If you have a trip planned to Antarctica and would like to make the most of the abundant photography opportunities, then this article is for you. Following our trip I’ve put together this article which covers camera setup, the best camera settings for Antarctica and gear recommendations.
Given that visiting Antarctica is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you will want to ensure your camera setup will give you the most likelihood of success.
Focus and exposure are two critical main pillars of photography you need to get right. However, there are many additional aspects to consider to get these basics correct for every shot you take. Even if you achieve perfect focus and exposure, without an eye-pleasing composition you will still be left disappointed.
If your photos are not in focus because of either missing focus, camera shake, or being unable to freeze the action, rectifying these images is nearly impossible.
The same applies to exposure, if you’ve significantly under or overexposed images, although that can be corrected, your image quality may suffer, and detail in clipped highlights in particular may not be recovered.
I will run through the following list of suggestions in more detail within this article. I found these all helped my photography in Antarctica.
- Shoot in RAW
- Save duplicate images to a second memory card
- Use continuous AF
- Turn on your lens vibration control
- Use a single point or an appropriate focus mode if you have it available, e.g. Eye-Detection AF
- Set up aperture priority with Auto-ISO
- Use virtual horizon
- Use matrix/evaluative metering mode
- Set your exposure compensation to +1 or more
- Set up clipped highlights/ histograms in image review
- Set up a shortcut for quick review at 100% zoom
- Consider setting up back-button focus
More details on these points can be found below.
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW gives you the most flexibility for post-processing as RAW files are larger and contain more data. JPEG Images on the other hand are processed already by the camera and are compressed. If you’re less confident in processing RAW files you could also shoot RAW + JPEG, however, make sure you have enough space for storage. JPEG files tend to be easier to share quickly, but there is a range of phone apps which can also work with RAW files, such as Snapseed.
Save duplicate images to a second memory card
If you have a second memory card slot in your camera a trip to Antarctica is a good opportunity to use this as a backup. Although unlikely, memory card issues do happen, and having a second card with duplicate images could save an entire day of images.
Use continuous AF
Typically the choice is between AF-C (Continuous) and AF-S (Single shot). AF-C allows for continuous focus adjustment for either changing compositions or moving subjects, this is a good all-round focus mode and I’ve never needed AF-S.
Turn on your lens vibration control
As long focal lengths are often used in Antarctica for wildlife photography and even landscapes, it’s important to avoid camera shake. For long focal lengths higher shutter speeds are needed, typically above 1/focal length in mm as a general rule. For example 1/100s for a 100mm focal length.
When combining the long focal length with capturing action even faster shutter speeds are required. e.g. 1/1000 or above. To reduce the need for fast shutter speeds or high ISO, vibration control can help, if you have it available on your lens. Just remember to turn it off if you’re using a tripod.
Use a single point or an appropriate focus mode if you have it available, e.g. Eye-Detection AF.
For my D7200 I find that single-point focus gives me the maximum control over my focal plane. I can easily move it around the scene depending on the composition and position of the subject. Newer camera models or mirrorless cameras, often have highly effective focus modes such as eye-detection which are great for wildlife, especially fast-moving penguins in water or sea birds such as Antarctic Petrels.
Set up aperture priority with Auto-ISO
This enables a minimum shutter speed to be set and is explained in detail within the section on camera settings.
Use virtual horizon
To ensure your photos are level turn on your camera virtual horizon. On my Nikon D7200 I’ve set up a button as a shortcut to activate this to show in my viewfinder. Often in Antarctica, you cannot see the horizon and therefore it’s difficult to ensure your photos are level amongst the mountains and snowy landscapes.
Use matrix/evaluative metering mode
In my opinion, this is the best option for ensuring the correct exposure across a large range of subjects, spot metering can be challenging, especially with black penguins and light snow which can cause the light meter to overexpose. Matrix or evaluative metering is more robust as it will help to ensure the background isn’t overexposed and will also try to decide on the subject to ensure a balanced exposure. The metering mode is important for exposure compensation to function correctly.
Set your exposure compensation to +1 or more
A camera light meter tends to underexpose scenes with bright snow, which leads to dull grey snow. Using the exposure compensation to increase exposure helps to get the right exposure in bright snow. The next tip helps to monitor exposure levels.
Set up clipped highlights/ histograms to review images on the LCD.
When in Antarctica you want to spend as little time as possible dialing in the best camera settings for Antarctica photography. Any time spent looking at the back of the camera could be a shot missed. This is why setting up your camera for easy and fast image and exposure review is crucial. I prefer to see clipped highlights on the back LCD, this provides me with the locations of the areas which are clipped. I can then reduce the exposure if required.
Set up a shortcut for quick review at 100% zoom.
I have my “OK” button set up as a shortcut for this, click it once and it zooms in to the focus point location. This is extremely helpful for checking focus, and therefore the settings chosen are correct, in particular to check if you need a faster shutter speed.
Consider setting up back-button focusing
Caution! Only do this if you’re familiar with it before your trip. Back button focus is when you assign the AF-ON button (or another button) to focus, removing this function from the shutter button (don’t forget this!). When combined with AF-C (continuous focus) this allows you to lock focus and then adjust composition before using the shutter button to take a photo. It also can reduce any delay linked to acquiring focus before the shutter release.
Camera settings for Antarctica
Now you have your camera setup, this makes management of camera settings far easier, and this is exactly what you need, as this will allow you to focus on photography and taking great photos. The main topic is setting up aperture priority as described below.
Aperture Priority with Auto ISO
If you are using fully manual settings, you’re unlikely on the lookout for tips on settings as you’re extremely comfortable using your camera. However, fully manual settings can still be a high-risk approach when lighting conditions can change so quickly. This is why aperture priority is an approach used by many, even professional photographers.
To set up aperture priority first a minimum shutter speed needs to be set.
In terms of the best camera settings for Antarctica photography, I used 1/800s for the majority of my shots in Antarctica, I could lower this to 1/500s for landscape shots, but with a maximum focal length of 300mm on my 16-300mm lens this equates to 450mm full frame equivalent I was reluctant to go below 1/500s even for static subjects, to avoid camera shake.
For fast action, such as birds, or shooting from moving Zodiac boats I would raise this to 1/1000s, but usually no higher, or else my ISO would need to be raised too high to maintain this shutter speed. For full-frame higher-end cameras, higher shutter speeds may be possible as the improved low light performance vs. a crop sensor camera can allow for higher ISO with reduced noise.
Of course, your shutter speed depends on your camera, lens, subject and also how steady you can hold your camera.
The next setting to activate in the camera is auto ISO, first, ensure your base level ISO is set as low as possible. The next setting is the maximum ISO. The way this works is that when the exposure can not be achieved with a given aperture and lighting condition then the ISO will be increased to maintain the shutter speed set within the aperture priority settings. The ISO will continue to be increased until the maximum ISO is reached, then the shutter speed has no choice but to be reduced.
The maximum ISO should be set within an acceptable range your your camera, some cameras can cope better with high ISO levels than others. For me, with my Nikon D7200, an ISO speed of 4000 is my maximum. I would suggest trial and error to set this for your camera.
Finally, as the aperture priority name suggests, is easily adjusted with the aperture wheel. As general guidance, if you’re looking to separate your subject from the background, use a wider aperture/lower f/stop to reduce the depth of field. Use a narrower aperture/higher f/stop if you’re looking to get more of the scene in focus.
However, depending on your lens, you may not want to shoot wide open at the widest possible aperture, as this may sacrifice both image quality and sharpness. This is worth trialling with your lenses, to find the optimum aperture.
To summarise the above guidance on setting up aperture priority with auto ISO:
- Activate aperture priority
- Adjust the aperture depending on the scene and composition
- Set the minimum shutter speed
- Set maximum ISO
Other top tips
- Practice! Practice with your camera and lens combinations before your trip to Antarctica. Become familiar and confident using your gear without too much thought.
- Have your camera ready at all times – You’re not going to be able to capture moments without your camera!
- Use people or wildlife to help give the grand landscapes in Antarctica a sense of scale.
- Get down at eye level with wildlife such as penguins – This helps increase background separation. Avoid shooting from above as the background ends up being the ground close to the wildlife. Also, bear in mind that you’re unlikely to be able to kneel, so you may need to squat down low.
- Think about composition and shots that are pleasing to the eye, e.g. rule or thirds or odds. It can be easy to take hundreds of photos without thinking about this.
- Keep calm! Antarctica is overwhelming, it’s incredible! There is a lot to take in, and by keeping calm you have more chance of coming away with some special shots of a lifetime.
See this article for more tips on photography in Antarctica.
Of course, although camera settings are critical, gear also helps! The sections below provide recommendations for camera body, lenses and accessories.
Flexibility and familiarity with gear are critical for capturing photography opportunities on a potential once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica.
My number one tip with gear is that you need to ensure you’re familiar with your equipment, this will allow you to use it to its full potential. Buying the latest and greatest equipment right before your trip may do more harm than good if you’re learning while in Antarctica.
If you have a limited budget, invest money into lenses as opposed to the camera body. Lenses have a greater impact on the results you can achieve.
Currently, mirrorless camera options are a popular choice. In recent years they’ve come a long way with the compatible lens portfolio also expanding. However, DSLR cameras still have their place and can produce exceptional images. Especially when paired with lenses from the huge choice of available options.
When it comes to sensor size (crop sensor or full frame) each has its pros and cons which you can read more about in this article on whether a crop sensor or full frame sensor camera is best for you. Whether you have a mirrorless or DLSR camera with a full frame or crop sensor all these options can be used to capture great images in Antarctica.
If you have the luxury of owning two camera bodies, take both with you. Not only will it serve as a backup if you have issues with your primary body, but it also can serve as a second body with another lens. Antarctica is one of the most remote locations in the world, and if you have an issue with your camera it will be near impossible to either get it fixed or buy a new camera, therefore come prepared for a worst-case scenario.
There are different genres of photography during an expedition cruise to Antarctica which require different lens choices. For example, photography from the ship, wildlife on landings, birds and landscapes. By reviewing my top ∼700 photos from Antarctica taken on my 16-300mm Tamron lens, my most common focal length was 300mm (450mm equivalent on full frame). For this reason, I would strongly suggest having a lens with a minimum reach of 300-400mm. More information can be found in this article on best camera lenses for Antarctica photography. But I’ll include some recommendations below.
Telephoto zooms: 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6
Nikon, Sony and Canon all offer zoom lenses with this focal and aperture range. If you can afford the £2000+ price tag and handle these 1.5kg lenses then these are great options for photography from the ship, on landings, birds and also landscapes. Just bear in mind that you may struggle with close subjects at the minimum focal length of 100mm. Especially with a crop sensor lens and its 1.5-1.6x crop factor.
Telephoto zooms: 100-400mm f/5-6.3
Sigma and Tamron offer versions which are around 2.5-3 times cheaper, but 1/3 stop smaller aperture at f/6.3 in comparison to the f/5.6 lenses above. This reduction in aperture shouldn’t be an issue in Antarctica, as during the season the long days offer plenty of light, especially on bright days.
It’s always important to respect wildlife such as penguins by keeping your distance. However, with avian flu, this becomes increasingly important, with the IAATO guidelines providing a protocol to keep a minimum of 5m/15 feet. This therefore affects your lens choice on landings, in particular with focal length.
Telephoto zooms: 150/200-500/600mm reach lenses
For a camera lens with additional reach, there is a penalty of additional size and weight, the heaviest of which is a constant aperture f/5.6 200-500mm from Nikon. However the following are good options, these are slightly cheaper than the 100-400mm f/5.6 options and are a great way to get to an impressive 600mm focal length on a full-frame camera.
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3
- Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6
- Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3
In my experience, ultra-wide-angle lenses only really became useful at the Lemaire Channel and on the ship. I used my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 only a handful of times. Although worth taking, I never took it for Zodiac cruises or landings. Another reason for not needing a dedicated wide-angle lens is that my superzoom lens covered wide and telephoto focal lengths (16-300mm). If you have an interest in wide-angle photography you can take a look at this article on the best wide angle lens for crop sensor Nikon cameras such as the D7200.
A superzoom lens is a low-cost option, that has the added benefits of being lightweight, compact and having a wide focal length range. My Nikon D7200 had my Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 lens on for almost the entire trip. When lens changes are challenging due to weather conditions, you ideally want a versatile lens which can cover a wide range of scenes and compositions.
While it is true that expensive lenses can improve the quality of images, I have found that the best results are achieved by maximising the number of opportunities and having the ability to quickly change focal lengths to adjust compositions. A flexible 16-300mm lens has been the key enabler for achieving this.
These are the preferred choice for professional photographers as the wide aperture lets in an increased amount of light and they offer optimal image quality.
These lenses come at a significant cost, especially at long focal lengths such as 500 or 600mm where they come into their own for birds and other distant wildlife. Wider aperture f/4 lenses at 500 or 600mm lenses will cost over £10,000 and come at a huge size and weight. A smaller aperture f/5.6 500mm would cost around £3,500 and come at a reduced size and weight in comparison to the f/4 version.
In terms of shorter focal length prime lenses such as 35mm and 50mm, although I took these with me, I didn’t find many opportunities to use them, I found the reach wasn’t enough, even with 50mm on a crop sensor D7200 body.
Saying this, the photo below was taken with my D3200 backup camera with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8. The compact size meant I could get the camera out as we stepped out of the zodiac and walked past the penguin colony right by the shore. The image is cropped in from a larger landscape orientation image.
Overall telephoto lenses are a brilliant option for capturing images of Antarctic wildlife and it’s a good idea to invest in the best you can afford before your trip.
If I were to go back to the Antarctic peninsula I would look to invest in something like a 100-400mm or 150-600mm lens for additional reach, especially from the ship but even from the zodiacs and on landings. That being said with a cheaper lens such as a superzoom, excellent results can still be achieved.
- Plenty of extra batteries – Battery life can be shorter in cold weather.
- Lots of memory cards – The last thing you want is to run out of space.
- Waterproof or dry bag – Highly recommended for zodiacs on windy/wavy days to protect your gear from salt spray. Read more about how to protect your camera gear in Antarctica.
- Microfiber cloths – Keep your lens front element and camera clean.
- Polarizing filter – To help cut out glare and reflections, especially useful for iceberg photography.
- Laptop/Hard drive – For photo review and backup of memory cards.
- Sensor cleaning kit – Suggest minimizing lens changes to keep your sensor free from dust.
- Suitable gloves – Either that you can operate your camera with, or remove whilst keeping them attached.
- Suitable clothes to stay comfortable and maximise your time outside, even in bad weather – Tips for what to wear in Antarctica (photographer’s perspective).