A snowy mountain top in light clouds in the Lemaire Channel.
| |

What is the best camera lens for Antarctica photography?

If you are going on a trip of a lifetime to the frozen continent and cannot decide what the best camera lens for Antarctica photography is, you are in the right place! Having taken a photography trip to the Antarctic peninsula, with the weight limit on my bag and not willing to compromise on taking some amazing photos, I was in the same boat! Will a telephoto zoom lens be enough? Should you pack a wide angle lens? Do you need a portrait lens to capture the expressions on the penguins’ faces? Here, I am sharing my personal experience of the best lenses to pack and those to leave at home…

Photography in Antarctica

The type of camera lens that you will use most in Antarctica will highly depend on your personal photography goals. One thing is certain, you’ll be presented with a stunning array of subjects to capture:

  • Penguins and other wildlife: Antarctica is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including adorable penguins, seals, and whales. Read more about it in our Penguin Photography article. 
  • Sea birds: The region’s skies teem with fascinating seabirds like albatrosses and petrels. Learn more about how to capture Antarctic Birds even if you don’t have an expensive lens. 
  • Landscapes and seascapes: Antarctica’s breathtaking landscapes offer endless opportunities for wide-angle photography.
  • Huge Icebergs: The massive icebergs found in Antarctica are some of the most iconic subjects in polar photography.

Consider your specific photographic interests and objectives, as well as the unique challenges of the Antarctic environment, when selecting the right lenses for your expedition. We discuss these below. 

Icebergs at the entrance to the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica.

Choosing the right lens for Antarctica

Opting for a practical, relatively compact camera lens choice is key. Carrying a massive bazooka-style lens on a zodiac boat can lead to unintentionally giving fellow passengers a black eye. Unless you’re a professional travel photographer, it’s wise to avoid lugging around a hefty camera bag filled with equipment.

Depending on what you are looking to take photos of, here we consider what genres of photography in Antarctica various different lenses come in handy, including wide-angle lenses, zoom lenses, telephoto lenses, and more.

Explorers in red coats going up to the saddle in Orne Harbour.

Best lens for Antarctica landscape photography

The photographer’s dream is to have one lens that suits all situations. Although this is very difficult when considering wildlife, for landscape photography this is almost a possibility. This is mainly because a large telephoto lens often isn’t needed, these become more useful for wildlife, mainly birds. Also, a wide aperture, which typically leads to an increased cost, size and weight lens isn’t a requirement. You can read more here about aperture in photography. The main reason a large aperture isn’t usually required is that you’re typically looking to get the whole scene in focus.

I used my Nikon D7200 crop sensor camera and Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 for almost all my landscape photography, with a handful of shots taken with a wide angle lens. If you have a crop sensor camera the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is a great lens for wider focal lengths.

You can check out this post for further details on lens choice and tips for landscape photography in Antarctica.

Spiggot peak on Orne Harbour and one red-coated person in front of it.

What is a good lens for wildlife photography?

Regarding photography of wildlife in Antarctica such as Penguins and Seals the number one priority is to stay at a safe distance. This is not only important for your own safety, but also for the safety of the wildlife, especially with the risk of avian flu which could severely affect penguin colonies. To enable close-up images of wildlife usually use long focal length lenses this is why you see wildlife photographers carrying around very large lenses. With these large, long focal length lenses it can be a challenge to keep the lens steady and maintain a high enough shutter speed, this is where image stabilisation can assist to keep your images sharp. 

When I talk about long focal length lenses you may be thinking, how long is long enough? That’s a difficult question to ask, as although I mention keeping distance is important, the IAATO guidelines suggest a minimum of 5-10 meters on landings. This does allow for shorter focal lengths for capturing penguins, in comparison to the lenses suggested for birds in the next section. Another way to increase reach is by using a crop sensor body, which enables a crop factor of 1.5-1.6 for the focal length of the lens.

Two Gentoo penguins at Petermann island, One with it's head up in the air and beak open.

Lenses for capturing Antarctic sea birds

Speaking of bird photography in Antarctica, capturing those fast-moving subjects demands carefully considering your camera lenses, especially if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a state-of-the-art lens.

