Antarctica Photography Tips and Notes

Visiting the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica is the trip and experience of a lifetime. Even more so if you enjoy photography as it is has amazing wildlife and incredible scenery that provides a "target rich environment" - I ended up taking almost 10,000 pictures!

I enjoy taking a photojournalism approach - i.e. tell the story of this fantastic experience through pictures. So while I try to be somewhat selective in pressing the shutter button, I'm also not shy about "machine gunning" the camera to capture the moment, but also taking the mundane aspects. Plus if something new came along (especially with wildlife which is unpredictable), I'll squeeze off a few shots to have it "in the bag" and then see if there a better angle, light, perspective, or a better opportunity later on.

What's great about shooting digital is you can take as many pictures as you want - what's bad is you can take as many pictures as you want! ;-)
So the editing process ends up being painful, especially for something unique like this experience since there are so many good pictures. While I deleted 90% of the pictures I took, there are still way too many on website - but some people like detail and 20 years from now, it will be my digital scrapbook.

GEAR: I brought two camera bodies - Canon 50D & 40D DSLR's and the primary lens I used were the 10-22mm ultra-wide angle, 18-200mm general purpose, and 55-250mm telephoto - multiply by 1.6x (due to the Canon xxD crop factor) to get the 35mm equivalent. I also had a 50/1.4 (only took a few with it) and a 17-85 as a backup general purpose lens. Toss in a couple of 580EX flashes, flash modifiers, a wireless canon remote control (which ended up being a ton of fun and helped capture some unique shots), Manfrotto 725B tripod, Canon SD800IS point-n-shoot (for the occasional video), one 16 GB and two 8GB memory cards, extra batteries, chargers, voltage converter, lens cleaner, dust blower, and even more assorted other misc. Remember, you are on a ship for almost three weeks and there are no camera stores in Antarctica!

And oh yeah, when I asked Nathab Guide Eric Rock for photo gear suggestions, he replied "Knee Pads" ... and that was a great recommendation as you are kneeling all the time on rocks and penguin poop! Some latex gloves were also useful since when I pulled my hands out of my regular gloves to manipulate the camera, it provided some warmth.

Most of the time we are going ashore in Zodiacs, so I was concerned about the gear getting wet - salt water will ruin electronics. I carried most of the gear in a Lowe Slingshot 200 AW (which can rotate around to the front of me and provides quick access) and another backpack which also had some misc. clothes, water bottle, etc. When not shooting (and in rough weather), I put my lens and camera body in ziplock bags since the backpacks were not waterproof and I wanted at least a chance (!) of saving my gear in case a big wave hit or I fell in - fortunately, that didn't happen. So when taking pictures in the Zodiac, I used a Kata E-702 rain cover and while I normally don't use UV lens filters, I did this time since it provides a bit of extra protection against salt spray ... plus I could just take it off once I got ashore and clean it when I returned to the ship.

I had an Acer 15" laptop and would download my pictures after each Zodiac trip. I initially thought that I could use a memory card to backup my "keepers", but I quickly realized that was not going to work - 10,000 JPEG & RAW images are about 250 GBytes! While I had time to prune (having the laptop was great for the downtime), there were too many "good" images plus too many in general! Fortunately, a fellow passenger had a portable USB drive that I could back my files up on. This is highly recommended, since if your laptop dies on the trip, you would lose all your pictures.

As noted, I shoot both JPEG and RAW ... and then used ACDsee for a quick edit of the JPEG's - deleting any obvious non-keepers. About halfway through the trip, I realized I would not have enough space on my laptop and needed to also delete the non-keeper RAW's, so this was a manual process comparing against the JPEG directory. I have subsequently written a Perl script that is run via a Windows pull-down so do this ... much faster and not prune to mistakes. The data management problem is a major pain-in-the-butt because you have soooo many good pictures. My naming scheme is folders named YYYY_MM_DD and similar for the filenames with Image number appended. The folder would have an "a, b, or c" depending on which Zodiac run/landing we did that day, and the 50D images were kept separate from the 40D ones.

RAW files were processed via ACR and brought into Photoshop. I did some of this on-board, but the overly bright (and blue) laptop LCD screen resulted in middling results with poor color calibration. So I re-processed everything when I got back home and this (and the editing/sorting job) took a ridiculous amount of time ... but it's not every day you go to the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. Plus you rapidly start forgetting things (fortunately, I had the daily programs and Ship's Log) to if you don't do it right away, it will never be done right. Having an accurate date/time in the cameras was very useful (as it typically is) and I kept 'em on Mountain Time since time zones don't mean that much as you get far South.

