Antarctica is a photographer’s dream. The wildlife, the icebergs, the huge open landscapes, the pristine, untouched expanse of it all… it’s fair to say that if you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, photography is going to be right up there on your list of priorities.
But for most people a trip to Antarctica is also a once-in-a-lifetime chance. You’re unlikely to be going again, so you want to make sure you come back with the very best pictures you can. And these environments can be challenging! With the cold, the unpredictable weather, the moving animals and the bumpy zodiac rides, taking photos in Antarctica certainly isn’t the easiest!
It can also be overwhelming when you arrive at a location and there’s so much to see you don’t even know where to begin! Which is why it really pays to have a plan and be prepared.
So I’ve written over 60 Antarctica photography tips to help you. Some things will only make sense if you’re a bit more experienced, but there’s loads here to help beginners too. Whether you’re pro or just starting out, if you’re planning on taking an expedition cruise to Antarctica, this advice will hopefully inspire you and help you bring back stunning images from your journey of a lifetime.
General wildlife photography advice
Antarctica isn’t *just* about the wildlife, but it’s certainly a *lot* about the wildlife. If you’re new to wildlife photography you might want to start with my wildlife photography guide for beginners, which details loads of tips for improving your wildlife images. All of that advice is applicable to your Antarctica photography, so you haven’t read it, take a look over there first and then come back here to read more specific advice about how to take fantastic images of Antarctica.
Ready to carry on? Here, without any more ado, is my personally-researched guide to all the different things you’re likely to see and how to photograph them. I hope it helps, and I’d love to know how you get on!
Things you’re likely to see in Antarctica and how to photograph them
Penguins are probably the number one thing on people’s Antarctica photography wishlists. I probably took over a thousand photos of penguins on my trip, and it still wasn’t enough! Different species of penguins can be found in different places and behave differently, so you’ll need to change your approach depending on where you are and what you’re photographing.
1.1/ Penguin colonies
The main species of penguins you’ll see in Antarctica are Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo penguins. You may see a few Kings, but you’re unlikely to see Emperors as they live and breed far away from the sea on the ice shelf where expedition cruises can’t go.
Chinstraps, Adelies and Gentoos live in large colonies of hundreds to thousands of birds. They build nests from stones or twigs on rocky areas which are usually filthy with mud and guano. Although you will almost certainly visit at least one penguin colony on your Antarctica trip, they are not the most photogenic and it can be hard to get really striking photos with lots of penguins in as they just start to look messy and the penguins don’t stand out very well against the dirty background.
BUT there are still plenty of ways to get good photographs at the colonies.
The trick here is to focus on individuals. Look for unusual interactions or behaviours, or penguins with chicks or eggs. Make sure they stand out by using the longest zoom you have and blurring out the background by using a wide aperture.
You’ll also need a high shutter speed to freeze the penguins’ movements – at least 1/1000 and probably a bit more. If it’s an overcast day, you may need to increase your ISO to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough.
Try getting down low or looking for penguins sitting high up so they’re framed against the sea or the sky.
If you don’t have an SLR or don’t know how to use the manual controls, then using your camera’s portrait mode should help you get that nice soft background.
Be patient. You won’t spot the cool stuff right away, so find a rock to sit on and watch. There’s always something happening in a penguin colony; you just have to wait long enough. We spent ages at one Gentoo colony watching the males stealing stones from other nests and presenting them to their partners – hilarious!
Look out too for the ‘penguin highways’ they use to travel between the sea and the colony. They make for really cute photos, but be careful. You’re not allowed to stop on the crossing as it might disrupt the penguin and cause it to abandon its nest.
1.2/ Individuals and pairs of penguins
After you’ve filled your memory cards with shots at the main colony site, try wandering away and looking for penguins on their own or in pairs. These guys make for lovely, uncluttered photos and you can often get much closer to them than at the colony because they are not sitting on nests, and sometimes they will even approach you!
Find a clean penguin, and make sure there’s nothing too distracting in the background. Sit or crouch down to its level and wait for it to do something interesting.
Don’t ignore the ugly ones either. A solo dirty penguin or one mid-moult makes for an arresting image.
