Shooting technique

Making photos in Antarctica is uniquely challenging because of the range of exposures, subjects, and conditions. Below are a few tips I found useful. 

Check your histogram!

Shooting wildlife in Antarctica means dealing with unusual and challenging exposure conditions. One problematic issue is a huge dynamic range between dark penguin/seal coats and brightly lit clouds. If you have access to an electronic viewfinder with a live histogram you will want to leave it on most of the time and continuously check your highlights. If you’re shooting with an OVF, make sure you have your highlight warning turned on and are routinely checking for blown highlights. I also suggest erring on the side of under exposure to ensure you don’t blow out the sky. 

King penguins return to their rookery in Fortuna Bay, South Georgia. Keeping the clouds from completely blowing out required me to shoot manual, and set exposure with my live histogram.

Another common issue is shooting a high-key composition, in which the majority of the composition is very bright. In this case, your exposure meter will tend to underexpose the shot, and you'll need to use your histogram to make sure the bright parts of the scene are pushed to the far right of the histogram.

A King Cormorant prepares to land, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. This high-key shooting situation would have tricked my exposure meter into drastically under-exposing the shot, causing a loss of detail in the dark features of the bird. I shot in manual and set my exposure by pushing the bright water to the far right side of the histogram.

Use weather-sealed gear...

In Antarctica, there is no substitute for weather-sealed gear as the weather can change notoriously quickly. This is great in that it creates dramatic light and incredible skies, but it also brings rain, wind, snow, and seawater spray, all of which can wreak havoc on your equipment. I can guarantee you will want to shoot when the conditions get rough, and being able to focus on making a photo vs. protecting your equipment is a critical advantage.

Fellow passenger Will Ng risks a subzero soaking for the perfect shot. Salt water spray is bad news for camera equipment, even if it's weather-sealed.
Passengers return to the boat in clumpy ice after an iceberg viewing cruise. Since the temperature hovers around 32F in the summer, the snow quickly melts upon contact with your camera equipment.

Stay out on deck

Many of my best photos of ice were possible only because I spent every 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 to any exposed skin, but sailing within a stone’s throw of the world’s most spectacular ice formations 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, which requires a lot of patience and slow movements. 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 lifesaver as well.

A sea lion hunts for penguins within breaking waves. Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands. Getting this shot required a split-second reaction time and a lot of luck. By staying out as much as possible you increase your chances of having great opportunities fall into your lap.

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 outdoor clothes on, so the boat left without me. You can see a mind-blowing sight at any moment in Antarctica, so be ready!

A wave crashes against an enormous iceberg under high seas off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Waiting on deck and keeping my equipment ready allowed me to quickly step outside and grab this shot. Because the ship was moving quickly, we only had once chance to see a big wave hit the berg before we had sailed past it.
A leopard seal investigates our zodiac boat as we motor past it on the way back to the ship off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Keeping my gear in reach on the zodiac boats (which are the rubber rafts we used to transfer to and from shore) allowed me to make this image when we unexpectedly saw this seal and were able to motor close to it.

Get closer!

When using a telephoto zoom to shoot wildlife, my tendency is to zoom in until I can put a nice frame around the whole animal. During this trip, I found it was much more interesting to zoom in or walk even closer until only a small part of the animal is framed. 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 it.

A sleeping gentoo penguin on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. Zooming in to a very tight composition around the penguin's beak allowed me to focus on the orange beak and feather details.
A giant petrel chick in Bleaker Island, Falkland Islands. Another tight crop focuses the composition on the chick's face & soft down.

Treat every sunset like it’s your last...

My trip consisted of one week in each of three locations: South Georgia, The Antarctic Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands. In each of these places we only saw the 'golden hour' three times at most. You read that right - we probably saw fewer than three sunrises or sunsets in each location! 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 the last one you see in that location. Act accordingly.

Gentoo penguins awake at sunrise on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. This was the only good light we saw at sunrise in 7 days in the Falkland Islands.
Members of our ship's crew (see the three tiny figures center-right?) enjoy one of two semi-clear sunsets we saw during our time in Antarctica.

Conclusion

Shooting in the Deep South is an astonishing experience. From enormous ice to incredible wildlife, there are incredible sights and experiences at every turn. While the shooting conditions can be difficult, a bit of preparation and a lot of tenacity can pay off with truly unique images.  

I hope you found this article interesting and useful. Please feel free to leave comments or questions in the comment section below.

Further Reading...

If you are looking for more information about Antarctica, I found the following resources to be incredibly useful:

  • Two fantastic equipment-focused articles (2009 and 2007) by Michael Reichmann over at Luminous Landscape.
     
  • A 25-part trip report covering photography equipment, clothing, shooting conditions, shooting techniques and much more written by Roël of Roël Photography. 
     
  • And lastly, feel free to visit my own website, EricLew.com, which includes more photos in higher resolution, as well as a narrated slide show with more of my favorite photos & experiences from the expedition.