The first time I heard of South Georgia was only about two years ago, but as soon as I discovered the existence of this magical wildlife wonderland, I knew I wanted to go on a photography trip there.
Often referred to as ‘the Galapagos of the south’, the island of South Georgia is heaven for photographers: where seals will run up to take a look at you and penguins will happily pose for photos amidst stunning landscapes of green plains surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
And whether you’re planning a trip there or just daydreaming about going, I suspect that, like me, you want to know what there is to photograph, and how you can make sure you come home with images of South Georgia that you’ll be proud to show off.
Which is why I want to share the photography secrets I learned on my recent trip to South Georgia, to hopefully inspire you and help you make the most of your amazing South Georgia photography adventure.
Wildlife photography for beginners
If your visit to South Georgia will be your first real go at wildlife photography – well first of all, lucky you! What a way to start! And second, don’t panic! Even if you’re not a pro, and you only have a small camera or just a phone, there are loads of ways you can improve your skills and nail that killer shot that’ll have your friends and Instagram followers drooling with envy. If you want to know more, have a quick look at my wildlife photography tips for beginners, all of which are applicable to your South Georgia photography.
Happy? Ready to learn the specifics of all the amazing things there are to see on South Georgia Island and how to photograph them? Then let’s begin…
Penguins! Everyone loves penguins – they’re cute and hilarious! Which is why you’ll no doubt be thrilled to bits to learn that South Georgia is home to some of the largest penguin colonies in the world. There are Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni penguins here, but more than anything there are King penguins. Hundreds of thousands of them!
Here are some of the places you’ll find them, and how to take penguin photos that’ll have the Instagram likes rolling in.
1.1/ Large groups of penguins
King penguins don’t build nests, so the colonies simply consist of thousands of penguins all standing around. They have a long breeding cycle, so you’ll probably see lots of chicks as well as adults; you may also see penguins incubating eggs. The sight of so many penguins all together is one of the wildlife wonders of the world!
Use a wide angle to get as many penguins in the shot as possible, or zoom in to fill the frame with birds. Try using a very narrow aperture to get all the penguins in focus, or single out just a few rows of individuals by using a shallow depth of field give you a blurry background. When you have so many penguins in front of you, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo.
To level up your photos, look for an individual doing something different among the crowd, and then use a wide aperture to blur the background and make it stand out from the rest. You’ll need to use the long end of your zoom, so make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to combat camera shake and freeze the penguin’s movements. If you’re hand-holding your shutter speed should be at least the inverse of your focal length to avoid camera shake – so if you’re at 200 mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/200. For moving animals you should make sure you’re on 1/1000 at the very least, and ideally more to be on the safe side.
Look for unusual interactions or behaviours. As before, make sure they stand out by using the longest zoom you have and blurring out the background with a wide aperture.
Take your time and be patient. You won’t spot the cool stuff right away, so stand and wait or find a rock to sit on and watch. There’s always something happening in a penguin colony!
Depending on when you come, the penguins may be sitting on eggs or tiny chicks. They’re hard to see because they keep them warm under a large flap of skin, but if you’re lucky you may get to see the egg or chick as the parent tends to it, so keep your eyes peeled!
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, clean, uncluttered photos and you can often get much closer to them than at the colony because they are not sitting on eggs. 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 penguin mid-moult makes for an arresting image.
Keep an eye on your exposure when photographing penguins, especially on sunny days. Their black and white plumage makes them very high contrast and your camera may overexpose, losing detail in the white breast. If this happens, compensate by underexposing by up to -1 stop to preserve the details in the white – you can always brighten the darker parts of the image when you edit later.
Penguin couples also make for great photos. They’ll stand together for ages, often bowing or touching beaks. Try to find a couple standing a little away from the rest for that romantic loved-up penguin shot. As before, a shallow depth of field and fast enough shutter speed are your friends.
1.3/ Think about black and white
Of course that high contrast looks great in black and white, as does the texture of feathers or the fluffiness of the downy chicks. You can use your camera’s monochrome mode, though I prefer to convert to black and white later in case I change my mind!
1.4/ Penguins and water
When you approach the beach in your zodiac you may see penguins swimming. They’re pretty hard to photograph because 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 it becomes even more challenging to capture them.
Your best hope is to kneel down and lean your elbows on the side. Zoom out to give yourself a chance of having the penguin in the frame when it pops up – you can crop later. You’ll need a fast burst or your camera’s sports mode turned on. I used the AF Servo focus mode and a reasonably narrow aperture of f/5.6 or f/8 to give me the best chance of getting the penguins in focus. Then pan with the penguins and press and hold the shutter. You’ll end up with 100 photos of sea too, but you can delete those later!
Keep an eye out for penguins near water too. The reflections can make for a really striking image.