1.3/ Penguins in bright light
It can be hard to get the exposure right when photographing penguins, especially on sunny days, as their black and white colours make them very high contrast. Your camera may automatically overexpose and you’ll lose detail in the feathers on the penguin’s white breast. To compensate for this, try underexposing just a little – you can always bring up the shadows later when you edit but you’ll never be able to get back blown-out whites.
1.4/ Penguins on icebergs
By far the most photogenic penguins, in my opinion at least, are the ones sitting on icebergs. They’re almost always clean because they’ve just come out of the sea, and their monochrome uniforms against the blue of the ice makes for really stunning Antarctica images.
You’ll see these guys when you’re on a zodiac cruise, which makes them a bit harder to photograph because the zodiac will be bobbing up and down and it’s not easy to get the right angle. However your zodiac driver will be happy to move if they can, so if you want a different angle, just ask.
Timing is important here too. Even when the engine is off the zodiac will always be moving gently with momentum or the breeze, so what’s behind the penguin is changing constantly. In the photo above I waited until we were directly side on and the penguin was nicely framed against the ice behind.
You won’t be able to get too close, so you’ll need your zoom lens and, as always, a high enough shutter speed to combat camera shake and the rocking of the boat.
But of course it’s not just about the closeups. Try using the wide end of your lens to capture the penguins in their environment and show off all that stunning ice!
1.5/ Penguins in the water
It’s really hard to photograph penguins in the water. They move quickly and change direction underwater making it impossible to know when or where they’ll pop up next. Add to that the fact that you’ll be in a moving zodiac with ten other people, and the challenge becomes next to impossible.
I especially loved capturing the penguins jumping on and off the ice floes. The best way to do this is to kneel down and lean on the side of the zodiac so you’re at the right level. If you have an SLR use the fast burst mode, or the sports mode on a compact camera. You’ll need a fast shutter speed of at least 1/2000 and it’s also a good idea to keep the aperture reasonably narrow (f/8 or higher) to make sure the penguins will be in focus no matter where they pop up.
2.1/ Seals on land
The main seals you’ll see in Antarctica are Weddell, Leopard and Crabeater seals. Weddells may hang around in groups while Crabeaters are found alone or in pairs. Leopards are solitary hunters. You’ll soon learn to tell them apart.
It’s pretty easy to take nice photos of seals on land because they sit very still and you can get quite close to them. They’re still wild animals though, so don’t get too close!
One good trick with seals is to get front-on and get down to their level. They have such cute faces! Use a wide aperture to draw the viewer’s eye onto the face and soften the rest of the seal and the background.
Sleeping seals don’t do much, but if you watch for a while you may get eye contact, a yawn, a stretch or a scratch which is all it takes to take the image from nice to gold standard.
2.2/ Seals on ice
Another great place to photograph seals is on ice floes when you’re on a zodiac cruise. If you can find a nice clean seal, on a clean patch of ice, it’ll make for an image worthy of hanging on your wall.
Just like with the penguins it can be challenging shooting from a zodiac, but at least the seals are bigger and sit still! Once again that trusty wide aperture / fast shutter speed combo will help you, but I’d caution against going too wide as it will be hard to get the focus right when the boat is moving. Something like f/5.6 to f/8 will be fine.
It can be tempting to go straight for the close up, but don’t forget to show the animal in its environment too. Make the most of all that spectacular scenery!
2.3/ Seals in the water
It’s harder to photograph seals in the water because they’re moving! Though the fact that they are curious does make them slightly easier to capture. If you’re lucky one will come and peer at you, but you’ll need to be quick. They don’t stick around for long!
If you have a Go-Pro, this is where it can come in handy. Attach it to a long selfie stick and you can try leaning over the side of the zodiac and putting it into the sea for a stunning underwater seal shot.
There are eight different types of whales you may see on your Antarctica trip, but the most common is likely to be the humpback whale. In fact when we were there they were the only kind we saw, but we did see a lot of them!
Look out for that telltale blow as the whale comes up to breathe. If you’re in a zodiac, your driver will often try to get you closer. Learning the way they move will enable you to anticipate what the whale will do: blow first, then the dorsal fin comes up, and every so often they’ll dive deeper and you’ll see the fluke. If you’re lucky the whale may even do something more spectacular, so have your zoom lens and fast shutter speed ready!
