Antarctica photography tips

The vast, softly lit scenery of Antarctica could have been designed for photographers. The enormous wind-and-wave sculpted icebergs glow every shade of blue through to crystal-white in the Antarctic sunlight, contrasting with starkly monochrome penguins and the bulk of a resting seal.

The soft light of dawn and dusk, so fleeting across most of the globe, lingers for hours in the polar summer, glinting off the icebergs in shades of flame. No photo will be ruined by an ugly building or car rumbling into shot; here there is nothing but vast horizons and raw nature.

While it’s hard to take a “bad” photo in Antarctica – even the fuzziest shot is going to have the wow factor thanks to the extreme location – there are a few tips and tricks which will nudge your images over into stunning.

We’ve shared our advice for taking photos in Antarctica, from what equipment to pack and how to protect it from the elements to what settings to use to ensure that you can replicate the incredible scenes around you as accurately as possible.

Camera equipment

Camera

A DSLR or mirrorless Camera is really a must if you are serious about taking pictures in Antarctica. You can even use them to make videos. However, consider bringing a point-and-shoot camera as well. As it is smaller and more comfortable to carry, you can keep it on you at all times.

You can also get great landscape shots using your phone camera in Antarctica. Just be aware that your battery will die quickly in cold temperatures, so don’t rely on it and keep it in the warmest part of your coat with airplane and low battery modes firmly on.

Lenses

If you can, bring a wide-angle lens and a telephoto zoom lens which will allow you to capture both immense landscapes and the wildlife. But do think about how you will be changing lenses. If you do this outdoors, there is a risk that you will damage your camera due to the cold and damp. You’ll either need to decide on a lens before leaving the ship or bring more than one body.

Tripods

Tripods are a personal choice. They can range from light carbon fibre travel tripods to much heavier and bulkier (also sturdier) options. As the light is bright in the Antarctic summer and snow reflects a lot of light, you may not need one unless shooting more technical images. A monopod can be easier to carry and works well on slippery ice and in windy conditions to steady your camera.

Filters

When it comes to filters, a UV filter is always handy – especially as it will protect your lens from scratches. A polarising filter will reduce the constant glare from the snow and ice, eliminate the reflections on the water and bring out those deep blues in the sky and icebergs. It’s recommended to put these on your camera once you have left the ship and your camera has cooled down, which will reduce condensation.

Other camera accessories

You may also want to bring a waterproof case for your camera for extra protection. If not, a dry bag is essential – you’re sure to get soggy on the Zodiacs at the very least.

Batteries drain at alarming speeds in cold weather, so bring plenty of spares and keep them inside your parka to stop them running low.

Bring lots of SD cards too – no one ever anticipates quite how many thousands of photos they are going to take in Antarctica! A laptop and backup drive will help keep your images safe.

Protecting your camera

Antarctica may be a blessing when it comes to capturing stunning shots – but it is a curse where sensitive electronic equipment is concerned. You will spend your days moving between the toasty warm environment of the ship and the cold, damp exterior, and your camera is not going to like it. The tried-and-tested technique is to seal your camera in a large Ziploc bag before you get back on board, expelling as much air as possible. Don’t take the camera out until it has fully warmed up. This will stop condensation forming, which can kill the electronics and be a disaster for your lenses and sensor.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Antarctica or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

How to take a great picture in Antarctica

Get a clean background

You may have the impression that Antarctica is vast, white and empty – but that’s not always the case, especially around the fringes of the peninsula and on the islands. There’s a lot to be said for a clean background, though – so consider this before you press the shutter. Moving around that penguin so that it stands out from the floes rather than merges into the flock can make a huge difference.

Go low for wildlife

When it comes to photographing wildlife, one of the best things you can do is go low. Get a seal’s eye view of the world or make penguins seem more personable by capturing them on their level. This will also often have the benefit of allowing you to show them against the Antarctic landscape and sky rather than the patch of ice that immediately surrounds them.

Consider the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is not unique to Antarctica – but it’s always worth mentioning as an incredibly simple way to improve your photographs. That means off-centre horizons and positioning penguins to the left or right of the frame. Most cameras have an option to turn a grid overlay on the screen with lines showing the perfect place to place your subjects to make the most of the rule of thirds.

Play around with the white balance

One of the most difficult issues with taking photos in Antarctica is the white balance. There is a lot of white for your camera to capture and auto settings can sometimes give the image a blue or orange colour cast. Your camera should have some white balance options for different weather conditions as well as custom levels to set yourself. Try experimenting with these to find a balance that ensures your snow is actually white.

Shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG

In your settings, set your camera to capture images in RAW format rather than JPEG (even modern smart phones provide support for RAW images these days).

RAW captures much more data than a JPEG, so when you come to edit those photos, you’ll be able to tweak the white balance more accurately and recover those overexposed or underexposed images easier – a very useful feature when you’re taking photographs in snow and bright landscapes.

Find a focal point

Always find a focal point, rather than just shooting an empty landscape. It can be a penguin, a whale’s fluke, a jagged rock, the bow of a ship or an arched iceberg – but make sure there is something for people to look at. This also helps give a sense of scale.

Sort out your settings in advance

There’s nothing more frustrating than missing a humpback breach because you forgot to adjust your shutter speed.

Experiment with black & white

We'd always advise shooting in colour first (it's easier to take away than put back!), however when it comes to editing, try experimenting with black and white. Penguins, of course, look superb in monochrome, as can the contrast between dark rocks and brilliant snow, or the deep shades of the ocean as it froths. For inspiration, check out Sebastião Salgado’s incredible black and white shots of Antarctica.

Put your camera down

And finally, but most importantly, put the camera down from time to time. Take the odd shore excursion without packing your camera or calmly watch the whales from deck without fumbling for your equipment. You may never return to Antarctica, so you want to ensure that you really get to experience it rather than watching it all through a viewfinder.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christopher MichelFollow] [Intro: 66 north] [Camera: Pia Andrews] [Tripods: Christopher Michel] [Go low for wildlife: Christopher Michel] [Find a focal point: Torsten Dederichs]