2.1/ Fur seals
You’ll find fur seals all over the beaches on South Georgia. With their shaggy coats and the way they bask in the sun and scratch, they’re like the dogs of the seal world.
But you need to be really careful around fur seals. They’re aggressive, and a bite will completely ruin your trip – and probably everyone else’s. Where fur seals are present you are advised to walk in pairs so that one person can always be watching for a sudden approach. And under no circumstances must you sit or lie down for that low angle – they move fast and you won’t be able to get up in time!
But don’t worry, a charging fur seal can easily be stopped if you stand your ground, make eye contact and shout at it. And if you’re there in late December to February look out for the pups, which are the cutest things you’ll ever see!
2.2/ Elephant seals
Elephant seals are quite easy to photograph because they lie still and do very little. But that means the photos can be quite boring. A row of fat grey blobs lying on a grey beach is never going to wow your friends!
They do have cute faces though, so try to position yourself straight on, get down to eye level, and wait for the seal to make eye contact.
If you watch a group of sleeping elephant seals for long enough, there’s a good chance that at some point a couple of them will wake up and have a squabble. You just need patience and, as always, that wide aperture/fast shutter speed combo.
2.3/ Seals in the water
Just like the penguins, seals are hard to photograph in the water. 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!
You won’t be able to get too close, so you’ll need a big zoom lens and, as always, a high enough shutter speed to combat camera shake and the rocking of the boat.
There are at least half a dozen different species of whale that you may see in South Georgia waters, including southern right whales, minke, orcas, humpback and the legendary blue whale. By far the most common when we were there were the humpbacks – we saw quite a few of them from the deck of our cruise ship as we passed by.
Photographing whales is not actually too difficult as you’ll soon learn how they move, and they do swim quite slowly through the water. The first thing you’ll see is the ‘blow’, which will tell you where the whale is and give you time to point your camera. Then the dorsal fin will come up, and finally, if you’re lucky, the fluke.
Your biggest challenge will simply be the fact that the whales will often be far away. This is one of those cases where size really does matter and bigger (in terms of lenses) is definitely better.
A grey whale against a grey sea, however, doesn’t make for the most award winning image of South Georgia. If you can, try to frame something else in – maybe some land, a zodiac, or your ship – to give the image context and a sense of place.
4.1/ Birds in flight
As you stand on deck during the first few days of your trip, you’ll notice dozens of petrels following in your wake, as well as albatrosses, terns, gulls and other seabirds. You’ll almost certainly want to take pictures, so here’s how to get the best shots. To get images like this one, you’ll need an SLR with manual controls.
Here’s my step by step guide to shooting birds in flight.
- Use your longest zoom.
- You’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 and an aperture of about f/5.6 or f/8. This will give you a fighting chance of getting the bird sharp while still separating it from the sea.
- If you have it, use AF Servo mode and a small area of focus points – but not too small. I use 9 points in the centre of the frame. If you use only one focus point it’s really hard to hit the bird, but if your focus area is too big the camera will probably choose to focus on the sea instead.
- Follow the bird’s flight pattern and pan with it. They move at a steady speed and tend to circle round and round, so you’ll soon get to know where it’s going.
- Use burst mode or your camera’s sports mode.
- Once you’ve got it in the frame, hold the shutter down while continuing to pan.
- The bird will stand out better over the white foamy part of the wake rather than the dark blue of the sea.
Be careful! If you’ve used Servo AF mode to capture birds in flight, make sure you switch back to single shot when you’re done! If you don’t, the next time you try to use the half press / reframe / take the shot technique, the camera will move the focus as you reframe and your subject will come out blurry!
Like whales, seabirds are more interesting when there’s something else in the shot, not just the bird against the sky. So wait to press the shutter until there is something else in the frame to give the shot context.
4.2/ Albatross colonies
South Georgia is home to four albatross species: the black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled sooty albatross, and the largest flying bird in the world, the wandering albatross. If you’re lucky and conditions are right, you may get to visit a colony on your South Georgia expedition.
Just like with the penguins, there’s always something happening at an albatross colony. Look out for interactions – these birds may look stern but they’re full of character! Albatrosses come to South Georgia to breed so it’s likely there will be chicks which of course will make for super cute images.
Since albatrosses usually build their nests in grassy areas, try including some grass in the foreground to soften the frame and add colour to the monochrome.
Of course South Georgia isn’t just about the wildlife. There are also stunning vistas that will thrill the landscape photographer in you too!
My best tip for the beginner landscape photographer is that in general wide landscape photos look best when everything is in focus. For this you’ll need a wide angle lens and a narrow aperture. I find f/11 or higher makes everything nice and sharp throughout the image.
