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70+ Stunning South Georgia Photography Tips

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South Georgia photography: Salisbury Plain

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.

A photographer captures penguins in South Georgia

A photographer captures penguins in South Georgia

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…

1/ Penguins

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.

Thousands of king penguins, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King penguins, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia. This was shot at f/11.

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.

King penguin chick, Gold Harbour, South Georgia

King penguin chick, South Georgia. Shot at f/2.8, 1/6400, ISO 320

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!

King penguin parent and chick, Gold Harbour, South Georgia

A king penguin chick demands food from its parent, Gold Harbour, South Georgia

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!

King penguins incubating eggs, South Georgia

These penguins are incubating eggs under their belly flaps

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.

King penguin close up, South Georgia

Bring out penguin details with extra tight shots

Don’t ignore the ugly ones either. A penguin mid-moult makes for an arresting image.

Moulting king penguin chick, South Georgia

Moulting king penguin chick, South Georgia

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.

Posing King penguin, South Georgia

Posing King penguin, South Georgia

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.

King penguin couple, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King penguin couple. 400 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 1600

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!

King penguin chick in black and white

Penguins also look great in black and white

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.

Gentoo penguins porpoising

Gentoo penguins porpoising. Shot at 140 mm, f/5.6, 1/6400, ISO 1600.

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.

King penguins reflected in a pond, South Georgia

Look for penguin reflections in ponds and puddles

2/ Seals

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!

Male fur seal, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

Male fur seal, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

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!

Fur seal pup, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Fur seal pup, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

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.

Elephant seal, Grytviken, South Georgia

Elephant seal, Grytviken, South Georgia

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.

Elephant seals fighting, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Elephant seals fighting. 215 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO 1600

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.

South Georgia photography: fur seal swimming

A fur seal swimming, South Georgia

3/ Whales

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.

Humpback whales, South Georgia

Three humpback whales surfacing to breathe

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.

Humpback whales, South Orkney Islands

Try to include some context with your whale if you can

4/ Seabirds

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.

Southern Giant Petrel, Southern Ocean

Southern Giant Petrel. Shot at 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 800

Here’s my step by step guide to shooting birds in flight.

  1. Use your longest zoom.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Use burst mode or your camera’s sports mode.
  6. Once you’ve got it in the frame, hold the shutter down while continuing to pan.
  7. The bird will stand out better over the white foamy part of the wake rather than the dark blue of the sea.
Imperial Cormorant, Shag Rocks, South Georgia

Imperial Cormorant, Shag Rocks, South Georgia

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.

Black-browed albatrosses, Falkland Islands

These black-browed albatrosses have got something to say!

Black-browed albatross and chick

Black-browed albatross and chick

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.

Black-browed albatross pair, Falklands

Black-browed albatross pair

5/ Landscapes

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.

A rainbow over Gold Harbour, South Georgia

A rainbow over Gold Harbour, South Georgia

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.

Snow-capped mountains at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

Snow-capped mountains at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

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.

Penguin colony, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

Penguin colony, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

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.

Zodiac on the water, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

Try including a zodiac in your 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.

A whaling ship rusts on the beach at Grytviken whaling station, South Georgia

A whaling ship rusts on the beach at Grytviken

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.

Fur seal, Grytviken whaling station, South Georgia

A fur seal amidst rusting machinery at Grytviken

Don’t forget to capture close-up detail as well. I think the rusted old machinery is both eerie and beautiful!

Blubber cookery, Grytviken, South Georgia

Closeups of rusting machinery can make striking images

7/ People

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!

A visitor takes a photo of penguins, Gold Harbour, South Georgia

A visitor takes a photo with his phone, Gold Harbour

Also try to capture interactions between people and wildlife. These always bring a smile to may face and I’m sure to yours too.

South Georgia photography: visitor and two king penguins

Who is more intrigued? St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. When the driver says it’s OK to do so, stand up, or kneel on the floor and rest your camera on the side.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Antarctica photography: photographers in a zodiac

Being in a zodiac makes taking photos a bit trickier

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.

South Georgia photography: king penguin chick on a windy day

The wind buffets a king penguin chick, South Georgia

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!

Antarctica guide driving a zodiac

Doing your research by talking to your guides will help you get the best photos in South Georgia

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Don’t get too close to the animals. If you’re patient, a lot of them will come to you.
  3. Don’t forget to put the camera down and look around. There may be something amazing going on right behind you!
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

A photographer poses in front of a penguin colony, South Georgia

Ready to take photos of South Georgia!

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.

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14 Comments

  • madhu sharma
    9th May 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Wow those are breathtaking pictures. Just loved them.thanks for sharing useful tips

    Reply
  • Paula Martinelli
    9th May 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Absolutely AMAZING!!!! What a great opportunity to visit this magical place and your photography is just STUNNING! I have marked this as my top of the list bucket list. I have been wanting to go to Georgia, and now more than ever. Thanks for sharing your incredible work and inspire me.

    Reply
  • Suvarna Arora
    9th May 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Those are great tips and I love your photos so much. How cute are the penguins!

    Reply
  • Deborah Patterson
    9th May 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Wow, what an experience, and amazing photos! I would love to travel to that part of the world.

    Reply
  • Paula Martinelli
    9th May 2020 at 1:09 pm

    I LOOOOVEEEE YOUR POST!!! I have a trip planned to Tanzania for Dec, and still do not think it will work 🙁 but reading your post and seeing the pictures, makes me want to go now! Just amazing experience and stunning nature.

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      10th May 2020 at 7:32 pm

      Ahhh thanks Paula! I really hope you get to go to Tanzania in December – I want to go to Botswana then so hopefully we will both get to go to Africa at Christmas!

      Reply
  • Alexandra Booze
    9th May 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Wow you are such a talented photographer! Your photos are so crisp and full of color! I love all the tips you left for each animal. I have yet to do any wildlife shoots, but they look so fun and a bit challenging!

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      10th May 2020 at 7:31 pm

      Thank you so much, I’m so pleased you like them! Do check out my beginner’s tips if you want to start doing wildlife photography 🙂

      Reply
  • Ophelie
    9th May 2020 at 2:23 pm

    OMG I am SO amazed by your photos! All those animals looks so cute, especially the penguins and the seals! I do not know if I will ever have the opportunity to visit this island but it look really tempting! Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      10th May 2020 at 7:29 pm

      Yes I’m really lucky to have been able to visit. I hope you get a chance to go one day too!

      Reply
  • Iuliya
    10th May 2020 at 4:33 am

    How absolutely stunning! And the way you have captured animals in their natural surroundings. LOVE them

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      10th May 2020 at 7:28 pm

      Thank you, I’m so pleased you liked the post 🙂

      Reply
  • Ghulam Mohyudin
    10th May 2020 at 6:12 pm

    It was perfect the first time. I learn so much from you as well! Keep it up great post.

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      10th May 2020 at 7:28 pm

      That’s very kind, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply

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