Antarctica is the fifth largest continent over which several nations have laid claim to certain regions they call territories (e.g. the Australian Antarctic Territory). 98% of the land mass is convered in ice to an average thickness of 1.6km (1.0mi) and with an average rainfall of 200mm (8in) per annum Antarctica it is the world’s largest desert. It also claims fame to being the higest, windiest, and coldest place on earth.
Antarctica is not an easy place to get to and expedition ships are the most common way for tourists to visit. South America offers the shortest travel time due to its close proximity to the Antarctic Peninsula however expeditions are also operated out of Australia and New Zealand.
When researching your trip, check that it includes shore landings or else you will only see Antarctica from the deck of the ship; great for landscape vistas but not that good if you want to shoot wildlife.
Shore landings are usually done using zodiacs. If the landing is onto land then expect to take a few steps in the water at the shore line. If the landing is up against ice, then expect to step from the zodiac onto the ice. Both these scenarios present risks to you and to your equipment should it fall in the water.
If you are concerned about your equipment getting wet then I recommend placing it in an water proof bag designed to float on water. These are available in a range of sizes from camping and adventure stores.
Shooting the Landscape and Wildlife
- Try and get into a high position (e.g. top deck of ship) to give a great sense of space. The image on the left was shot from the top deck whereas the image on the right from the lower deck. As with landscape photography choose a small aperture and focus about one third into the frame.
- Be mindful of the ship’s movement when shooting from the ship, select a faster shutter speed to minimise the risk of camera shake or movement.
- Penguins and seals sit low to the ground so you’ll need to shoot low to the ground as well. Steadiness of the camera can be easily compromised as you balance yourself and a monopod can assist give more stability on the uneven, icy surface.
- To bring attention to the subject choose an appropriate aperture. Depth of field decreases as your focal length increases so practice before you leave home to understand how your lenses perform. Alternatively you can search the web for a DOF calculator however referring to that whilst out in the field may not be practical and you may even lose the shot. Knowing your equipment and practice is probably the safest option. The shot below was taken at f8.0 and 150mm, as you can see only the penguin is in sharp focus.
- Focus on the animal’s eyes
- Birds will either be on the ground or in the air and will tend to be moving. Therefore select a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. The shot below was taken at f9.0 and 1/2000sec from the ship’s deck in moderately windy conditions.
Shooting in Freezing, High Contrast, Windy, or Wet Conditions
Antarctica can present some of the most adverse shooting conditions and you won’t know what you’re up against until the time comes. It is also hard to “come back another day” so you will have to be prepared to shoot with what the elements present to you.
Most cameras will operate in freezing conditions, check your manual before you leave to know its limits. Batteries too will lose their charge faster in cold conditions so take a spare and keep it close to your body to help retain its charge; again, read the battery’s specifications if you can.
When taking your camera out of the cold and into the warmth of the ship it may develop condensation. This will dry out in time but try and prevent it to start with if you can by placing your camera in a small drink cooler bag before you go inside and let it adjust to the interior temperature more slowly.
The sun reflecting of the white snow can trick your camera’s light meter and it might underexpose the shot making the end result look grey and flat. Shooting penguins too can be tricky due to them having both white and black plumage.
Shoot in RAW if you can as it will give you (or yoru editing lab) more flexibilty to tweak the exposure in post production. If you prefer to shoot and save into JPEG then you may wish to consider setting your camera’s exposure compensation to +1/3 to +2/3 of a stop. Check your histograms to ensure there are no blown out highlights. A picture with a lot of snow should have most of the historgram curve weighted to the right hand side; if it is in the middle, your shot is most likely under exposed.
If you use a point and shoot (compact) camera it may have a “snow” setting – select it and the camera will automatically compensate the exposure for the bright conditions.
Colour temperature is also something to be aware of. You want your snow to look white, not grey, or too blue, etc. You can either let your camera decide the best colour temperature or you can set it yourself. Auto “white balance” is pretty good on modern cameras but for me, I prefer to use a preset based on the lighting conditions (e.g sunlight, cloudy). RAW gives you more post production editing of colour temperature than JPEG; just another plus for shooting in RAW.
Wind can be encountered at any outdoor location however as Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, be prepared. On one of the days I was there the wind was gentle, then next, almost blowing a gale. To compensate for the movement the wind will cause you select a faster shutter speed.
This shot was taken in high wind (you can see the snow drift being whipped up around the penguin), low to the ground using a monopod to aid stability; f8.0, 1/1000sec.
The Antarctic Peninsula offers a more temperate climate than the deeper parts of Antarctica (i.e. below the Antarctic Circle). Please refer to Macquarie Island for tips on shooting in damp or wet conditions.
Kit Items Recommendations
- monopod or tripod (I used a monopod as I found it easier to adjust and move about with whilst practicing before leaving Australia)
- water proof bag to protect camera and lenses
- light backback to store gear whilst travellling on the zodiacs and walking around
- plastic zip lock bag to protect camera from rain or snow drift cut a hole in one end to stick the lens through and seal it down with a fabric coated hair tie (the fabric allows you to move the tie around on the plasitc more easily than an orndinary rubber band does)
- lens wipes – you will need to keep your lens dry should it get a few drops of water to flakes of ice/snow on it
- lens hood – apart from reducing lens flare in the bright conditions it also helps keep out rain and drizzle whilst walking around (keep the lens pointed away from the wind)
- UV lens filter – will protect your lens from scratches and also help reduce haze in the bright conditions
- Polarising lens filter – will reduce glare and surface reflections and assist deepen the colour of the sky. Practice with this filter down at the beach and to learn how it affects the image.
- Fingerless, windproof gloves – Antarctica is cold – many tourists on my trip kept their waterproof ski gloves on – not good if you are taking photos! You can see the plastic bag and fingerless, windproof gloves in this shot (shot on Macquarie Island). I still used the same gear in Antarctica, the only exception being I put on full ski gloves where possible in between my shots.
Other Shooting Tips
- use a good quality zoom lens preferably with stabilsation technology. I used a 28-105mm zoom and found it pretty good for most shots however would have preferred a lens that went a bit wider at times (say 24mm)
- you may wish to consider a tele-photo lens (with image stabilisation technology) if you want to zoom right into distant wildlife (just remember to increase the shutter speed to minimise the risk of camera shake)
- try using auto-servio focus (continous focussing when shooting a moving subject)
- use fill flash (perhaps stopped down by one stop) to fill shadows under animals and create some catch light in their eyes – I chose not to do this as I didn’t want to disturb the animals anymore than was necessary. I found using some simple post production techniques I could compensate for not using flash.
- shoot in Time Value mode – there is not a lot of time to think as you are moving as part of a group and need to get your shots quickly. I set the ISO between 100-400 depending on the light and set the time to a minimum of at least twice the focal length (to minimise camera shake) or faster if the subject was moving (or I was being buffetted by wind) and I needed to freeze movement – the trade off though is aperture and it was sometimes too wide causing too shallow a DOF. You can give your camera more aperture options by increasing the ISO but you may risk introducing noise. Better to have noise as that can be managed in post production whereas focus cannot; I learned that the hard way.
Please contact the author if you would like more information about shooting in Antarctica or similar environments.
If you would like to view more work by the author, please visit his pages at: