Capturing the breathtaking beauty of Antarctica through photography is an experience like no other. As a travel photographer, you’re about to embark on a journey that will push the boundaries of your craft and reward you with some truly awe-inspiring shots. In this guide, we’ll explore the best way to capture the magnificence of the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands and South Georgia, armed with your trusty DSLR cameras. From choosing the best time to visit this icy wonderland to mastering essential composition techniques to simple camera settings adjustments, we’ll equip you with the knowledge and skills necessary to create that perfect shot that tells the story of this unique and pristine continent.
So grab your DSLR camera, pack your warmest gear, and join us as we embark on an unforgettable Antarctica expedition, where your photography skills will be put to the ultimate test. Get ready to capture the frozen splendour and bring back a collection of stunning photos that will transport your viewers to this remote and remarkable corner of the planet.
Let’s start at the beginning: planning Antarctic expedition cruise
Before you set out on your cruise, you may need to consider a few basic things, like the ship, itinerary and cruise line you want to go to meet your specific photography goals and your budget. Cruises to polar regions can get very expensive, so you want to be prepared to make the most of this trip.
1. Research the Antarctic cruise lines, ships and itineraries
There a numerous cruise lines that carry out expeditions to Antarctica, all with varying itineraries and a range of cruise ships, some better tailored to photographers than others. What do we mean by that? It is a legal requirement in Antarctica that no more than 100 people are on land at the same time. This means that a small ship that carries fewer passengers will allow you to spend more time exploring each landing. Choose a cruise ship that carries no more than 500 travellers in order to spend at least 2 hours a day exploring. What is more, whilst most itineraries offer to cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula, other longer trips include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, which offers a great chance to see King Penguins. You may also consider the starting point of your expedition if you have a particular interest in one of the places these expeditions typically start from (like Punta Arenas, Buenos Aires or Ushuaia) and arrive there a few days earlier.
2. Choose the right time to go based on your specific photography goals
Whilst Antarctica season runs from October to March, each month offers unique photography opportunities. For example, October offers clean white landscapes with huge icebergs, but not much wildlife or opportunities to do landings (due to sea ice blocking the landing sites), December and January present a great opportunity for penguin photography (and their chicks). You can read more in Best Time To Visit Antarctica For Amazing Photos.
3. Manage your expectations
“Expect the unexpected” is the tagline of any Antarctica cruise. Due to unpredictable weather conditions, wind direction and sea ice blocking landing sites, it is important to manage your expectations in advance. Try to not be overly invested in visiting a specific site: we can assure you that no matter where you go, you will be blown away by the splendour of the frozen continent.
4. Prepare for cold weather & spending all day outside
You will want to spend as much time as possible outside, so make sure to pack the right clothes that will allow you to keep warm and access your camera equipment easily without carrying a huge bag (which is very uncomfortable, especially when cruising in zodiacs or hiking up a mountain on landings). Head straight to our article on What To Wear in Antarctica, which offers a unique photographer’s perspective on the best clothing and accessories to pack.
Once onboard the ship
It’s a long way to Antarctica, no matter where you’re starting your trip from. The good news is that you can spend this time getting ready for a photography trip of a lifetime. Here’s what you should do en route to Antarctica.
1. Explore the ship to find great views or semi-sheltered viewing points
Believe it or not, some of the best shots we took on our Antarctic expedition were from the deck of the cruise ship. When you get on board, you will likely spend two days crossing the Drake Passage, which will give you plenty of time to explore each deck. Look for open areas with no glass barriers and areas that can provide shelter in case it is very windy, and explore the angles that upper and lower decks can offer. We found that the best place to capture Antarctic sea birds was the aft of the ship, whilst the upper decks were great for spotting seals on ice floes and humpback whales in the distance.
2. Find the onboard photographer and ask for advice
Another great way to get ahead of the game, especially if it is your first trip to Antarctica, is to seek professional advice. And on many cruise ships, this advice comes included in the price. Cruise lines often employ professional photographers to take photos onboard as well as educate and provide advice to travellers. Have a chat with a photographer to get some great professional insights! What is more, keep an eye out for photography workshops or lectures offered onboard (they are typically tailored for beginner photographers, but you never know what you may learn, and it’s a great place to ask questions).
3. Speak to onboard wildlife experts, geologists and ornithologists
Similarly to professional photographers, expedition ships often have plenty of environmentalists, geologists and wildlife experts onboard. A conversation with these knowledgeable people will give you invaluable insights into the behaviours of animals to capture on camera, places to look for birds and give you confidence in capturing beautiful shades of blue in the icebergs utilising the unique natural lighting conditions in Antarctica.
4. Ask zodiac drivers to stop, come closer or circumnavigate icebergs
Many Antarctic adventure cruises offer a daily zodiac boat tour around the landing sites. You are typically taken on a small inflatable boat to explore the icebergs and get up close and intimate with the penguins jumping in and out of the water and humpback whales showing off their tails. If you can, find a spot close to the boat driver, and if you see something of interest, ask them to move closer to the object, or navigate the boat so that you can get a different perspective of what you would like to photograph. This is particularly important when finding the right angle and a unique perspective of the intricate shapes and colours of icebergs. From our experience, the Zodiac drivers were more than happy to accommodate our requests as long as they didn’t pose any risks (like coming too close to a calving ice sheet). Fellow passengers will thank you for keeping an eye out for photo opportunities too.
Ieva spotted the Gentoo penguin below in the distance, see our article on the Yalour Islands.
Best camera gear for Antarctica photography
1. Best camera body for Antarctic photography
If you’re currently reading this article, it’s likely that you have a keen interest in photography, particularly with DSLR or mirrorless crop/full-frame digital cameras. In all honesty, almost any camera body can be suitable for capturing the wonders of Antarctica. However, if you desire fast action shots or professional-quality photos, you’ll gravitate towards high-end or even professional camera bodies. These options excel in low-light performance, rapid focus and shutter speed, as well as high-resolution capabilities. It’s important to note that these features are only advantageous when coupled with the right lens and an experienced user.
While it’s a good idea to have a spare camera body, taking two digital cameras with you, it’s crucial to prioritize your familiarity and comfort with the camera system you choose. The last thing you want is to miss out on capturing remarkable shots because you’re fumbling to navigate your camera or worse, being unsure of how to turn it on. So, whether you opt for a DSLR, mirrorless camera, or even compact cameras, select the equipment that suits your needs and abilities, enabling you to confidently capture the extraordinary beauty of Antarctica.
Read all about the best camera gear to take to Antarctica here.
2. The best camera lens for Antarctica photography
Head straight to Essential Camera Gear For Antarctica for an in-depth comparison of standard and super telephoto zoom lenses, portrait and wide-angle lenses. We look at the price, weight, focal length and versatility to give insights into the best lenses to take on your photography trip to Antarctica.
3. Pack the camera filters
We highly recommend bringing two filters for your Antarctica photography: a UV filter and a polarizing filter. The UV filter serves as a protective lens against the harsh elements you may encounter while shooting. On the other hand, the polarizing filter is essential for capturing stunning photos in Antarctica. It effectively reduces glare and enhances colour saturation. The intense glare from snow and sea on bright days can be significant, but a polarizing filter significantly diminishes it, resulting in sharper details of distant focal points such as icebergs and mountains. It’s important to note that using a polarizing filter will darken your shots and cause a loss of approximately two F stops of light. While this is generally acceptable for landscape photography, wildlife photographers should exercise caution when using the filter in such scenarios.
4. Familiarise yourself with your camera gear
Before embarking on a photography trip to Antarctica, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with your camera gear and settings. In Antarctica, where moments unfold rapidly, especially when capturing wildlife, the ability to change settings swiftly is paramount. By becoming comfortable with your camera and its controls beforehand, you can focus on composing your shots rather than fumbling with buttons and menus. This preparation allows you to seize the extraordinary moments that unfold in this captivating icy landscape, ensuring that you capture the essence of Antarctica with ease and confidence.
5. Take things to protect your camera gear
In Antarctica, it is vital to take precautions to protect your camera gear. The cold temperatures and potential exposure to salt spray demand careful care for your valuable camera equipment. Consider using a camera bag that offers waterproof protection or placing your gear in a waterproof case or dry bag. When boarding a zodiac boat for excursions, shield your camera gear from potential splashes by using waterproof bags or placing your camera under your coat. Avoid using ziplock bags, plastic bags or any other flimsy things that may blow away and add to pollution. Additionally, be mindful of condensation that can occur when transitioning from the cold outdoors to warm indoor spaces. To prevent moisture damage, make sure you wipe your camera lens with a microfibre cloth often, especially when entering a warm air environment coming back in from the outdoors. Read more about protecting your camera in Antarctica.
