It is the most isolated and inhospitable, yet most beautiful, place on Earth. Antarctica is a photographer’s Nirvana, a place where it is impossible not to get great shots, whatever the weather; yet, its very isolation suggests a place that is impossible to get to for us mere mortals. Well, Antarctica is accessible, perhaps not to all, but to those with the motivation to get there. It’s not a cheap vacation, but also it can be done fairly inexpensively. In this article I’ll share with you some antarctic photography tips that’ll help you make the most out of your trip.

Getting there

The gateway to the Antarctic is Ushuaia in Argentina, the world’s southernmost town, perched right on the tip of South America. From here, numerous expedition ships traverse the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. These ships range from very basic to luxurious, but beware if you are not a good sailor: Drake Passage is one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. When you choose a cruise down to the Antarctic, be aware that the large cruise lines often promote Antarctic cruises, but for the most part, these are sightseeing tours that are not allowed to make landings ashore. For the real adventure, you need to get ashore in several locations, and only the smaller expedition ships can do this.

antarctica - UshuaiaUshuaia in Argentina is a good starting point

antarctica - guys on a boatThe only way to get ashore 

What equipment to take

A good telephoto is a must. There are whales, orcas and a multitude of sea birds from albatross to skuas to been seen virtually everywhere. As close as they may get to the ship, you will still need a minimum of a 300mm lens, perhaps more if you are using full-frame. Ashore, it is worth having a midrange telephoto. You can get up close and personal to the main penguin species, but only if they come to you; you are not allowed to approach them.

A good wide-angle lens is also very useful for capturing the stunning mountainous scenery of the region, as well as the massive icebergs. Skylight or UV filters are a good idea to protect your lenses from sea spray and rain.

antarctic - Paradise Harbour is one of the few natural habours on the Antarctic Peninsular and a popular stop for Antarctic Cruise ShipsStunning scenery

You will be there in the Antarctic summer, but don’t let this deceive you. It can still be very cold, especially with wind chill. For this reason, take spare batteries—lithium batteries have a greatly reduced life in the cold. Keep the spares in your pockets, close to your body. This keeps them warm and ready, and when you remove a dead battery, transfer that to another pocket. The warmth may well breathe some more life into it.

Make sure you have a sturdy waterproof camera bag. You will be taken ashore in Zodiac inflatables and you will get wet even in mild conditions. Another consideration is plenty of data storage space. If you are not taking a laptop, then make sure you have ample storage on your cards. You will almost certainly take significantly more photographs than you had planned for.

What to shoot

The photographic possibilities of Antarctica are endless. From the decks of your expedition boat, you will be able to shoot whales and orcas as well as seals sitting on icebergs. You will need patience to see these, but very often the ship’s officers or resident lecturers will announce things of interest.

From the bow of the ship, you can often shoot penguins “in flight” as they leap out of the water in front of the ship. Use a telephoto, fast shutter speed and continuous mode to stand the best chance of a good shot.

antarctica - penguinsPenguins do fly

Icebergs here are truly enormous. In addition to trying to capture the berg in its entirety, look for details in the ice, such as cracks and fissures. If you can, try to give a sense of scale to the berg by including a familiar object—very often there may be birds sitting atop the icebergs. Also, try to add some foreground interest. You can often find “growlers”, or small bergs, in the vicinity. Use them to lead your eye to the main bergs.

antarctica - ship Try to lend a sense of scale to the Icebergs

Ashore, you will be able to photograph penguins close up. They are naturally inquisitive birds and have little fear of humans. Antarctic rules state that you must allow them to approach you, rather than approaching them. Try to carefully kneel down and shoot at their level for more interesting shots. Another great shot to look for is when the penguins leap ashore from the water, often en masse. Again, a fast shutter speed is going to help get the shot.

In addition to penguins, you may have the chance to shoot other seabirds ashore, in particular, skuas. These birds are often found in the vicinity of penguins because they eat penguin eggs. On the Zodiac ride in, you may spot seals lying on small icebergs, as well as more penguins.

antarctica - whale lobtailingThe majestic beauty that is Antarctica

Antarctica is an incredible location for photography, and whilst it is not cheap to get there, it is fully possible for the average person to experience the last true wilderness.

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