Give it context. To get the best shots, think about what else is in the image. Of course you are completely at the mercy of the position of the whale and where your zodiac is in relation to it, but if you can manage to capture something else in the shot – another zodiac, an iceberg, or your ship – it’ll make for a much more interesting image than just the fluke on its own.
4/ Ice and Icebergs
There are so many different types of ice in Antarctica: from glaciers and huge icebergs to smaller floes, bergy bits and brash ice. They come in an infinite range of shapes and shades of green, white and blue, and you’ll want to add all of them to your collection of Antarctica photos!
You might think you want a sunny day, and blue skies are certainly nice, but bright sunshine will wash out the colours. Moody skies make for dramatic scenes and allow the blue of the berg to shine through.
You could try using a polarising filter to see through the water and capture the whole of the iceberg. Alternatively if the water is calm then it’s all about the reflections! You’ll want a narrow aperture, at least f/8 and probably more, to get the entire image sharp.
Try including another zodiac to get a sense of scale.
In a field of icebergs, trying using a nearby chunk of ice as a foreground. And don’t forget to zoom in on detail.
4.2/ Brash Ice
Brash ice is the smaller chunks that you’ll see floating on the surface of the water. For this shot I used a very wide angle lens and put the camera as low to the water as I could without dropping it in.
4.3/ Sunrise and sunset
You’ll be travelling in the southern summer which means very long days. I don’t know how determined you are, but for me, getting up at 4 am just on the offchance there might be a good sunrise was not really an option! However sunset is at about 9.30 pm, which is a far more civilised time to be out on deck taking Antarctica photos. At this point you’ll probably in the bar or your cabin, so have your parka and camera close to hand and keep looking out of the windows at what’s happening outside – you wouldn’t want to miss something like this!
5.1/ Exposure and white balance
Snow photos can often come out dull and grey because your camera will automatically want to underexpose to compensate for all that white. Shooting an animal against a snowy white background can be a bit like photographing someone in front of a window – the animal may come up very dark.
Try overexposing by +1/3 to +1 stop to bring out the whiteness of the snow and the detail in the animal. To do this you’ll need to find the exposure compensation setting on your camera. Don’t be tempted to use a flash as this could disturb your subject.
If you use auto white balance you may also find your photos come up a bit blue. If you shoot RAW that sort of thing is easy to sort out in the edit later, but if not and the blue is bothering you, try switching to the daylight or cloudy setting instead.
Alternatively if your camera has a snowy scene setting, use that!
5.2/ Think about black and white
Snowy landscapes, or animals sitting on snow, lend themselves perfectly to black and white. The strong contrast between the white snow and the darkness of the sea, mountains or animal can make for a really stunning image. I prefer to shoot in colour and then convert to black and white later, but you can also use your camera’s black and white mode.
As your cruise ship moves through Antarctica, keep an eye out for gulls, petrels, skuas, terns, albatrosses and other seabirds following in your wake.
Flying birds are one of the hardest things to capture: they’re small, they move really fast, and they’re pretty difficult to get in focus. Here’s how to do it (you’ll need an SLR and manual controls).
- Of course you’ll need your longest zoom and a fast shutter speed, ideally 1/400 and at least 1/2000 should do it.
- You’ll need to select a small – but not too small – range of focus points. If you use just a single point, it’s hard to get it on the bird. But if you use too many focus points your camera may decide to focus on the sea instead. How many you use depends on what your camera offers. On my Canon 5D IV I use a small grid of 9 focus points in the centre of the frame.
- If your camera has an AF Servo mode, use it. This mode is specially for moving subjects – once you half press the shutter it will lock on and keep refocussing as you pan. If not, use normal autofocus and you’ll have to keep refocusing as the bird moves.
- Use sports mode or burst mode to allow you to take lots of shots in quick succession. You can always delete the rejects later.
- Pan with the bird as it flies. They tend to move in fairly predicable patterns, circling round and round, so you should get a feel for where it’s going. Then when you’re ready, lock on the focus and hold down the shutter and keep panning with the bird as it flies past.
- You probably won’t get it perfectly framed, but you can crop the image to your liking later.
A word of warning! If you’ve used Servo AF mode to shoot birds, don’t forget to switch back to single shot afterwards. I came across several photographers whose photos of seals and penguins were coming out blurry because they were half pressing the shutter and then reframing – causing the camera to refocus on the background because it was still in Servo mode.
