Antarctica is one of the most remote and extreme photo destinations in the world. It is also one of the most spectacular. I recently returned from a 5-week expedition to the Deep South (the really deep south at the bottom of the Earth, not the Southern United States), and wanted to share some of my favorite things about Antarctica, as well as some tips for shooting in such a unique environment. But first, let me explain the title: If you time your shots right, you can catch penguins flying!

A gentoo penguin launches himself in desperation to escape a breaking wave. Sea Lion island, Falkland Islands.
A rockhopper penguin launches himself over a gap in the rocks on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands.

My three favorite things about Antarctica

It's hard to choose just three things to like about a place as stunning as Antarctica, but, well, here goes...

1: Big Ice

Antarctica is the uncontested champion of big ice; the largest, oldest, and most spectacular icebergs in the world calve from its coast. Beholding these towering blue structures is an awe-inspiring experience that justifies a trip to the Deep South alone. We saw an many icebergs during our trip, but spectacular wasn’t the biggest; it was the oldest. Off the coast of South Georgia we saw a 'small' piece of iceberg B15, which you can see in the photo below.

Berg B15 was a 4000-square-mile behemoth that calved off of the Ross Ice shelf in 2000 and has slowly been breaking apart and melting since then.

The Hans Hansson, one of two ships in our expedition, investigates an enormous iceberg off the coast of South Georgia.
Sea birds circle an enormous, textured iceberg off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

2: Plentiful, Friendly Wildlife

The wildlife in Antarctica, both its density and uniqueness, is another reason that could justify a trip alone. Antarctica is encircled by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current; a fast, cold current that flows clockwise around the continent. It mixes the water across the layers of the ocean and surfaces nutrient-rich water from the deep. This bounty of food, in combination with minimal human impact (at least compared to the much of the rest of the world) means any hospitable beach is literally packed with wildlife that is mostly unafraid of humans.

At our first landing spot in South Georgia, we had to drive penguins and seals off a patch of beach so we’d have enough room to land, and this wasn’t even during peak season!

Rockhopper penguins pack the beach as they prepare to enter the water to hunt. Deception Island.
Gentoo penguins, elephant seals, and fur seals mingle on the beach in Elsehul Bay, South Georgia.

3: Dramatic Light

Antarctica’s exotic and rapidly changing weather conditions create incredibly dramatic light. When combined with the astonishingly clear air, the incredible light in Antarctica makes for some stunning compositions. In fact, all too often they fall into the category of 'images that look so awesome they seem fake.' One of notably common and spectacular example is squall light, in which a beam of light breaks through dense clouds, dramatically highlighting whatever it hits while leaving the background dark and obscured.  

Squall light: An iceberg is momentarily highlighted by a beam of light breaking through fast-moving clouds. Off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
 Thick lenticular clouds cast a deep shadow over a glaciated beach. Antarctic Peninsula.

Gear

My primary photography kit on this trip was the Sony SLT-A77 and a brace of lenses - the 16-50mm F2.8 G, 70-400 F4-5.6 G, and the Tokina 11-16mm F2.8.

Almost all of my photos were from the 16-50 and 70-400, which I found to match my style and complement each other nicely. I also had the Sony NEX-7 and the Sony LA-EA2 A-mount to E-mount adapter, which allowed me to mount a-mount lenses to the NEX-7 with full autofocus, as well as a full set of NEX lenses as backup.
The Petrel, a derelict whaling ship, provides dramatic foreground to the Milky Way and Magellanic clouds in Grytviken, South Georgia.

Why the Sony SLT-A77?

The Sony Alpha SLT-A77 is built around a 24MP sensor and a 2.4M-dot electronic viewfinder.

Thanks to its unconventional semi-transparent mirror design it can offer 12 frames per second shooting and its phase-detection AF system works during video recording, providing fast and positive AF during filming - a trick that no 'true' DSLR can match.

Many people ask me why I shoot with Sony equipment, and the short answer is the NEX-7, which I've found to be nearly perfect for my normal style of landscape/cityscape shooting. For this trip I went with an A77 and used my NEX-7 as a backup body with the LA-EA2 adapter. I knew I wanted an APS-C camera for the extra telephoto reach; a high resolution sensor, which would allow me to crop when necessary or print big; weather sealing for the rain and snow; and fast autofocus and a high frame rate, to capture wildlife in action.

The A77 met all of these needs for me, and its big, bright electronic viewfinder was a major plus because it allowed a live histogram, which was critical for getting perfect exposure with bright clouds and ice in the frame.  

Two king penguins dote on their chick. One will shortly return to sea to hunt. Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands.

Clothing

The weather averaged 32F (0C) during the day, so I was able to bring the standard backpacking clothing that I use in Fall trips to the Sierras: Wicking thermal base layers, fleece liner, down jacket, and a waterproof outer layer. I also had some Wellington boots that were life savers for jumping out of the Zodiac into ankle-deep water and stepping in deep puddles of muck that are ever-present in South Georgia & the peninsula.

A wool neckwarmer, 2 beanies, and warm gloves rounded out my outerwear, and I found these invaluable as the first things to put on when cold, or take off when hot. Lastly, I kept a few chemical hand warmers in my camera bag that were life savers on the coldest days.  

A Wilson Storm Petrel dances on the surface of water looking for krill. Off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.