Amongst the many attractions in Antarctica are the countless bird species that call this region their home. From albatrosses and petrels to terns and skuas, the variety of birdlife in Antarctica is truly awe-inspiring. If you’re planning to visit Antarctica and want to capture the beauty of these incredible Antarctic birds, you might be concerned about the cost of expensive camera lenses you may need. However, fear not! You don’t need to break the bank to take amazing bird photos in Antarctica. With the right tips and techniques, you can capture stunning photos of these flying wonders even with basic camera gear.
In this article, we’ll provide you with all the information you need to photograph Antarctic birds. Yes, even if you don’t have an expensive lens! We’ll cover everything from essential camera gear and the best spots for bird photography on an expedition ship to camera settings and tips for photographing birds in motion. Whether you’re a professional photographer or a beginner, we’re confident that our tips will help you capture stunning images of these magnificent creatures. So, let’s dive in and discover how you can take great photos of Antarctic birds!
A short guide to Antarctic birds
During your journey to Antarctica, you will encounter a wide variety of bird species. The journey itself can be a great opportunity to observe many different Antarctic seabirds, including Wandering Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels, and Cape Petrels. Once you reach the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll be able to observe even more species, such as:
- Snow Petrels: Small, white birds that are often seen flying in flocks over icy landscapes.
- Antarctic Petrels: medium-sized seabirds with dark grey-brown plumage, a distinctive white belly, and a hooked bill that they use to catch fish and squid. They are known for their long migrations across the Southern Ocean, as well as their tendency to follow ships in search of food.
- Albatrosses: you can expect to see several species of albatrosses, including the Wandering Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, and Grey-headed Albatross. The latter are some of the largest seabirds in the world, with wingspans that can reach up to 11 feet. Moreover, they are remarkable for their ability to fly great distances over the Southern Ocean without flapping their wings.
- Antarctic Terns: Medium-sized, black and white birds with distinctive red bills. They can often be seen diving into the water to catch small fish.
- Skuas: Brown birds with hooked bills that often scavenge for food or steal it from other birds.
- Antarctic Shags: Black and white birds that are great divers and can be seen swimming and diving to catch fish.
These are just a few of the many species of birds you might encounter on your journey to Antarctica. Be sure to keep your camera handy and always be on the lookout for new species to add to your collection.
But wait! What about the most famous birds of Antarctica? Penguins! No, we have not forgotten them. As a matter of fact, we have a dedicated article – Antarctic penguin photography: techniques & tips for amazing shots – for you to read next!
Camera gear for bird photography in Antarctica
When it comes to bird photography in Antarctica, having the right camera gear is essential. Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or just starting out, there are a few key pieces of equipment that you’ll need to capture stunning images of Antarctic birds. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the camera gear you’ll need, including camera bodies and lenses to help you get the most out of your bird photography experience in Antarctica.
Best camera for Antarctic bird photography
In terms of the camera body, cheaper crop sensor cameras can come into their own for bird photography. This is mainly due to the crop factor providing 1.5-1.6x additional reach, this can enable smaller, cheaper lenses to be used in comparison to achieving the equivalent focal length with a full-frame camera and lens combination. Read more about whether a crop sensor or full-frame sensor camera is best for you.
When it comes to key attributes for your chosen camera body for bird photography, Frames per second (FPS) and the ability to deal well with high ISO are two important factors. Especially for smaller, fast birds which require increased shutter speed, and therefore higher ISO and FPS, especially at dawn and dusk when the lighting is most interesting.
A high-resolution sensor can help retain image quality when cropping in during post-processing, which is fairly common. Often it’s hard enough to get the bird in the frame without either missing it or clipping a wing, let alone achieving the final composition in camera!
Best lenses for bird photography
For bird photography long focal lengths are required, unless you’re right up close to a bird, which is rarely the case, except for maybe Sheathbills and of course Penguins! Ideally, focal lengths of 300-400mm or higher will give the required reach for filling the frame with most birds in Antarctica. Even then, cropping is often needed.
When it comes to selecting a camera lens for bird photography you have three groups of lenses to choose from, all with pros and cons.
- Superzoom: Cheap, flexible focal length and lightweight but with limited aperture and image quality.
- Telephoto zoom: Good image quality, and a relatively wide aperture but with a cost and weight penalty.
- Prime (Long fixed focal length): Excellent image quality, wide aperture but large, heavy and very expensive.
The following sections provide the pros, cons and also indications of cost and weight to enable you to make an informed choice without doing all the research!
Super zoom lenses
These provide unrivalled flexibility at an attractive price point. When paired with a crop sensor camera these can also reach impressive focal lengths while keeping weight down. The compromise is image quality and small apertures, often requiring a boost in ISO to maintain shutter speed.
The lenses below are significantly cheaper and lighter than the telephoto zoom and drastically cheaper than the prime lens options. See costs and weights within the tables of information.
It’s worth also noting that all photos within this post are taken with a crop sensor body released back in 2015 and super zoom lens, details are shown below:
The following camera and lens combination was used for all the bird photography shown in this post.
Camera: Nikon D7200 (crop sensor DSLR, around £580)
Lens: Tamron 16-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II, (around £400). 450mm when considering a 1.5x crop factor.
|Lens Description||Pros/cons/weight & cost|
|Tamron 16-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD||Great value ✔|
Wide @ 16mm ✔
f/6.3 @300 ✘
|Tamron 18 – 400 mm f3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD||Good value ✔|
f/6.3 @300 ✘
18mm vs. 16mm ✘
|Nikon AF-S 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3G DX ED VR||Nikon ✔|
300 vs. 400mm ✘
f/6.3 @300 ✘
18mm vs. 16mm ✘
Telephoto zoom lenses
These offer the best balance between cost and image quality but are still fairly heavy. A telephoto zoom also offers excellent reach in terms of focal length, which can be further increased when paired with a crop sensor camera.
The majority of the lenses below can be used on both full-frame and crop sensor bodies. For bird photography, I would very much recommend using a crop sensor body. For Nikon and Sony crop sensor cameras, the crop factor is 1.5x and 1.6x for Canon, this gives significantly more reach helping to fill the frame with birds which are often at quite a distance.
Telephoto zoom lens options
|Lens Description||Pros/cons/weight & cost|
|Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR||f5.6 @ 400mm ✔|
|Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM||f5.6 @ 400mm ✔|
|Sony FE 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS||f5.6 @ 400mm ✔|
|Sigma 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 DG OS C||Good value, £699 ✔ |
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
|Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD||Good value ✔ |
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
|Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2||600mm reach ✔|
2.1kg / £1,149
|Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR||500mm reach ✔|
|Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS||600mm reach ✔|
Prime lenses (Long fixed focal length)
Although the optimal choice, these are typically only for professionals or those with large budgets. Especially at around £3,500 for a 500mm f/5.6 lens and for an f/4 at 500mm or 600mm the cost will exceed £10,000. Although these come at a price their image quality, sharpness and bokeh cannot be beaten. The wide aperture allows for fast shutter speeds and reduces the need for excessive ISO.
With long focal lengths such as 500-600mm, these offer great reach on full-frame cameras but even more impressive reach on crop sensor cameras. Given their cost and quality, these are usually paid with high-end full frame, or occasionally crop sensor cameras.
These types of lenses do have a disadvantage, especially for inexperienced users. Given the long fixed focal length, the field of view is very small, this can make it a challenge to even get a bird within the frame. Often following the bird by eye first and then putting your eye to the viewfinder can help. Super and telephoto zoom lenses have a huge advantage for easily keeping the bird in the frame.
|Lens Description||Pros/cons/weight & cost|
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR Lens||Lower cost ✔|
Relatively lightweight ✔
Reach vs. 400-500mm ✘
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500 mm f/5.6E PF ED VR||500mm ✔|
Great bokeh ✔
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR||500mm reach ✔|
Incredible bokeh ✔
Very high cost ✘
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR|| 600mm reach ✔|
Unbeatable bokeh ✔
Extremely high cost ✘
Best spots for bird photography on an expedition ship
Best location on the ship for bird photography? When spending two days travelling across the Drake Passage there isn’t normally much to see out on deck. However, one thing is almost certain! there will be birds! Head to the aft (back) of the ship and look behind and down each side and you’ll see birds gliding, swooping and circling around the ship.
As it’s often very windy and exposed out on the deck, try to find an area sheltered from the wind. You will need both patience and time to get shots you’re happy with. An unobstructed view is also important, most birds are fast and you need to be able to follow them without worrying about hitting into parts of the ship (or other people). I typically like to find a corner spot, ideally with low railings, and no glass or posts in the way.
Another challenge is composition, quite honestly you’re options will be limited! With nothing but water for miles and miles, you will need to make the most of what’s available.
Dawn and dusk can offer colourful clouds and soft light. Although sunrise and sunset times during the summer season in Antarctica are at very unsocial times, colour can stay in the sky for many hours after sunrise or before sunset. Waiting a few hours before or after sunset and sunrise also aids with providing more light which assists with keeping you’re ISO relatively low.
Water and wake if used correctly can be a great background to help birds stand out against the background. Especially with the dark feathers of the Cape Petrel against the white water of the wake shown below.
Taking photos of multiple birds in one shot can be a great way to create a nice composition, for example, the pair of Cape Petrels shown earlier in this post.
Other useful advice
Bird experts on most expeditions ships are often out on deck. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the timing of any planned bird-watching sessions on deck or lectures on board. These can help you both understand what you’re looking at but also interesting facts about the birds.
Fun fact! the small Artic Tern has the longest migration of all birds travelling 35,000 km (22,000 miles) each year! This is because they’re constantly moving between the Arctic summer and the Antarctic summer.
Spend as much time on deck as you can. This increases your chances of seeing many types of birds together with getting shots you’re happy with. A group of Southern Fulmars circling around the rear of the ship allowed me to get this shot at only a 100mm focal length.
Essential camera settings for bird photography
The Aperture priority shooting mode allows you to set your aperture, with the camera automatically adjusting the shutter speed for the correct exposure. Pairing this with Auto ISO allows your camera to increase ISO without sacrificing shutter speed. The minimum shutter speed can be set within the settings for Auto ISO.
Depending on the conditions you may want to also increase or decrease your exposure compensation. Sunlight lighting up a white bird against dark clouds would likely lead to overexposed white feathers unless exposure compensation i reduced.
Make sure you have your lens vibration control on to enable a further reduction in shutter speed and ISO.
Shutter speed very much depends on the type of bird and the type of shot. I was typically shooting at 1/800 sec with my ISO varying between 100-1250 depending on the lighting. With focal lengths of 100-300mm (150-450mm equivalent on full frame). For more creative shots slower shutter speeds can be used combined with a panning motion, however, be prepared for many blurry photos to get a shot you’re happy with!
In terms of aperture if you’re lucky enough to have a long focal length prime, then shooting wide open at the minimal aperture would work well in most situations, unless you’re struggling to get the whole bird in focus with the shallow depth of field. With my super zoom Tamron 16-300mm, my minimum aperture is only f/6.3 @ 300mm, I was often shooting wide open. If the light was sufficient I would stop down slightly to f/7.1 to improve sharpness. This depends on your own lens.
Focus mode is usually a personal preference, just make sure you’re in continuous focus AF (AF-C on Nikon, Servo) I prefer to pair this with a single cross type focus point which can be moved around the frame. However you could also use a small dynamic group of focus points, or if you have the option eye AF detect.
Whichever settings you decide, remember to check your focus @ 100%, histogram and also watch if your ISO is within an acceptable range for your camera body.
Although not the best shot, having the ability to shoot at the equivalent of 450mm focal length with my Tamron 16-300mm paired with a Nikon D7200 allowed me to get this shot of Southern Giant Petrel, which wasn’t captured by many on the ship. Sometimes getting any shot is better than having no usable image.
Ways to photograph Antarctic birds in flight
Capturing birds in flight is a challenge! It takes patience, and time. It’s worth investing some time in first monitoring the bird’s behaviour, most birds are likely to be around the ship for a while, except birds such as Southern Giant Petrels or Albatross which can glide by quite quickly. Once you have an idea of the expected flight paths and speeds, you can then dial in your settings and start taking and checking shots.
Always take special care to pan your camera at the same speed as the bird’s flight, this way you’re more likely to get the bird in focus. Increasing your frames per second (FPS) to its maximum enables more shots to be taken at once, increasing the chances of getting the shot you’re looking for. This also gives you a lot of shots to review, and quickly fills up your memory cards! Practising this technique at home with your local birds can help give you a head start.
Once you have your settings dialled in, keep your camera on a ready, you never know when a bird you’ve not spotted before may quickly fly past.
Finally, don’t be afraid to crop in when post-processing your final shots, it’s a great way to focus in on the detail, especially when the majority of most modern camera bodies have sufficient resolution and detail for a decent crop.
Using a low-budget lens for Antarctica bird photography
Using a cheaper superzoom lens has benefits in terms of the wide focal range. This makes it far easier to keep the shot in the viewfinder and also gives flexibility if the bird comes closer than expected. The crop factor when paired with a crop sensor camera provides a 1.5x increase in focal length, something others with full-frame cameras will be jealous of! I had multiple comments about this on our expedition into Antarctica with others who had huge lenses and expensive cameras but less reach than my small Tamron 16-300mm!
The fact the lens is also lightweight improves manoeuvrability and doesn’t put you off always keeping your gear with you when around the ship, ensuring you are always ready to go on deck. As demonstrated by the shots included in this post, the results can still be great when using gear at a fraction of the cost of a fast long focal length prime lens and full-frame camera combination.
The diverse bird species that inhabit the Antarctic peninsula make it an exciting destination for nature and wildlife photography. While capturing stunning images of Antarctic birds may seem daunting, with the right camera gear, tips, and techniques, it’s an achievable goal for anyone, even if you don’t have an expensive lens. By following our advice and practising your photography skills, you’ll be able to capture stunning images of the various bird species that inhabit Antarctica!