Don’t forget context. Seabirds, like whales, are more interesting when there’s something else in the shot, not just the bird against the sky. So if possible, wait to press the shutter until there is something else in the frame to set the scene.
Including people in your images is a great way to capture some of the spirit of the trip. They can give a sense of scale to a landscape or help capture a feeling of wonder.
Showing interactions between humans and animals always makes for captivating Antarctica images.
8/ General techniques and best practice
8.1/ Taking photos from a zodiac
Zodiacs give you unprecedented opportunities to get close to wildlife. But they are not without their challenges! They’re small, full of people, they’re exposed to the weather and they’re constantly moving! All of which conspires to make the zodiac one of the hardest places in Antarctica to take photos.
Here’s how to manage the challenges and maximise your chances of taking amazing Antarctica images even when you’re in a zodiac.
- Where you sit is more or less first come, first served, but you may still have some say about your position in the boat. I preferred to sit at the front as you get the best view and are less likely to have someone getting in the way. But be warned – the front is also the bumpiest and wettest seat!
- For this reason, keep your camera packed away with a waterproof cover over your backpack until your guide says it’s safe to get it out.
- Depending on which side you are on in relation to the animal or iceberg, you’ll need to either stand up or kneel down. This gives everyone in the boat the best chance of getting a clear shot.
- Because the zodiac is moving it can be really hard to get the horizon level. So shoot everything a bit wider than you would normally. Later you can correct the horizon in the computer and having a bit of extra room round the edges means you won’t lose anything important.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to move if you can see a shot you’d like to get.
- Remember to be considerate of your fellow passengers!
8.2/ Taking photos from a kayak
If your expedition company offers sea kayaking or a paddle excursion, you’ll definitely want to take your camera. But you’ll be much closer to the water in a very small boat, so it can feel quite risky!
However I’d say this is the time to be brave. You’ll only be allowed out on the water if it’s super calm, so the risk of anything happening to your gear is low. Bring a dry bag (your team may well supply one) but don’t be afraid to get the camera out. What’s the point of having it if you don’t use it?
8.3/ Taking photos in bad weather
Wind or rain can make photography difficult, but bad weather can also be a great chance to take some more quirky Antarctica photos. While I don’t suggest getting your camera out in torrential rain, moody skies can be really atmospheric. On windy days, try to look out for visual signs of the effect the wind is having: dust swirls blowing up, spray from the sea, or people or animals battling against the gusts.
8.4/ Do your research!
If I had to pick my one top piece of advice to help you get the most from your Antarctica photography, it’s this: talk to your guides! They will have visited the sites many times, will know all the best places to go, which birds are sitting on eggs or chicks, where to get the best angles from and much more. They will be only too delighted to talk about their favourite subject and help you get the best Antarctica photos, so make the most of their expert knowledge!
8.5/ Show the animals in their environment
Remember you don’t have to choose between landscape photos and wildlife photos – you can do both! For me, it’s the images that show the combination of incredible animals in this stunning landscape that are some of the highlights of my Antarctica photography.
8.6/ Other tips and tricks
And finally, here are some more handy hits to help you make the most of your time taking photos in Antarctica.
- Follow the Antarctic code and keep 5 metres away from the animals. Of course they may be curious and approach you, but that’s different!
- Listen to your guides and do what they tell you. They know what they’re talking about and are there to help you.
- Make sure you don’t just keep your camera pressed to your face the whole time. Things change all the time in Antarctica and you might be missing something amazing just behind you if you don’t stop and look around once in a while.
9/ What camera gear should I take to Antarctica? How do I deal with the cold?
I’m going to write a whole separate post on what gear you should bring on your Antarctica adventure and how to handle it. Check back soon or sign up for email updates to get the post straight to your inbox when it lands in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, have you read my wildlife photography tips post? It contains loads more advice to help you improve your Antarctica photography.
And if you want to know more about what it’s like on a cruise to Antarctica, have a read of South Georgia & Antarctica: The Trip Of A Lifetime
Or to find out where we went and what we got up to, head over to The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary
Questions? Comments? Feedback? I’d love to hear them! Please pop them in the box below! And do come back and let me know how you got on when you come back from your trip!
I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.