How can you best photograph the landscapes of Antarctica? What are the best tips and techniques for photographing in snowy conditions? How can you reach Antarctica to capture some of the world’s best landscapes? Read ahead for the ultimate guide to landscape photography in Antarctica.
Landscape photographers need to know some tips to best capture Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
The landscapes of Antarctica are amongst the world’s most wild and spectacular. A desert of ice and snow, it boasts towering mountains and volcanoes, endless glaciers, diverse and dramatic coastlines, and out-of-this-world weather conditions. Not even its neighbour in the north, the Arctic, can compare.
In spite of Antarctica’s remoteness, its unique beauty has been revealed to the world by passionate photographers and videographers, who have embarked on epic journeys to capture and share its landscapes. For decades, it was only scientists, professional explorers and documentarians who had the means to reach it; today, however, a range of Antarctic cruises, tours and workshops have opened the continent to all.
Antarctic tours and Antarctic cruises are increasingly common. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
There is little wonder, therefore, why a visit to this icy wonderland is top of the bucket lists for many passionate photographers, amateur and professional alike.
Before leaping into such an adventure, however, potential travellers should research some basic Antarctic photography tips. After all, you’ll want to make the images in your portfolio as reflective of the continent’s beauty as possible. Understanding what to expect from the terrain and weather, how to best protect your camera in winter conditions, and how to utilise Antarctica’s unique landscapes to your advantage will all vastly improve your photography experience.
Antarctica is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Antarctica’s landscapes need little introduction; its untouched snow, vast icebergs, towering mountains and stretching glaciers have featured in countless documentaries and films. Though unlike anywhere else on the globe and mesmerisingly beautiful, the world’s perception of the continent is that it’s largely an endless desert of gleaming ice.
This perception is not entirely untrue. All but two percent of Antarctica is coated in ice, which averages at 1.9 kilometres thick. Considering the continent is double the size of Australia, this means 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is frozen here. As such, the Antarctic has no forests; most of its lakes and mountains are concealed under glaciers; and its interior is vast space that largely looks the same.
Much of Antarctica looks the same. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
That is not to say, however, that the landscapes are without diversity. The Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica’s northernmost feature, has large areas that are not covered in ice. Here, exposed mountains and stony shores can be explored; some rocks may even be covered in moss. In summer, therefore, its appearance is not unlike places such as Iceland, Canada and southern Chile during their winters.
Furthermore, this part of the continent has a different climate; while most of Antarctica is a desert, experiencing just 166 millimetres of precipitation a year, the Peninsula has 635 millimetres a year, which is comparable to London. As such, it presents very different conditions for landscape photographers to the rest of the Antarctic, changing weather and lighting much more frequently.
The Antarctic Peninsula is not like the rest of the continent. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
This is particularly good to note considering most tours to Antarctica, particularly photography workshops, focus on the Antarctic Peninsula. For example, this excursion led by four award-winning photographers and a team of Antarctic experts, available in 2020 and 2021, heads here.
The all-inclusive Antarctic trip takes you from southern Chile to capture the continent’s seascapes, landscapes and incredible wildlife aboard the Greg Mortimer, a modern, comfortable ship. The boat is complete with zodiacs to take you ashore. At each site, you will have guides on hand to help your technique, and after each shoot, they will provide plenty of post-production tips. They’ll also give lectures and seminars to help you make the most out of your photography.
The Greg Mortimer is a great ship to take an Antarctic photo workshop on. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Another area of diversity in Antarctica’s landscapes that you will experience on adventures like the one above or on cruises to Antarctica is along its coastline.
Almost half of it is composed of ice shelves. These incredible features occur when a suspended stretch of ice from a glacier or ice sheet extends over the ocean, creating a massive, magnificent blue wall rising from the sea. Thirty-eight percent is an ice wall (which is similar but rises sheerly from the earth) while thirteen percent is formed of glaciers (faster moving ice flowing out into the waters). The remainder is rock.
Most of Antarctica's coastline is ice shelves. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Around the circumference of Antarctica, there are also vastly different amounts of sea ice; some stretches are cluttered with enormous icebergs, while others are clear from the land to the horizon.
One aspect of Antarctica’s landscapes that is uniform across the continent, and unique in the world, is that it is almost entirely unaffected by human influence. There are just, on average, 0.00008 people per square kilometre, making it by far the remotest place on earth, with just up to 5,000 people at a time. As such, there are just a few far-flung buildings most will never reach, and no other sign that man has ever stepped foot here.
There is very little urban landscape photography in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
With beauty unlike anywhere else discovered on earth, landscape photographers are increasingly grabbing their chance to add images of Antarctica to their portfolio. While having photography experts on hand helps tremendously, it is prudent to make sure you have some idea of how to get the best pictures.
Many of the tips that apply to winter photography around the world also apply to Antarctica. The Antarctic, however, has conditions and features unlike anywhere else, and as such we have compiled this helpful list of seven tricks to help your landscape photography here.
The Midnight Sun helps Antarctic landscape photography. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Tours and cruises to Antarctica almost exclusively run at the height of the southern summer, in December and January. Not only does this mean that visitors get to enjoy the most temperate part of the year and avoid the worst of the renowned blizzards that plague the continent, but it means they come in the months of the Midnight Sun.
This phenomenon occurs due to the Earth’s axis; when the Northern Hemisphere moves into the winter and thus away from the sun, the Antarctic is fully exposed to it. As such, the sun never sets in the sky, instead moving in a great circle around it.
For photographers, this means that there is endless light, and thus endless photography opportunities. Shoots can thus go on for hours without concern for the sky growing dark. Furthermore, the shadows of the features around you will constantly change, allowing for brand new compositions over a day.
Antarctica is bright throughout the summer due to the Midnight Sun. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
While the Midnight Sun is no end of help to photographers, the phenomenon does, unfortunately, mean that you miss out on the effects of the ‘Golden Hour’ of photography. On the cusps of summer, the sun is low enough in the sky at night for such an effect, but around the austral equinox, the light is pretty much perpetual.
Of course, the sun is not the only consideration when it comes to the lighting of a photograph; clouds can sweep across the skies, providing new subjects against the horizon or a new ambience to your images. Distant rains veiling faraway landscapes can provide a daunting contrast with the brightness of the snows, as can dark seas if you can incorporate them into your composition.
All white landscapes are hard to photograph in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
One of the major problems photographers experience when attempting winter photography is the brightness of the snow and the uniformity of its pureness. This makes it very difficult to focus your camera, particularly if you are using the auto-focus function. Cameras use contrast to prevent features blurring, but when there is so little, they find it difficult to hone in on a single point.
The best way to overcome this is to incorporate some darkness into your frame. On the Antarctic Peninsula, this could be a rocky outcrop on a mountain or boulders along a stretch of coast; if photographing from a zodiac, it could be the ocean before you.
Penguins make a great foreground for Antarctic photos. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Even if you are more inland, you can use darker clouds or the shadows of peaks.
Due to the abundance of wildlife around the coastline of the continent in summer, you could also use animals in the foreground to focus your image. If there aren’t any of these photogenic creatures around, you could also incorporate your fellow photographers in your images.
Slow shutter speeds will allow you compose your images differently. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Knowing how to make the most out of your camera’s shutter speed can help photography in ice and snow, particularly in Antarctica. The quicker the shutter speed, for example, the less exposure to light your images will have. This is very useful to know and apply on bright days, as the reflections of the sun off the snow and ice can be incredibly intense and lead to overexposed photos.
Photographers can also use a slower shutter speed when it is not so bright for some creative effects. If it is snowing or raining, or if the snow is blowing in the wind across the landscapes, a slow shutter speed will allow you to capture this precipitation as streaks across your view, giving a unique dimension to your composition. Conversely, increasing your shutter speed in such conditions may allow you to capture stunning snowflakes in your foreground.
Prepare for cold on an Antarctica photo workshop. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Antarctica’s freezing temperatures are taxing on batteries; even on the more temperate Antarctic Peninsula, their life can drain within minutes if exposed to the elements. Thankfully, there are several precautions that photographers can take to ensure their shoot isn’t cut frustratingly short.