For the majority of Antarctic birdlife, you’ll require substantial focal lengths ranging from 300mm to 400mm, or even higher, to achieve that much-desired frame-filling effect. Even with such extensive reach, cropping is frequently necessary to achieve a perfect image.

Southern Fulmar, back lit by the sun in Antarctica.

When it comes to choosing the ideal camera lens for your Antarctic bird photography, you’ll be faced with three main categories, each bearing its unique advantages and drawbacks:

  • Superzoom Lenses are a budget-friendly option, providing flexibility in focal length and a lightweight profile. These lenses go from a wide angle all the way to a fairly long focal length zoom. However, they do have limitations in terms of aperture size and image quality.
  • Telephoto Zoom Lenses, although more expensive than a superzoom offer a balance between cost and image quality. If I was to go back to Antarctica, this would be something I would invest in for photography from the ship. It’s the best option for excellent reach in terms of focal length, especially when combined with a crop sensor camera. While they deliver great results, they can be somewhat heavy. Recommendations are provided in the table below.
  • Prime Lenses (Long fixed focal length): The top-tier choice, these prime lenses produce impeccable image quality, wide apertures, and dreamy bokeh. However, they come at a significant cost, typically ranging from around £3,500 for a 500mm f/5.6 lens, and reaching well beyond £10,000 for an f/4 at 500mm or 600mm. Their wide apertures permit faster shutter speeds and reduce the reliance on high ISO settings.

Telephoto zoom lens recommendations, all of which are suitable for both full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies. Note that a crop sensor camera body will provide 1.5-1.6x additional reach.

Lens DescriptionLens ApertureApproximate Cost (£)Weight (kg)Comment
Nikon AF-S 80-400mmf/4.5-5.6£2,2991.57f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
Canon EF 100-400mmf/4.5-5.6£2,0591.64f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
Sony FE 
f/4.5-5.6£2,0991.39f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
f/5-6.3£6991.36Good value ✔
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
f/4.5-6.3£7871.12Good value ✔
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
Tamron SP 150-600mmf/5-6.3£1,1492.1600mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘
Nikon AF-S 200-500mmf/5.6£1,2492.3500mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘
Sony FE 
f/5.6-6.3£1,5992.11600mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘
Telephoto zoom lens comparison including aperture, cost and weight.
Chinstrap penguin walking past in front of people in red coats.

We also have a dedicated post on Antarctic bird photography with additional information.

The Best Allrounder For Antarctic Photography

Things happen quickly in Antarctica: the ice calves off the glacier, a humpback whale sticks his fluke out of the water for a second, and a penguin sneakily steals a rock from another penguin’s nest. You will not have much time to change lenses. As a result, flexibility is key, I was even willing to sacrifice a bit of image quality and low-light capability to ensure I had a wide focal range. My Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 lens almost stayed on my camera for our entire Antarctica trip. When paired with a crop sensor camera such as my Nikon D7200 this gives an effective focal length of 24-450mm.

Gentoo penguin looking after its eggs on its nest.

To cover a similar focal range to the 16-300mm lens with prime lenses would require around 6 different lenses with a total of around £3985 and 2.74kg and many lens changes!

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED 
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

To a similar range with wide aperture f/2.8 zoom lenses, this would take 3 lenses with a total of around £5587 and £3.46kg.

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70 – 200 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR

None of the options above reach 450mm, to reach this a telephoto lens such as 100-400mm or 150-600mm would be needed. These come at a cost, weight and large size. Expect to pay £700-£2900 depending on the aperture for one of these telephoto lenses which can weigh between 1.1-2.3kg.

Considering the Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 is around £499 and 0.55kg in my opinion it’s a great value lens which still enables good image quality. 

There is also a Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 which gives an extra 100mm of reach, with 2mm less focal length on the wide end. This comes at a slight increase in cost and weight but is still relatively cheap and lightweight.

Gentoo penguin on a rock with a mountain behind.

How To Protect Your Camera Lenses in Antarctica?

Not only will cold temperatures drain your battery life, but your camera lenses will need extra care in the harsh conditions of the inhospitable polar regions. Ensuring the safety of your camera gear is not the last thing on your checklist; it’s the first – as there is no way you can get a spare part delivered the next day in these remote locations.