Some pictures with misc. photography tips and notes - EXIF in the image

Jan 29th, 2009 at Salisbury Plains, South Georgia. Probably my favorite picture as it captures a typical Zodiac landing. Most passengers move away from the beach after landing (as the penguins go right back to reclaim it!), but I stuck around to get a low-angle picture of the next group coming in with the Ocean Nova in the background. Lens at 40mm to balance the wide-angle perspective and have the ship a decent size.

Penguins South Georgia

Jan 21st just before touchdown at Atlanta International Airport. From my window seat, I had noticed a nice reflection of the airplane itself as we crossed over a highway - mouseover image to see that image. So I just waited until just before the wheels touched down. BTW, if all else is equal, I prefer a window seat away from the Sun, because you don't have the glare in your eyes, the landscape is lit better, and you don't get too warm!

atlanta airport landing

Jan 21st/22nd during a 10 hour flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires. In both cases, I used a flashlight placed across the aisle to provide a poor-man's off-camera lighting which is especially noticeable on the left. The model is kinda scary looking, but HEY, you would be too on a 10 hour flight! ;-)

antarctica travel 5

Jan 23rd just before the Ocean Nova departs Ushuaia. Many people took pictures of the ship from the dock, but I was fortunate enough to be able to go on board the National Geographic Explorer on the other side of the dock ... so was able to capture from a higher angle. I kinda like the car in the foreground ... fortunately, the large oil tanker had just departed!

Ocean Nova at Ushuaia

Jan 25th at West Point Island, Falklands. The wildlife is incredibly friendly. As you can tell from the perspective, this was taken with the ultra-wide angle lens and I'm just a few feet away. For these types of pictures, I would sit down in the grass about ten feet away and just wait. Eventually, the bird (or animal) would move around, and often come closer (sometimes not though - you have to be patient) and I would just stay there with the camera held out, firing away. While I'd try to time the shutter release for interesting poses, I wasn't shy about "machine gunning" to hopefully get a great shot. Since you are shooting blind, try to keep the camera as horizontal as possible, although you can correct the horizon in Photoshop afterwards

Black Browed Albatross at West Point Island, Falklands

Jan 25th at West Point Island, Falklands. So I'm sitting down taking the picture you see above ... and notice my fellow passengers above me watching the Albatross fly overhead in the breeze. So I try to figure out a good composition to capture this, and then it's just a matter of waiting for a bird to come by. While the light was nice, the bummer is the wind was blowing in the opposite direction ... would have been nicer to see the bird flying toward me - oh well.

Black Browed Albatross at West Point Island, Falklands

Jan 25th at Carcass, Island, Falklands. The remote control camera ended up being a ton of fun on this trip and provides a unique perspective. The ground was level enough here that I didn't have to put the camera on the tripod (which might have spooked 'em anyway) and then I'd just walk away. Eventually, something "interesting" would show up in the frame (which is about a 90° field of view due to the ultra-wide angle lens) and I'd fire away, sometimes getting myself in the picture as seen in the Hugenormous (!) Magellanic Penguin picture. Key setup issues are a level horizon, consider manual exposure and focus, and small enough aperture to provide a generous depth of field. And shoot a *lot* of pictures!!!

falklands carcass island giant penguins

falklands carcass island giant penguins

Jan 25th at McGill homestead on Carcass Island, Falklands. We "dropped in" at their place for Tea & Crumpets - yes, it is arranged beforehand. Not only was the food delightful, but I truly felt genuine Falkland hospitality which was captured by this spontaneous picture of Roldan the pastry chef.

falklands carcass island mcgill

Jan 27th in the Scotia Sea. So we spot what turns out to be a Southern Right Whale. I fire off a couple of crudy sequences as he surfaces, but he's too far and the angle is poor. Even though we slow the ship down, I'm guessing he's gone ... but I keep on scanning the horizon ... and BAMN, one last blow/surface fairly close to the ship. I am quickly able to acquire him via the camera viewfinder, and I patiently wait for what seems like a long time (a few seconds!) since I want to capture the the whale fluke up in the air ... and the Canon 50D has a 14 frame buffer when shooting RAW - i.e. just over 2 seconds at 6.5 frames/second. As I see the tail raise up, I start firing ... ironically, I almost waited too long as this was actually the first image of the sequence. And unfortunately, I had not zoomed in quite all the way after spotting him in the viewfinder, so this is a bit of a crop ... but not shabby IMHO.

southern right whale

Jan 29th at Elsehul Harbor, South Georgia. This was our first Zodiac cruise in South Georgia and the weather was pretty lousy - grey overcast skies with occasional rain - the first picture illustrates that well and I think the non-level'ness of it accents the gloomy weather. There was only a few keepers from the ~200 pictures I shot that day, but I really like the last picture which shows the diversity of wildlife all co-existing next to each other.

elsehul south georgia

elsehul south georgia

Jan 29th as we Zodiac into Salidbury Plains, South Georgia. My fellow passengers Carol and Jim were seated across from me and the sun and shoreline were lined up. We happened to turn the Zodiac at one point, and I asked 'em to smile for the camera. I fired off several shots and this one at a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/125s (so you can see motion blur from the wind) illustrates how one typicaly is bundled up for the ride ... plus some great smiles!

Salisbury Plains - South Georgia 2

Jan 29th at Salisbury Plains, South Georgia. As noted earlier, I had a lot of fun with the remote control camera as the wildlife would come right up to it - in fact, this baby fur seal slobbered all over the lens - mouseover image to see the resulting picture! ;-)

salisbury plains zodiac

Jan 29th also at Salisbury Plains, South Georgia. Another demonstration of the placement (just some random place with semi-interesting background and good light) of the remote camera and one of many penguins that came by to check it out.

Salisbury Plains - South Georgia j

Salisbury Plains - South Georgia j

Jan 30th as we approach Fortuna Bay, South Georgia. This is a panomramic stich of four photos. My technique for panos is to set exposure manually (so it doesn't change as you sweep across) and take a picture of my hand. I then shoot the frames as quickly as possible, rotating about the same point and trying to use a distant target to stay level with a fair amount of overlap. I then shoot my hand again signaling the end of the sequence. Merging these with Photoshop is not always easy as people/things may move (remember, shoot quickly) and there is unavoidable distortion. But the final result is pretty nifty and you have incredible detail - here's a larger version and the original is double that size!

fortuna bay

Jan 30th on the hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. Glen took this pic of yours truly - either I'm looking kinda tough ... or like a total dork!

fortuna bay

Jan 30th at Stromness, South Georgia. There was an overlook with the Ocean Nova in the bay below and I realized it was high enough to use a telephoto lens to have a bit of fun ... and Paul obliged. Even the slightest movements by Paul or I is magnified, so it's a challenge to get the hand and ship lined up. Picture was shot at 200mm (x1.6) and even at F/20, there isn't enough depth-of-field to capture everything in focus ... but you get the idea! ;-)

ocean nova 7135

Jan 30th at Stromness, South Georgia. A pretty darn cute albino fur seal put on a nice show for me ... and here's an example of where using a Javascript mouseover provides a nifty action sequence - the challenge is not moving the camera so the background doesn't move that much.

stromness albino fur seal

Jan 31st at Saint Andrews, South Georgia. I had found a good location for a landscape shot that encompassed the mountains, glaciers, river, and thousands of penguins. But I needed a foreground element to complete the shot. After waiting a while, three King Penguins came bumbling along. I positioned myself slightly above where I thought they would walk by and tried not to move as I framed the image through the viewfinder and this image catches one in mid-stride. I wish they had been a bit higher up on the hill, but you get what you get. Shot at F/16 to maximize depth of field ... although that might have been slight overkill and that is pushing the defraction limit of the 15 mega-pixel crop sensor.

saint andrew south georgia

Jan 31st at Saint Andrews, South Georgia. This is one of my favorite pictures as it captures a lone human being with several hundred thousand penguins. It is lengthened about 25% on the left side from a stitch of a second picture. I shot this with the 40D (since it had the 10-22 lens on from tripod shots) and it captures the spectacular scenery of South Georgia and incredible number and density of the penguins. Might have been even better if say, the three penguins in the above picture were in the foreground, but then again, that might clutter it up a bit. Looks awesome in a big print. BTW, for those wondering, Jim was shooting with a Canon 1DM3 with a Sigma 80-400 lens attached - composite closeup here plus a a blowup

saint andrew south georgia

Jan 31st at Saint Andrews, South Georgia. Canon 40D on a tripod with the wireless remote control and captures some pictures of the inquisitive animals.

south georgia saint andrews 1

south georgia saint andrews king penguin 2

Jan 31st at Saint Andrews. Penguin Huddle - "OK, you fake left and go right, you run a buttonhook, and you go deep - BREAK!"
I setup the remote camera, and then positioned myself in front to be visible ... but not too close with the hope that some penguins would go walking by between me and the camera - you can see the wireless remote in my left hand. I remained still, and after waiting a while, a variety of traffic walked by ... including these three characters. Since I'm shooting blind, I fired off several dozen pictures and was rewarded with this shot. Note that this is a 25% crop - i.e. you are looking at almost actual pixels ... but I wanted to come in tight and there aren't a lot of pictures of ... plus it's a self-portrait! ;-)

saint andrew south georgia

More pictures/notes to come ...