Tips on Taking Photos in Antarctica

Photography is a skill, like other skills such as karate, needlepoint, and being a Jedi master it requires practice and effort to get good at it. As you get good at it you will have a valuable skill that will repay you with a wonderful record of your life and travels.

 Practice Makes Perfect

Practice before you go and learn how to use your camera especially if it is new to you. You will be taking pictures of wildlife and landscapes, so practice on these if possible, pets make a good substitute for wildlife as the difference between an ok photograph and a great one is timing, position and lighting, not just subject. If you go to Antarctica and the last time you picked up a camera was to take a selfie to post a profile on social media, then the pictures probably won't be so hot. Your time in Antarctica is limited, make sure you know how to operate your camera from the outset.

Look at your photos and assess them critically. Why are the good ones good? Why aren't the bad ones better, think about what you did and what you could change next time. Show them to some-one else and get their opinion too. I often find that the pictures that I take that I think are fantastic get a "yeah it's ok" response whereas some I think are just ok are the ones that others enthuse about. The difficult pictures to get - that take the most effort - aren't always the best.

When practicing, limit yourself to a standard lens to begin with, you should be spending most of your brain power on getting into the right place and clicking the shutter at the right moment, not on which gadget you need.

 Exposures, Dealing With Snow and Ice

Modern cameras usually come with a built in exposure meter to measure the amount of light around and automatically apply the correct settings for a properly exposed picture. Many cameras will also tell you what these settings are in terms of the shutter speed and aperture, or "f-stop" and give you the option to adjust one or both of these settings.

Light meters can have a problem when faced with large amounts of highly reflective snow and ice. The actual reading from the meter if used directly will give a too-dark exposure. When we see snow and ice, the scene is largely white, consisting of far more highlights than shadows so we frequently need to over-expose the scene, that is to give the image sensor more light than the light meter says that it needs. This is best done by "bracketing" exposures, take one at what the light meter is telling you and then take another at one or two pictures giving more exposure than this.

Many cameras have a button for exposure compensation that looks like this EV Compensation buttonto allow you to still use the automatic exposure settings the camera applies but to consistently apply a correction factor that you set using this button to the automatically calculated exposure levels. It may even be possible to set your camera to automatically bracket exposures, so when you press the button it takes 3 or 5 pictures instead of just 1 at different exposures each side of the average value.

More on exposure in digital cameras

 The Decisive Moment

A phrase coined by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson sums up what makes a great photograph. In essence it is knowing exactly when to take the photograph. You have a found a good subject and are in the perfect position, but things are changing, one moment the picture would be ok, the next, when expressions have changed - truly memorable.

Cartier-Bresson mainly photographed people and so it is easy to see his point. The same principle applies to nearly all photographs irrespective of subject. With wildlife the animal is almost constantly moving. Don't just point and shoot (this only makes for quick photos, not good photos). Set yourself up, sit and watch the subject through the lens, don't just click away hoping for the best, wait for the "decisive moment", if you miss it, wait, it may happen again.

The same applies to landscapes, but this time it is the lighting that is changing. Antarctica is windy and so cloud is frequently blowing by making it sunny one minute, cloudy the next. Sunsets evolve, they build up and fade away. Waves wash over the bow of the ship or over the shallow reaches of an iceberg, whatever is happening will change the photograph. The legendary American nature photographer Ansel Adams would frequently wait for hours in one position, for the elements of sun, cloud and light to come together perfectly for the best possible picture.

"Point and Shoot" has become the name of a category of camera, don't take it as an instruction
- it doesn't make for good photographs.

 The Ultimate Photographic Accessories

I don't like photographic gadgets and accessories are best kept to the absolute minimum. However, there are two accessories that are totally invaluable to the photographer and most of us are fortunate enough to already have them in full working order. They are your legs.

I have seen so many people in Antarctica and elsewhere trying to take good photographs from where they happen to be standing at the time. It is unlikely that as you come across the best photographic opportunities you will automatically be in the best position.

A good photograph is knowing where to stand.
Ansel Adams

Think about framing, what is in the background? Do you really want a picture of that Gentoo penguin and chick with some tourists in red coats behind it? You may have the most wonderful view of mountains and glacier from the ship, but do you want a radio mast towards the side of the shot? If you're photographing people do you really want to cut them off at the knees and have an expanse of sky above their heads?

Perhaps if you walked up the slope of the hill a little, you could avoid that dull expanse of featureless rock that takes up the bottom third of your picture of that dazzling iceberg off shore.

Get used to seeing everything through the lens as the finished picture and move yourself around to include or exclude elements of that picture for best effect.

 Backgrounds, Sloping horizons and being on the level

Background - What is behind your subject? Does it add to the picture or does it distract. Out of focus ice and sea behind many Antarctic wildlife shots add atmosphere, bare rocks less so, so why not move position. Are there things in the background that you don't want? If you are taking a picture of a seal, don't have a mass of penguins behind, unless that is the photo you really want to take. Decide what your subject is and take a picture of that and only that.

Adelie penguin

Sloping horizons. Look at the horizon, it's level because we perceive it that way. Make sure any horizon in any photograph you take is horizontal, sloping drunken horizons are the tell-tale mark of a poor photographer.

You get a second chance at fixing this with digital photographs when you can edit in a programme such as Photoshop to optimize the pictures on your computer. It is still important to get right at the taking stage as it can result in having to crop something out of the picture to correct the slope that you really wanted in it.

Being on the level. Not sloping horizons this time, but being at the same level as your subject.

Most animals you will photograph, penguins, seals and pets are much lower than you are. Get down to their level, otherwise you get a picture that implies you are outside of their world gazing in, rather than being a part of that world. (The same applies for small children). So squat, kneel or crouch down to get to the same level as your subject.

 Shutter Speed and Camera Shake

There is an old rule of thumb with 35mm film cameras that you can hand-hold the lens at a shutter speed of about the reciprocal of the focal length. In other words, a 50mm standard lens can be hand-held at 1/50th of a second a 135mm lens at 1/135th and so on. Digital cameras tend to have shorter focal lengths, so go one step further by doubling the lens length and you will be ok.

So for a 50mm lens try not to go any slower than 1/100th of a second, the faster the better. The difference in sharpness is marked and noticeable.

Camera shake is one of the easiest and most effective things that you can change to improve the technical quality of your pictures. If you carry around and use a tripod or monopod, then the results are even better, though this is a bit much for most people.

A cheap and easy alternative is a small bean bag, put it on a rock and press your camera against it when taking pictures. You won't use it for every shot, but for those that you do use it for you'll see a difference.

For hand-held shots, brace yourself before taking the picture, pull your elbows into your body and hold your breath just before squeezing (not jerking) the shutter. Leaning the side or corner of the camera against something solid can also work, though not usually on a ship as you end up transferring the vibration from the engine to the camera instead.

Other photographic pages
1 - Equipment | 2 - This Page - Photography Technique | 3 - Digital Technique | 4 - Photography in the Cold