Antarctica is a land of stunning natural beauty, and one of the most captivating features of this icy continent is the incredible variety of its icebergs. Whether you’re an experienced photographer or just starting out, capturing the beauty of these floating works of art can be a rewarding but challenging experience. If iceberg photography is one of your main goals, read on.
In this article, I’ll provide some tips and techniques for capturing the stunning beauty of Antarctica’s icebergs through the lens of your camera. From understanding the unique lighting conditions to finding the right angles and compositions, I’ll help you take your photography skills to the next level and create unforgettable images of one of the world’s most fascinating natural wonders.
Understanding icebergs in Antarctica
Icebergs are formed in a process known as calving, which occurs when chunks of ice break off from the edge of a glacier or ice shelf and drift into the ocean. The size and shape of an iceberg depend on a variety of factors, including the size and shape of the glacier or ice shelf it came from, the temperature and salinity of the surrounding water, and the prevailing wind and currents.
Over time, icebergs can change shape as waves and weather batter them, and they can drift for hundreds or even thousands of miles before finally melting away.
The role of light in iceberg photography
When photographing icebergs in Antarctica, it’s essential to understand the complex interplay between the lighting conditions and the intricate shapes and shades of blue and white that define these icy giants.
The low angle of the sunlight in Antarctica creates a unique light that can produce dramatic shadows and highlights on the surface of the ice. This lighting can also reveal subtle textures and patterns in the ice that might not be visible in other environments.
Whites and Blues. Additionally, the intricate shapes and shades of blue and white in the ice itself can have a significant impact on the final image. Blue icebergs, for example, are created when ice forms under high pressure, which causes air bubbles to be squeezed out of the ice. This results in denser, clearer ice with larger ice crystals which absorb the red light (long wavelengths) and reflects the blue light (shorter wavelengths).
As the shade of blue in Antarctica is extremely unique it can really make the image stand out.
TIP: If you see a unique iceberg while on a zodiac cruise, you can often let the driver know and they may be happy to either let you stand up or even move the boat to get a better perspective.
This was how I was able to capture the incredibly blue ice in this photo.
Warm Yellows: The golden, soft, low-angle light at sunrise and sunset can really help to reduce the harsh contrast which can be challenging during the day. Finding a unique iceberg as a focal point can really help to make an average photo amazing.
Gear and equipment
For all the iceberg 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
A zoom lens helps give the flexibility needed to frame icebergs that come in all different shapes and sizes. When out cruising on zodiacs, a shorter focal length zoom is preferred as you’re usually close to icebergs. From the ship, a longer focal length telephoto zoom allows you to focus in on distant icebergs, allowing multiple compositions.
The photos below are of the same iceberg, taken from the ship at 125mm and 270mm focal lengths. Having the ability to focus on interesting details can often improve composition when compared to capturing the entire iceberg.
Personally, I’m not usually a fan of filters, however, a polariser can be very useful in Antarctica. It can help reduce glare and reflections and also saturate colours, especially useful when photographing icebergs.
Handling filters on a zodiac can be a challenge, and you could miss a shot while attaching/ detaching from the lens, or drop and damage the fragile/ expensive filters.
However, when taking photos from the ship you typically have more time and a much easier environment for handling filters. Using a polariser helps reduce reflections and saturate the colours of the submerged portion of the iceberg (the bummock!).
The following images were taken from the ship. All photos could have benefited from the use of a polariser to reduce the reflections on the water and saturate the blues.
Composition and technique
When it comes to composition, as with most genres of photography, there are no set rules. The many different characteristics of icebergs can help create compositions pleasing to the eye.
Here are a few examples of how to compose using the Antarctic environment.
Wildlife to give a sense of scale
Wildlife is often dark in colour, in contrast to the white and blue icebergs. This provides a great focal point for the viewer adding interest to the photo. Wildlife is also a great way to give a sense of scale to your iceberg photography.
Unique shapes: holes, arches, patterns and textures
Icebergs are very much floating works of art. It may look like an ordinary plain iceberg from one angle, but from another, it may reveal fascinating structures. Where possible always ensure you look at icebergs from all angles to capture the best composition.
If you’re struggling to capture an ideal composition when photographing an iceberg, consider focusing on its details instead. Experiment with getting closer, zooming in, or taking macro shots from various angles to take advantage of the light illuminating different surfaces.
Camera settings for iceberg photography
As always, settings will depend on the lighting/ weather conditions (that can change fast in Antarctica). But there are a few tips and tricks that you may find useful when photographing icebergs on the icy continent.
If a significant proportion of the environment in your photo is white your camera will try to darken your photo (reduce exposure). This is because you’re camera sees that the environment is very bright, and reduces the exposure, which can lead to gray snow. Setting your exposure compensation to +1 or higher will ensure the snow is bright white, as it is in reality.
Take some time to experiment with the exposure compensation setting on your own camera to understand the correct setting to ensure no underexposure or overexposure. Remember to keep checking this, don’t set and forget!
Regarding aperture, as a very general rule, to ensure the whole iceberg is in focus, a higher f-stop may be preferred. However, if you want the iceberg to stand out from the background making it a main feature of the image, a lower f-stop would be best. This also depends on the distance between you and your subject and the distance of the background from your subject.
Being close to the subject and using a long focal length and with a background far in the distance puts emphasis on these unusual ice sticks in an iceberg (Potentially Stalactites from another iceberg?) even when using a relatively small aperture of f/7.1.)
As icebergs are not fast-moving, a lower shutter speed also helps to keep your ISO as low as possible.
TIP: Keep your shutter speed above 1/ focal length, e.g 1/200s for 200mm focal length, unless you are moving (e.g. on a zodiac), where a higher shutter speed would be preferred.
Editing and post-processing
I use Adobe Lightroom for my workflow and image adjustments. I would recommend shooting in RAW. The main reason for this (especially in Antarctica) is to ensure you can retain the detail in the highlights and shadows. In general, getting the exposure correct in a snowy environment can be challenging. With the bright snow/ice, it can be easy to have overexposed highlights or underexposed snow.
RAW vs. JPEG
As a RAW file is uncompressed and unprocessed, it’s larger than a JPEG as all the data is stored and available. Adjustments are needed to ensure the final image reflects what was seen in reality or how you would like the image to look.
A JPEG file, on the other hand, is compressed and processed in the camera depending on the camera picture style/profile. It’s already been adjusted to look better based on the selected profile.
If you’re not sure what a RAW file is, and you don’t have software to convert or process RAW files, don’t worry. The dynamic range on most modern cameras is very good, therefore, as long as your image isn’t significantly under or overexposed you shouldn’t have issues with JPEG files. They will still look great and can be processed using the same software used for RAW files or free software such as Snapseed on your tablet or mobile.
Examples of how post-processing can help bring out the beauty of icebergs
In terms of adjustments, specifically for icebergs, I would typically focus on the following aspects.
Exposure: First check your exposure, make sure the white ice and snow aren’t gray, you may need to increase your exposure to achieve this. See additional information above on exposure compensation in order to get this correct in camera.
Highlights: due to sun and bright snow, bring down the highlights to ensure you’re not clipping the highlights. TIP: Check the right-hand side of your histogram in the camera to check.
HSL: Hue, Saturation & Luminance. To bring out the blues, you can specifically increase the blue saturation and reduce the luminance. This can be adjusted in the HSL tab in the develop module of Lightroom. See the examples below. Be careful not to overdo it!
Texture, clarity & dehaze: Small increases can help bring out detail. This can be very easily overdone, keep changes small!
For additional information on How to edit Antarctica photos to enhance their impact.
Icebergs are one of the main subjects in Antarctica, to ensure great photos, ensure you consider composition and the correct editing techniques.
As with any type of photography in Antarctica, spend as much time as possible on deck or with your camera ready on the zodiac and on landings. Always take your camera around with you on the ship, just in case!
If you’re unsure about composition, take plenty of photos at many different angles. You won’t be able to take more angles when you get home, but you can delete photos if you have too many!
If you are planning a trip to Antarctica and would like to take some stunning photos, here are some articles we would recommend reading next:
- How to protect your camera gear in Antarctica?
- What to wear in Antarctica (photographer’s perspective)
- Best time to visit Antarctica for amazing photos
- Antarctic penguin photography: techniques & tips for amazing shots
- Cruise ship photography tips