Flying Penguins - A guide to shooting in Antarctica!

Started Apr 21, 2013 | Discussions thread
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Eric_1
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Flying Penguins - A guide to shooting in Antarctica!
Apr 21, 2013

Hi DPReviewers!

A few months back I posted in this forum to get some advice on shooting in Antarctica. Now that I’m back, I wanted to follow up with a few thoughts on what worked and what didn’t (to steal Michael Reichmann’s title  from Luminous Landscape).

You can view all the photos below in high resolution at my website: EricLew.com.

But first, let me explain the title: Penguins can fly in the right circumstances!

A rock hopper penguins launches himself over a gap in the rocks on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands.  See full resolution here.

A gentoo penguin launches himself in desperation as a wave crashes behind him. Sea Lion island, Falkland Islands. High resolution .

Gear:

My kit consisted of the a77+16-50mm DT+70+400G+Tokina 11-16. 98% of my photos were from the 16-50 and 70-400, which I found to be a phenomenal combo. By the end of the trip I stopped bringing out the 11-16 at all (not to say that it's not a fantastic lens). I also had the NEX7+LEAE2 and 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. Full resolution here .

I chose the a77 for a few reasons.  I already had the NEX7, and wanted to use the Nex as a backup for my primary camera. I also really wanted an APS camera for the extra reach, as I’d be shooting lots of wildlife. The a77 had a super high resolution sensor, which meant I’d still be able to crop, and it was weather sealed with a weather sealed kit lens. The EVF was also a plus because of its high magnification (for an APS camera).

The Hans Hansson, one of two ships in our expedition, investigates an enormous iceberg off the coast of South Georgia. Full resolution here .

As you might expect, shooting in Antarctica means dealing with cold, ice, driving snow and rain, and splashes of sea water. None of these things are good for a camera, but the A77 performed well beyond my expectations through it all.

Gentoo penguins awake to a cloudy sunrise on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. Full res here .

Both the a77 body and 16-50mm lens are weather sealed, and I put that sealing to the test. Throughout the trip I used the camera in driving wind and snow, without any protection.  In fact, on my last day in Saunders Island, I used the camera for nearly 8 hours in intermittent rain!

A sea lion hunts amid breaking waves. Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands. Full res here .

The camera mostly worked, with the following issues:    I kept getting condensation in the viewfinder, which made framing difficult. Also the mount started to get loose causing the lens contacts to disconnect from the camera periodically while zooming. At hour 8, the camera started erroneously detecting the aperture preview button being pressed. That's when I finally decided to put it away :).

Commerson's dolphins play in breaking waves. Saunders Island, South Georgia. Full res here .

Clothing:

The weather averaged 32F (0C) during the day, so I was able to use the normal hiking clothing I would have used during a fall backpacking trip in Yosemite. Wicking thermal base layers, 2 jackets and a water proof outer layer. One thing I wish I had brought was a longer waterproof, as whenever I would bend over my lower back (and maybe a bit lower ;))would be exposed to the very cold wind :).

Sea birds fly around an enormous iceberg off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Full res here .

I also had some dirt cheap ($40) wellington boots that I got on Amazon that were life savers for jumping out of the zodiac into ankle deep water, as well as stepping in deep puddles of penguin poop.  I also had a wool neckwarmer and 2 warm beanies that were fantastic at keeping me warm.

King penguins investigate me in South Georgia. Full res here .

Tips for shooting in Antarctica:

This trip was the longest time I have ever dedicated entirely to making photos. All told, I devoted over 20 days purely to shooting, likely averaging over 14 hrs per day. For better or worse, we rarely saw sunrises or sunsets in South Georgia, the Antarctic Penisula, or the Falkland islands, so I was mostly able to get enough sleep.

It was also my first time seriously shooting wildlife, as I am generally a landscape/cityscape shooter. Prior to this trip, I had only taken pot shots at animals in American National Parks when they happened to appear in front of me. This was my first time going to a place with the intention of spending an entire day shooting wildlife: planning my day around wildlife behavior, approaching wildlife, using a huge telephoto like the 70-400, tracking moving subjects, etc.

A fur seal scratches herself among lichen-covered rocks.

I found the following tips useful:

Check your histogram! Shooting wildlife in Antarctica means dealing with a huge dynamic range between dark penguin/seal coats and brightly lit clouds.I was lucky enough to have an SLT camera with an EVF and constant access to a live histogram, which made shooting in manual and getting perfect exposure a breeze. If you’re shooting with an OVF, I’d suggest erring on the side of under exposure to ensure you don’t blow out the sky.

A fur seal pup stares me down in front of a group of molting elephant seals.

Use weather sealed gear!  See above for my experiences with the a77. There is no substitute for weather sealed gear, and I can guarantee you WILL want to shoot when it’s raining or snowing or there’s salt-water spray.

One of my fellow passengers risks a subzero soaking for the perfect shot.

Stay out on deck! Many of my best photos of ice were possible only because I spend every possible hour I could on the deck of my boat when we were moving between locations. You’ll need to wear your warmest clothes and apply lots of sunscreen on any exposed skin, but watching the world’s most spectacular ice pass by is something that should not be missed. Many of the other photographers on my boat spent this time below deck drinking hot chocolate and tempting me to join them. Don’t fall for that trap. You need to spend a lot of time outside to get a feel for the ice and learn how to shoot it.

Penguins jump off an iceberg into the water as our boat approaches. I believe I was the only person on deck when this happened, and it's the only good shot I have of penguins diving into the water.  Off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Shoot as much as possible! Speaking of staying out on deck, just stay outside as much as you can. Shooting penguins and seals is something very few of us have the privilege to do at home, so you will experience a learning curve when you arrive. For example, penguins are very difficult to use as foreground because they are so small - you really need to get close. Like all things, practice makes perfect, so you need to give yourself as much time as possible to learn to shoot in this unique and spectacular environment. To help yourself stay out longer, make sure you have very warm clothing, food, and water. A hot thermos can be a life saver :).

A king penguin chick huddles next to his parent. Volunteer Point, Falkland islands.

Always have your equipment ready to go! This applies to both clothing and camera equipment. One of the shots I greatly regret missing was a leopard seal eating a penguin at Elephant Island. We only had 10 seconds of notice to get to the zodiac and motor over to the hunting scene, and it took me too long to get my clothes on, so the boat left without me. You can see a mind blowing sight at any moment in Antarctica, so be ready!

Two king penguin parents dote on their chick. One will shortly return to sea to hunt for food. Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands.

When shooting animal portraits, get closer! When using a telephoto zoom to shoot wildlife, my tendency is to zoom in only until I can put a nice frame around the whole animal. During this trip, I found it was much more interesting to zoom in even closer until only a small part of the animal is sharply in-focus. The truth is, everyone already knows what a penguin’s body looks like, so there’s no need to keep the whole thing in the frame. Select something really interesting and focus on that!

A king cormorant flies over its colony. Carcass Island, Falkland Islands.

If you see a sunset or sunrise, treat it like it’s your last! My trip consisted of one week in each of 3 locations, South Georgia, The Antarctic Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands.  In each of these places we only saw the golden hour three times or less. Yes, less than three sunrise or sunsets!! We didn’t see a single clear sunrise or sunset at all in the Falklands! The weather is notoriously unpredictable in the deep south, so if you ever see a spectacular sunrise or sunset, there is a strong possibility it will be your last. Act accordingly.

A beam of light pierces the clouds hitting an uninhabited island near Carcass Island, Falkland Islands.

Conclusion:

The deep south is an amazing place, and my only regret was not staying down there longer.

Please find all of these photos and more at my website! Some highlights:

A video on how I got to Antarctica, and the stories behind these shots and many more.

Lightbox with my favorite Antarctica photos.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I would LOVE feedback on anything you like/dislike about this post, my website, or my photos!

Thanks for reading!

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 Eric_1's gear list:Eric_1's gear list
Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 IF ED MC +5 more
Sony Alpha NEX-7 Sony SLT-A77
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