Planning & Tips

A photographer’s guide to Antarctica

As a travel photographer, I’ve been lucky enough to photograph some of the most beautiful places on Earth. I’ve journeyed to the deserts of Tunisia and Morocco, crawled through thick rainforests in Australia, and explored hidden temples in Cambodia and Laos. My camera has been my constant companion throughout these adventures, documenting my experiences like a visual diary.

Of all the places I’ve photographed, none stand out more than Antarctica. The White Continent is blessed with an abundance of wildlife set against an alien and beautiful backdrop of towering glaciers, ice floes and snow-capped peaks. Because of this, Antarctica is an absolute treasure trove for landscape and wildlife photographers.

Travellers photographing a humpback whale during a zodiac cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula
Travellers photographing a humpback whale during a zodiac cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula

So, to help you plan your adventure, I’ll discuss the best time to visit Antarctica from a photographer’s perspective and a few of my top tips for when you’re there.

When is the best time for a photographer to visit Antarctica?

As a photographer, deciding when to travel to Antarctica is the most important question. The Antarctic tourist season runs from November through to March and choosing which month you travel will have a big impact on your shots. Do you travel in high summer when the weather is warmest? Or, do you travel in the shoulder months when sunsets and sunrises last hours?

As almost all photographers will tell you, the golden hour is the ultimate time to shoot landscapes and wildlife. November and March offer the best sunsets because the sun still sinks well below the horizon for a number of hours each day, creating some mesmerizing colours in the sky.

A glorious orange sunset over the Antarctic Peninsula casts reflections onto the water

March is also the best time for whale watching. By this time of the season, the whales have gorged themselves on krill and are much more curious towards zodiacs and kayakers.

So, surely the shoulder months are the best time for a photographer to visit Antarctica? Well, not necessarily. The shoulder months are also the most erratic when it comes to weather. My last trip to Antarctica was in November and we experienced pure sun for seven days straight. However, a colleague of mine sailed to Antarctica the November before me and didn’t see the sun once. The shoulder months are very hit and miss which is definitely something to consider prior to booking.

It is also worth noting that daily shore landings are generally not operated during golden hour. When the sun is setting you’ll be on board your ship which will limit your photography choices, especially wildlife photos.

The golden hour in Antarctica, a photographer’s dream, taken from on board the ship

The high summer period from December to mid-February provides warmer and more stable weather. Although the weather is never guaranteed in Antarctica, you would be very unlucky not to get some nice days during your trip.

Better weather means more photography opportunities throughout the day. For wildlife lovers, in particular, the high summer period is when penguin rookeries are at their maximum capacity and seal sightings are common.

Female elephant seals lazing on an Antarctic Peninsula beach
Female elephant seals lazing on an Antarctic Peninsula beach

More extensive itineraries such as crossing the Antarctic Circle open up during this period, giving photographers the option of taking longer cruises and visiting more remote regions such as the Weddell Sea where you may spot emperor penguins.

In general, I would advise that landscape photographers travel towards the start of the season when sunsets can be incredible and the icebergs haven’t yet melted. However, for wildlife photographers, the high summer period sees more action and warmer weather.

Best itinerary for photography

The best Antarctic itinerary for photography is simply the voyage that gives you the longest time on the continent. This generally means itineraries that include South Georgia.

South Georgia is a wildlife haven and should not be missed if you’re a wildlife photographer. Hundreds of thousands of king penguins and elephant seals line the beaches of this remote island and provide endless photographic opportunities.

Being spoiled for choice for penguin shots on South Georgia

The island itself is also incredibly dramatic looking and landscape photographers will love the towering cliffs and long white beaches. Yes, it does mean a few more days at sea and a more expensive ticket price, but it is most definitely worth it if you’re serious about photography.

As mentioned above, there is also the option to take a Weddell Sea cruise to try your luck at spotting emperor penguins. It is not always guaranteed, but the remote region is worth the effort anyway. For travellers who like to photograph historic sites then a voyage down the east side of Antarctica is another great option.

Choosing the right lens

A gentoo penguin poses for its portrait

The wildlife is neither shy nor scared of humans in Antarctica, and in many cases are actively curious. This behaviour makes Antarctica ideal for wide-angle photography. Wide-angle lenses incorporate both the wildlife and amazing landscape in a single frame, which makes for some cracking photos.

If you want those close up portrait shots of penguins then you should definitely bring a telephoto lens, but you still won’t require anything over 200mm. The only time long telephoto lenses are useful is when you spot whales swimming in the distance.

Coping with cold weather

It goes without saying that Antarctica is a cold environment. I noticed very soon after arriving how quickly my batteries died and I regretted not bringing more. I also kept the charged batteries close to my skin during the day to stop them from leaking power.

I would also suggest bringing air-tight bags or dry bags for the zodiac trips. The sea was often choppy when we were in the zodiacs and we would frequently get a douse of seaspray over us.

Getting the best angle on an iceberg

Do I need to bring a tripod?

Before I arrived in Antarctica I believed, like a lot of people, that a tripod would be crucial in that environment. On my first couple of shore landings, I took my trusty tripod with me to make sure my landscape shots were pin-sharp. However, due to the amount of light that radiates off the white snow, I really needn’t have bothered. My shutter speed was almost always super fast and the constant movement of the penguins in the landscape meant that most long-exposure shots were out of the question.

You won’t regret it

King penguins on South Georgia investigate a photographer

Antarctica should really be at the top of every photographer’s wish list. Whether you’re a professional or a keen amateur, the sheer variety of wildlife and epic landscapes makes it a once in a lifetime experience.

Don’t get too carried away with kit options as you’ll get stunning photos no matter what camera you bring. The weather is the major factor and something that definitely needs careful planning as the cold can be brutal if you’re not prepared properly.

Remember to have fun with it. There are very few places on earth where you’ll be able to get as close to the wildlife as you can in Antarctica. This means that you can play around with compositions, shutter speeds and lenses all day long.

Burnham Arlidge

Burnham Arlidge

Swoop videographer

Swoop’s videographer and an Antarctica specialist, Burnham has explored Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, as well as northern latitudes in the Arctic. Having written extensively about the White Continent, Burnham is always keen to share his stories and photos.