6. Take extra batteries
Having an ample supply of spare batteries is highly recommended. From my experience, having three batteries proved to be an effective approach. Keep one fully charged battery in your camera, carry a spare in your coat or bag, and have another battery charging in your room. This way, when you return from a morning landing or cruise, you can easily swap out the camera battery with the charged one from your room. I personally used a Nikon D7200, and I never had to replace my battery during landings, zodiac cruises, or even while being out on the deck. However, it’s always wise to have a spare battery on hand, just in case. It’s important to note that mirrorless cameras tend to consume batteries at a faster rate, so if you’re using a mirrorless camera, consider having a few extra batteries as backups to ensure uninterrupted shooting.
7. Take more memory cards than you think you will need
Utilizing the second slot of your camera as a backup is crucial if you have a camera with two SD card slots. Opting for more smaller-sized memory cards is preferred over a few large cards, as it reduces the impact of potential card issues on storage and existing photos. When purchasing memory cards, prioritize the fastest options available and ensure that the write speed is as fast as possible. This enables your camera to operate at its maximum capability, facilitating fast sequential shooting and rapid shutter speeds for capturing high-speed moments effectively. Consider taking a hard drive or a laptop computer as a backup storage option too.
8. Utilise your phone camera
Don’t get me wrong, DSLRs have their advantages and are always my first choice, but there are times when a phone camera can be very useful. For example, phone cameras are smaller, lighter, and more convenient to carry around. It makes them perfect for on-the-go photography (think, going for a morning walk around the deck of the ship). Plus, many modern phones have impressive camera technology, allowing you to capture stunning images with just a few taps of your fingers. Phones are the best option for videos or if you want to use a selfie stick (hey, we’re not judging…).
Learn more about how to take better photos in Antarctica using your phone.
9. Leave the tripod at home
Unless you want to shoot time-lapses or shooting macros, the lighting in Antarctica is amazing, so you are unlikely to use a tripod much.
Antarctica photography tips: settings, composition, lighting
1. Make sure you understand camera settings and how to adjust them
Ensuring your comfort and familiarity with your camera is paramount. It is crucial to prioritize bringing a camera body and system that you are well-acquainted with. The last situation you’d want to find yourself in is struggling to operate your camera or, worse yet, missing out on valuable shots due to confusion or difficulty in powering it on.
2. Exposure compensation
When a significant portion of the scene in your photo is white, your camera might attempt to darken the image by reducing the exposure. This occurs because the camera detects the brightness of the environment and adjusts accordingly, potentially resulting in grey-looking snow. To preserve the true brightness of the snow, it is advisable to adjust your exposure compensation to +1 or higher.
It is essential to dedicate some time to experiment with the exposure compensation setting on your camera. This experimentation will help you determine the correct setting to prevent both underexposure and overexposure. Remember to consistently monitor and adjust this setting as needed, avoiding the tendency to set it and forget it. Additionally, pay attention to the white balance to ensure accurate colour representation in your photographs.
We expand on exposure compensation in our article about iceberg photography in Antarctica, if you want to know more.
3. Learn about composition
When photographing in Antarctica, understanding composition techniques can greatly enhance the visual impact of your images. One essential concept to grasp is the rule of thirds. Instead of placing your subject directly in the centre of the frame, imagine dividing the image into a grid of nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines. By positioning your main subject along these lines or at the intersections, you can create a more visually appealing and balanced composition. Experimenting with the rule of thirds allows you to create a sense of depth and guide the viewer’s attention within the frame.
In addition to the rule of thirds, exploring different angles can significantly elevate your Antarctica photography. Rather than solely shooting from eye level, consider changing your perspective. Get down low to capture the vastness of the icy landscape, or find a higher vantage point to showcase the sprawling glaciers from above. Shooting from different angles can add variety and intrigue to your photographs, allowing you to present Antarctica’s grandeur in unique and captivating ways. Embrace different viewpoints, experiment with tilting your camera, and discover new angles that highlight the beauty and majesty of this extraordinary environment.
4. Utilise changing light
Photographing in Antarctica presents a range of lighting conditions, each with its own photographic potential. During the bright midday sun, utilize the high contrast to capture the intricate textures and vivid blues of the glaciers. Overcast conditions offer even lighting, ideal for showcasing the subtle details and colours of the ice formations. Adjust your white balance settings for accurate colour representation. During the golden hour at sunrise and sunset, embrace the warm, soft light to capture the serene beauty of Antarctica. Experiment with angles and compositions to capture the changing light and create captivating photographs.
5. Show a Sense of Scale
In the vast landscape of Antarctica, wildlife serves as a captivating focal point, standing out amidst the white and blue icebergs or snowy hills. Their dark colours create a striking contrast, adding visual interest to your photographs. Additionally, incorporating wildlife in your iceberg photography provides a valuable sense of scale. The presence of animals against the backdrop of towering ice formations helps convey the immense size and grandeur of the icy landscape, allowing viewers to appreciate the magnitude of Antarctica’s beauty. By including wildlife, you not only enhance the overall composition but also provide a reference point for viewers to grasp the awe-inspiring scale of this remarkable environment.