Penguin in the snow at Orne Harbour

To shield your precious lenses from water droplets, salt spray, and unpredictable elements, it’s essential to keep away from the water, shoot downwind and clean your lens front element regularly. A good quality dry bag and a lens cloth can be your best allies. 

Head to our complete guide on How To Protect Your Camera Gear in Antarctica for tips on keeping your equipment safe in the cabin, during shore landings, and while cruising on zodiac boats.

Heart-shaped iceberg in Antarctica in December.

What About the Camera Body?

If you already have a camera system you’re accustomed to with a range of lenses, stick with it. The number one priority is to be familiar with your camera body. I would not recommend taking a camera which is new to you, as you won’t be able to use it efficiently without practice. If you’re unable to dial in your settings quickly, you may miss photographic opportunities, or produce out-of-focus of poorly exposed images. This could be the case even with top-of-the-range cameras and lenses.

Mirrorless cameras have come a long way in recent years, further details on the differences to DSLR systems can be found in the article we have on crop sensor vs. DLSR. They’re definitely going to be the future, with the majority of camera brands focusing on expanding their range of both camera bodies and lens options. Currently, there is still a broader portfolio of lenses for DSLR cameras, as they’ve been around for a lot longer.

If I was to start from scratch today, with a new camera system, it would likely be mirrorless, to future-proof myself. However, this comes with increased cost and I’ve already got a fair few DLSR-compatible lenses and a couple of DSLR bodies. For now, my personal preference will be to stick with a DSLR camera, as I’m happy with the results and would struggle to justify the cost of an upgrade. I would prefer to spend the money on getting to incredible new locations to use the gear I have!

Our trip to Antarctica was the first time I’ve taken a second camera body, and I can confirm that it’s definitely a good idea. Although my second body is an old Nikon D3200, it was still great to have a second lens ready to go, without risking. the lens changes out on deck or on a landing.

The photo below was captured with my Nikon D3200 and Tamron 16-300mm, as I had my wide angle on my main Nikon D7200 camera. As the ship was moving, I wouldn’t have had time for a lens change.

See this post for further information on camera gear for Antarctica.

A snow-covered rock in Antarctica captured with a wide-angle lens.

Top Tips For Photographing In Antarctica

Photographing the pristine landscapes and unique wildlife of Antarctica can be a rewarding but challenging endeavour. To capture the breathtaking beauty of this icy continent, you’ll need more than just the right lenses. From the best photography spots on the cruise ship, packing extra memory cards to the best camera equipment, camera settings, composition and lighting conditions, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide with all the top tips you need for successful Antarctica photography. If it’s your first time travelling to the white continent, check out our in-depth article on Antarctica photography tips: a guide for stunning photos to ensure your expedition is a photographic success.

You may also be interested in:

Gentoo penguin sitting on an iceberg in the distance.


What Focal Length Is Needed For Antarctica Photography?

What is the best focal length for Antarctic Photography? During my trip to Antarctica, I primarily used three lenses with my Nikon D7200 crop sensor camera, capturing a total of 6143 photos, with 660 favourites selected. The Tamron 16-300mm lens dominated, with 96% of top-rated photos, and I also had a Tokina 11-16mm wide lens and a Nikon 50mm lens, each with 3% and less than 1% of top-rated photos, respectively. I relied heavily on the Tamron 16-300mm for its versatility, especially for distant subjects like icebergs and wildlife. If revisiting, I’d opt for a longer telephoto lens for ship deck photography, suggesting at least 400-500mm reach for full-frame cameras. Bringing both wide-angle and telephoto lenses is recommended if you have the budget and space, a long focal length prime lens being ideal for wildlife and achieving a shallow depth of field.

Do I Need A Waterproof Camera For Antarctica?

While it’s not an absolute necessity, having a waterproof camera or a camera with weather-sealing can be beneficial for photography in Antarctica. Antarctica is known for its harsh and unpredictable weather conditions, which can include rain, snow, and splashing water when cruising on Zodiac boats. A waterproof or weather-sealed camera can provide added protection against moisture, ensuring that your camera continues to function properly and that your photos are not compromised by the elements. It’s also essential to have a good camera bag or case to protect your equipment when not in use. For more information, head to our article about How To Protect Your Camera Gear in Antarctica.

Zodiac boat filled with people in red coats coming towards the camera with a snow topped mountain in the background.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *