finally, photographers have a responsibility to educate themselves (and others?) about the importance of preserving the natural environment and wildlife of Antarctica. This includes practising leave-no-trace principles, avoiding littering or other human impacts, and supporting efforts to protect and conserve the frozen continent for future generations.

Conclusion

In summary, you’re going to see a lot of penguins in Antarctica which provides many opportunities to capture a wide variety of photographs. Hopefully, the tips and examples provided can inspire you to get the most out of your penguin photography on your trip to Antarctica!

If you have any other ideas for penguin photography or photos you would like to share, please reach out to me on Instagram.

Read next

I hope you found this overview of Antarctic penguin photography useful. Looking for more Antarctic photography inspiration? Want to improve your photography skills before going on a trip to the frozen continent? Here are a few articles that you may like:

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