Lots of landscape photographers use tripods, but you don’t need to bring one to South Georgia. A tripod is cumbersome to carry, will get in the way on the zodiac, and will probably be more hassle than it’s worth on trip like this.
If it’s a sunny day, consider using a polarising filter to bring out the blue of the sky and the whites of South Georgia’s glorious snow-capped mountains.
Don’t forget to include some wildlife in the image as well. This photo was taken at Salisbury Plain and all those little dots are penguins. I love how when seen from a distance all together you get this kind of abstract image with coloured patches and stripes – it’s just a bit different from a normal landscape.
And of course including a zodiac or a person in your image will give a focal point to draw the eye and adds context and a sense of scale to your South Georgia landscape photos.
6/ Whaling stations
In the early part of the 19th century South Georgia’s biggest industry was whaling. An estimated 1.5 million whales were killed in the Southern Ocean, and South Georgia was the main hub. At the industry’s peak there were seven whaling stations on South Georgia, as well as numerous floating factory ships and smaller bases.
Today the whaling stations have all been shut down and many of them are off limits to visitors for safety reasons. You can, however still visit the main station at Grytviken and also see smaller sites at Godthul and at Deception Island in the South Shetlands.
I found Grytviken absolutely fascinating – it was one of my favourite places to take pictures in South Georgia. I absolutely love rusted old ghost towns anyway, but this was made even more fascinating by the presence of so many fur seals that had taken over the site.
Make sure that as well as taking photos of the site, you keep an eye out for the wildlife. I just love the way the seals have reclaimed the place and made it their home.
Don’t forget to capture close-up detail as well. I think the rusted old machinery is both eerie and beautiful!
Adding people into your South Georgia images adds both context and a sense of wonder. Having someone in the shot captures the spirit of the trip and tells a story to the viewer. So even though they’re not native species, do make sure you capture them too!
Also try to capture interactions between people and wildlife. These always bring a smile to may face and I’m sure to yours too.
8/ A few other South Georgia photography tips and tricks
8.1/ Shooting from a zodiac
Zodiacs allow you to get much closer to wildlife in the water, but they can be really hard to take photos from. The boat is always moving, there’s often a swell making it hard to focus or keep your balance, and with 10 other people on board you’ll often end up with someone in your shot.
So here are my tips for getting the best Antarctica photos from a zodiac.
- Try to sit at the front if you can. This is the bumpiest and wettest seat, but also the one with the clearest view of what’s in front.
- It’s very hard to get the horizon level when the boat is moving, so shoot the image wider than you would normally, and then when you correct the horizon later you won’t lose anything important.
- When the driver says it’s OK to do so, stand up, or kneel on the floor and rest your camera on the side.
- If you can see a shot but you’re not in quite the right position, ask the driver to move. If it’s safe and everyone else is happy, they’ll be glad to help.
- Make sure you bring a waterproof cover for your backpack, and only get your camera out when the driver tells you it’s safe to do so.
8.2/ Dealing with wind and rain
South Georgia’s location in the middle of the South Atlantic means it’s particularly vulnerable to bad weather. The island is frequently buffeted by high winds and storms, which may unfortunately put the brakes on some of your trip.
If the weather is too bad you won’t be able to land, but if it’s dull, rainy, or just a bit windy you should still be able to go ashore and take photos. Don’t be deterred by bad light or harsh winds though; instead try and make a feature of the weather by looking for ways to show the effect it’s having on animals or people.
8.3/ Talk to your guides!
Talking to your guides is the single best thing you can do to improve your South Georgia photography. It’s their job to help you get the most of your trip and they love to do it, so just ask. They’ll be able to advise you on the best places to go, the most interesting things to see and where to stand to get the best angles. They may have inside knowledge on a particular animal or behaviour to look out for, and some of them will be expert photographers, so make friends with them!
8.4/ Other tips and tricks
And finally, here are a few more bits of advice to help you get the very best photos of South Georgia.
- Follow your guides’ advice at all times. They are there to protect both you and the wildlife, so listen to them and do what they say.
- Don’t get too close to the animals. If you’re patient, a lot of them will come to you.
- Don’t forget to put the camera down and look around. There may be something amazing going on right behind you!
- If you haven’t already, read my wildlife photography tips for loads more advice that will help you bring your Antarctica photography up to the next level.
- If you’d like to know more about what to expect from a trip like this, why not read South Georgia and Antarctica: What Is It Really Like? There’s also loads more photos in there that may inspire you.
9/ What is the best camera to take South Georgia? How do I look after my kit in cold weather?
This post has already got too long, so I’m going to deal with the whole issue of camera kit and accessories as well as how to care for it in a separate post, coming soon.
Why not sign up for email updates to get the post straight to your inbox when it lands in a few weeks?
Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear them! Please pop them in the box below!
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.