6. Look for patterns, holes, and arches in icebergs
Icebergs possess an inherent artistic quality, resembling floating masterpieces. While an iceberg may seem plain and ordinary from one angle, exploring it from different perspectives can unveil mesmerizing structures. When photographing icebergs, it’s essential to examine them from all angles to capture the most captivating compositions. If you encounter difficulty in finding the perfect composition, consider shifting your focus to the intricate details of the iceberg. Experiment with getting closer, zooming in, or taking macro shots from various angles to take full advantage of the way light illuminates the different surfaces, especially the front of an iceberg. By emphasizing the intricate details, you can create captivating photographs that highlight the iceberg’s unique characteristics.
7. Educate yourself on penguin behaviours
To capture stunning photos of Antarctic penguins, wildlife photographers should have a solid understanding of their behaviours, habitat, and lifecycle. Penguins, being social creatures, gather in large colonies, offering ample opportunities to capture captivating interactions between individuals. Their unique breeding behaviours, such as forming monogamous pairs and sharing parental duties, provide heartwarming and engaging photo opportunities. Despite encountering challenges like late snowfall affecting nesting, observing nesting birds and their behaviours around the nests can still be rewarding. It’s important to be on the lookout for Skuas, birds that prey on penguin eggs, as capturing their interactions with penguins can lead to dramatic action shots. Additionally, penguins often engage in the lively activity of stealing stones from their neighbours’ nests, presenting a challenging yet rewarding opportunity for photographers to capture this bustling behaviour by finding the right spot and waiting for the perfect shot. Overall, penguins are fascinating subjects for wildlife photography in Antarctica, offering both entertainment and visual appeal.
8. Utilise bad weather
Blue skies don’t always produce great photos. Surprisingly, adverse weather conditions such as snow, rain, and mist can create excellent opportunities for photography. These conditions add a sense of storytelling, drama, and intrigue to your photos. Even with light snowfall, the delicate snowflakes against the dark feathers of a Chinstrap penguin, for example, can bring added visual interest to the image, capturing a unique moment in time.
A valuable tip to keep in mind is to consider the direction of the wind. Whenever possible, seek compositions that face away from the wind to minimize the impact of snow or raindrops on the front element of your lens. It is also essential to carry lens cloths at all times to ensure you can keep your gear clean and protected. For more insights on safeguarding your camera equipment in Antarctica, refer to the comprehensive guide on how to protect your camera gear. Being prepared and mindful of these factors will help you make the most of the captivating photographic opportunities even in challenging weather conditions.
9. Capture stunning landscape photos with a wide-angle lens
Antarctica offers numerous opportunities for capturing stunning wide-angle shots. One of the most remarkable moments I discovered was during a sunset passage through the narrow Lemaire Channel. With towering walls on either side and a serene, mirror-like water surface dotted with magnificent, colossal icebergs, the scene was truly captivating. Another chance for wide-angle photography arises when you’re in close proximity to icebergs, whether in a zodiac or near the ship itself. For instance, capturing the view from the bow deck, as shown in the photo below, allows you to encompass an entire bay within a single frame. These wide-angle perspectives provide a sense of awe and allow you to encapsulate the vastness and beauty of the Antarctic landscape.
We cover wide-angle and other lenses in detail in our article on Best Camera Gear For Antarctica Photography.
10. Learn how to shoot panoramas and stitch them together
The landscapes of Antarctica are vast, breathtaking, and uniquely beautiful, making it challenging to capture their entirety in a single photo. If you lack wide-angle lenses to encompass the entire scene, creating a panorama can be an excellent solution. By stitching together multiple images, you can create a high-resolution photograph that showcases the expansive vista in all its glory.
To successfully create panoramic images in Antarctica, using a stable tripod is crucial. The extreme cold and frequent windy conditions make it difficult to maintain a steady shot when shooting handheld. A tripod provides the necessary stability and helps align your images accurately. Additionally, using a tripod ensures consistency in exposure and focus across the stitched images, resulting in a seamless panorama that accurately represents the awe-inspiring landscapes of Antarctica.
11. Capture fast-moving Antarctic sea birds
Our comprehensive guide on Antarctic Bird Photography is designed to equip you with all the necessary information to capture remarkable images of the diverse birdlife in Antarctica, regardless of whether you possess an expensive lens or not. From essential camera gear to the optimal locations for bird photography on an expedition ship, we’ve got you covered. We’ll delve into camera settings and provide valuable tips for photographing birds in motion. Whether you’re an experienced photographer or just starting out, our expert advice aims to assist you in capturing stunning images of these extraordinary creatures. So, let’s dive in and unlock the secrets to capturing great photos of Antarctic birds! And you will have plenty of time to capture them when crossing the Drake Passage…
12. Look out for Weddell seals and leopard seals on ice floes
When exploring Antarctica, keep a keen eye out for seals resting on ice floes, as they present fantastic opportunities for photography. Seals can often be found basking in the sun or gracefully manoeuvring on icy surfaces. Look for their distinct shapes and patterns against the stark white backdrop, and observe their behaviours as they lounge or interact with each other. By capturing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, you can create captivating images that showcase the unique beauty and wildlife of Antarctica.
13. Be on high alert on zodiac cruise towards a landing site
As you approach a landing site in Antarctica, it is crucial to be on high alert with your camera, ready to capture the most captivating moments. Penguins jumping in and out of the water, their sleek bodies gliding through the icy waves, present thrilling opportunities for action shots. Seals can often be seen lounging around, providing picturesque scenes of relaxation and tranquillity. Keep an eye out for other exciting occurrences that take place by the water, such as playful interactions between wildlife or the occasional glimpse of marine birds soaring above the surface. By staying alert and prepared, you can seize these incredible moments and preserve them forever through your photographs, immortalizing the dynamic and vibrant wildlife that inhabits the Antarctic region.
14. Contrasts of black and white
In Antarctica, the contrast between the black and white elements, such as wildlife against the snowy backdrop, presents a captivating opportunity for photography. The dark feathers or fur of the wildlife against the pristine white snow creates a striking visual contrast that adds depth and interest to your images. It highlights the details and textures of the wildlife, making them stand out in the vast icy landscape. By leveraging this natural contrast, you can capture powerful and evocative photographs that showcase the beauty and resilience of the wildlife in Antarctica. Whether it’s a penguin waddling across a snowy terrain or a seal basking on an ice floe, embracing the black and white contrast in your compositions adds a compelling visual element to your Antarctic wildlife photography.
15. Employ histogram
When photographing, particularly in Antarctica, it is essential to frequently check your histogram. The bright environment can cause your camera to underexpose the image, so applying exposure compensation (1-2 stops) becomes necessary. By monitoring the histogram, you can ensure that the highlights are not overexposed. The histogram is a chart that displays the tones in an image, ranging from pure black on the far left to pure white on the right. More on histogram in our article on How to edit Antarctica photos to enhance their impact.
Don’t underestimate post-processing techniques
1. Shoot raw
The difference between JPEG and RAW files lies in their compression, processing, and flexibility during post-production. RAW files contain uncompressed and unprocessed data, making them larger in size as they store all available information. Adjustments are necessary to accurately represent reality or achieve the desired look in the final image.
2. Learn basic adjustments in Lightroom
Post-processing is a critical aspect of landscape and wildlife photography, even for skilled photographers. To make your Antarctic expedition photos stand out as a travel photographer, mastering the “develop” module in Lightroom is essential. This powerful toolset allows you to enhance your images, fine-tune exposure, perfect details, and apply selective adjustments, enabling you to capture the raw beauty of Antarctica and create stunning visual narratives that leave a lasting impression on viewers. Learn all about the post-processing techniques to edit your Antarctic photos.
3. Stitching panoramas
Antarctica’s vast and breathtaking landscapes pose challenges when capturing them in a single photo. If you didn’t take many photos on a wide-angle lens, creating a panorama is an ideal solution. By stitching multiple images together, a high-resolution photo can showcase the entire vista. We show you how to stitch panoramas in Lightroom here.
To achieve successful panoramic images in Antarctica, using a stable tripod is crucial. Extreme cold and windy conditions make it difficult to maintain steadiness when shooting handheld. A tripod guarantees alignment, consistent exposure, and focus throughout the images. However, the photos below are a perfect example of a stunning Antarctic panorama that was created with photos shot freehand.
In summary, capturing stunning photographs in Antarctica requires careful consideration and preparation. Familiarize yourself with your camera gear and settings, pack a bunch of things to protect your equipment from the extreme cold and salt spray and learn about composition and post-processing techniques to make your Antarctica photos truly stand out.
If you have any questions or would like further guidance on Antarctica photography, visit our Antarctica Photography section. And don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments below and let us help you capture extraordinary moments in the stunning icy landscapes of Antarctica.