The first of these is to ensure that you bring out multiple sets of fully charged batteries; ships such as the Greg Mortimer on the aforementioned tour have plentiful facilities for this. Secondly, ensure a charged battery is in your camera before setting out so it isn’t exposed directly to the cold as you put it in. It is also important to keep your camera (and other batteries) in a warm, padded case when travelling to and from your shooting sites.
A final precaution you can take is to buy an external battery pack; connected to your camera by a wire, the battery can be kept in your pocket where it will be much better insulated than in your plastic casing.
A polarising filter can help with landscape photography in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Though what many filters can achieve can be done in post-production these days, there is still one that will be very useful when shooting landscapes in Antarctica.
Polarising filters are useful for all landscape photography, due to the way they bring out colours to balance a photograph, and this is especially the case in winter conditions. They can help you more easily find contrasts between shades of whites in the snow and the clouds, and reduce the amount of light in your pictures without you having to worry about your shutter speed or aperture. This will provide everything with much more definition.
Graduated Neutral Density (ND) filters are staples of most landscape photography but are not as useful in Antarctica. This is because these filters balance the differences in light between the more traditional composition of a landscape photograph, which has a dark landscape below and a bright sky above. As both the land and sky are bright in the Antarctica summer, this use is sometimes defunct.
A pair of Antarctic Fur Seals wrestle in front of a beautiful landscape. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
It has been noted already that using animals in the foreground of your Antarctic photographs is a useful way to find contrast and help you focus. Of course, however, the incredible wildlife that calls the continent home is well worth shooting in itself and provides a fantastic element to incorporate in your landscape images.
Most wildlife photography is done with telephoto lenses, quick shutter speeds, and focus on unique details of the animal subject. In Antarctica, this need not be the case for three reasons: most Antarctic animals gather in vast numbers, they tend to move quite slowly, and they are always surrounded by spectacular nature.
An Adelie Penguin stands before a seascape in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
It is, therefore, possible to compose a traditional landscape image with a wide-angle lens, simply incorporating the wildlife into the foreground of your image.
If framing a vast colony of Adelie Penguins, for example, their sheer numbers allow you to include them as if they are part of the terrain. Due to the way Southern Elephant Seals lounge around and interact without fear of humans, it is easy to make them your subject without missing out the stunning landscapes behind.
If shooting from the Antarctic continent from a ship or Zodiac, you may even be lucky enough to capture whales, dolphins and seabirds exhibiting spectacular behaviour in the seascapes.
A whale raises its flukes off Antarctica's coastline. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
Antarctica has a very dry climate; as such, when you are shooting on land, you don’t need to be concerned about water damage. This is even true if you get snow on your camera; this can easily be brushed off before it melts and does some damage.
Most photographers, however, overlook the dampness when they move indoors. After finishing a shoot and heading into a cabin onboard your ship on an Antarctic cruise or workshop, the ice on your clothes and equipment will soon turn into humidity in the air. This can get into your camera. To make sure your lenses do not steam up and your electrics don’t get water damaged, it is always best to keep your equipment in an airtight bag when you aren’t using it.
Of course, if you are shooting from a boat in choppy seas or in rainy weather on the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll have to use plastic protective casing for protection as you would anywhere else.
Choose the right camera for Antarctic photography. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
As with all kinds of photography, it is important to choose the right camera for shooting Antarctica’s landscapes. The unique climate of the Antarctic mean those passionate about getting the best images will not only want a camera that can capture the continent’s beauty, but one that can easily endure the conditions.
The Nikon D850, for example, is undoubtedly one of the best cameras on the market. With its 45.7 megapixel resolution, tilting LCD, and ability to endure rugged terrain and harsh weather, it is perfect for the Antarctic.
A photographer makes the most of their camera in Antarctica. Photo by: 'Daniel Kordan'.
The Fujifilm GFX 50S is another a durable camera, being weather sealed and splash proof. Its RAW files also capture a lot of information, allowing for extensive post-processing for those new to working with the brightness of Antarctic conditions.
Finally, the Canon EOS 5DS R is constructed from a magnesium allow for weather-proofing, and has great battery life even in the cold. It also has one of the highest pixel counts of any camera on the market, perfect for those seeking to make large prints.