By Toni Toreno
Antarctica has been on my list of ultimate travel destinations for at least 10 years, mostly because it’s my last continent to explore. The only thing that worried me was the actual cruise, seeing that I’m not really a “cruise person.” I get stir crazy, I need to be outside, and I enjoy physical activity, all things not synonymous with “cruising”. So when I came across the AdventureSmith Peninsula Basecamp Cruise I knew I had found my perfect expedition. Inclusive of snowshoeing, mountaineering, hiking, kayaking, camping, and even a workshop offering top notch Antarctica photography tips, I knew this was the only way for me to cruise to the southernmost continent.
So I packed up my winter garb, Canon 5D Mark III, 16-35mm and my 70-200mm zoom lenses and headed down to the bottom of the world. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to Photograph Antarctica (as if you need them) and a few tips I used.
I won’t lie, Penguins rule! Just to get close and mingle with the penguins was reason enough for me to book my trip to Antarctica. These little guys are a photographer’s dream with their posing, waddling, interacting and just plan existing. We had the pleasure of chilling with mostly the Gentoo Penguins and an occasional Chinstrap that wondered off from his mates.
When it comes to taking pictures of penguins, some good rules of thumb are to get them interacting as much as possible to showcase their amazing personalities. Also using a zoom lens and large depth of field helps to make them pop. I won’t lie I must have taken 1000+ photos of these little guys, because everything they do seems photo worthy.
2- Epic Winter Landscapes
One thing that there is not a shortage of in Antarctica is breathtaking winter mountain landscapes. Which makes sense seeing that 98% of the continent is covered in glacier making it the biggest single mass of ice on earth. This equals epic photos. It seems everywhere you go and everywhere you turn there is another perfect shot. It feels almost like you’re in a dream world at times.
The only hard thing about shooting in the snow is the lack of color spectrum, sometimes leaving your images flat and grey. If you can find a way to add in some color to the image with a blue sky, a colored kayak or jacket, it will help with that. But when you just want to capture the white landscape alone, I suggest you shoot in RAW. That way you have the ability to “pop” your image in post, and make the blacks and contrast a little more pronounced.
3- Extreme Sporting
As mentioned in the intro, the reason I chose the AdventureSmith Peninsula Basecamp Cruise was because of all the ways to explore this epic continent, from kayaking to mountaineering, snowshoeing to camping. Being a bit of an outdoors junkie, I couldn’t imagine going to Antarctica and just cruising on zodiacs without really embarking on land (there are MANY cruises like that!) In taking this cruise I was also surrounded with like minded people and guides, which made the whole experience that much more amazing…and the photos turned out pretty awesome too!
It’s always a bit more of a challenge when you have an extra 5 lbs camera to carry in your hand while you’re scaling up a mountainous glacier in snowshoes, tied to your fellow explorers and trying to capture every moment…but it’s worth it, and so are the photos! Also be sure to bring along a dry sack for the kayaking trips, you don’t want to miss out on capturing those moments either.
4- Ultimate “Winter Camping”
Another super cool element of the Basecamp Cruise was we got to camp out for a night on land either in bivy sacks or tents and braise the wintery Antarctic elements. Since I’ve done heaps of tent camping, I opted for my first bivy sack experience and it was interesting to say the least. First you dig a “grave” out of snow to keep the wind from hitting you and then put sleeping bags inside of sleeping bags and then jump in and hope for the best. Since it stays bright til 12-1am and our night was a bit stormy, between the light and sound of the snow, sleep was quite elusive. However, I have to say I was shockingly warm, so that was good.
When it comes to camera care overnight in these elements but sure to keep your camera cold. It alleviates the warm to cold temperature change which can result in fogging and moisture. Also try and keep an extra battery next to your body. The cold will drain your battery faster than you thought possible, and the worst thing is not having power when there is an epic shot to be taken in the morning!
Nothing really prepares you for the majestic nature of kayaking through chilling seas and maneuvering through giant chunks of ice. It’s pretty spectacular. They say that you can only see 10% of the iceberg on the surface of the water, and sometimes you couldn’t even see the bottom of the iceberg, it was just this massive area of Glacier blue below you.
When it comes to shooting icebergs, most of the time the light can be quite flat with overcast skies, so using a polarizing filter can help pop the blue below the water and give you a more epic sense of scale and definition. However, there are times when the light hits just right and you can capture the depth and color even without a filter.
To me one of the most wondrous animals in the world are whales. Their size alone is overwhelming, and the fact they can live over 200 years is mind blowing. When we were heading out to Antarctica on our first day through the Drake Passage, we came across a family of Humpbacks and they were nothing less than curious of us. They were swimming and blowing less than 20 meters from the boat, to which point I had to take off my zoom lens because they were too close! It was crazy. Humpback Whales are known for being inquisitive and playful, and will often be the most encountered whale, but doesn’t make them any less spectacular.
Later on during our excursion we came in contact with some Orca, which was my first experience seeing them in the wild. (I couldn’t help but think of Free Willy). Unlike the friendly Humpbacks, Orca tend to keep more to themselves, so it was quite a treat to have them glide next to the boat for nearly 20 minutes. We felt pretty lucky.
When it comes to taking pictures of whales, the best advice I can give is be patient, use a zoom lens and shoot on high speed shutter. Since you can’t really tell when whales will emerge, you want to constantly be on the lookout and if you’re lucky you’ll get that one great shot! I’m still waiting to see a whale breach and hopefully when I do, I’ll have my camera ready.
7- Zodiac Excursions
Almost every day we would divide up and half the group would do an excursion in the morning and the other group would go on a zodiac. Then we would switch for the afternoon. So pretty much every day we would spend some time exploring on the sea, whether it’s up to penguin colonies or zig zagging through ginormous icebergs and glaciers, it was one of my favorite parts of the day. I was able to focus on just shooting and taking in my surrounding, which were pretty unbelievable most of the time.
When shooting on the zodiac be sure to keep a microfiber cloth handy, because you’ll get spray from the ocean quite often and trust me, you want to have your lens as clear as possible….which leads me to reflections.
I’ve always had a thing for reflections and playing with them in photos, but Antarctica brings it to a whole other level. Between the reflective mountain ranges, the icebergs, and being able to shoot from the water in the zodiac or kayak, it really is a photographer’s dream.
The key to a good reflection shot is a straight horizon and balanced picture. As much as I try to adhere to the rule of thirds, you can cheat a little on reflection pictures if the elements of the image are strong enough. Just check the edges of your frame and make sure there isn’t too much “dead space”
9- Drake Passage
The Drake Passage is known as one of the most volatile sections of ocean in the world. Due to the fact that it’s the only body of water on earth that circles without obstruction of land, causing multiple weather systems to collide and can create seriously vicious seas. On our way through the Drake to Antarctica, we were incredibly fortunate to have very calm weather and in turn mellow seas. The captain even deemed it the “Drake Lake”. However, on our way back to Argentina, the ocean was not quite as mellow. Our ship was embarking on 20 foot swells which would cause a sever dropping sensation and epic splashes…which is the reason it was added to the list! Luckily I’m not one to get seasick and could withstand the roller coaster like sensation, especially with the distraction of trying to get the perfect shot of the boat slamming into the waves.
What I learned from shooting in these conditions, is keeping your lens clean, shoot on high speed stutter, and duck out before you get drenched. Even though the wind, water and cold would chill you to the bone, there was something about getting the arching splash of the boat hitting the swell that was a welcomed distraction to the storm.
While we got great weather on our cruise, it was overcast most of the time and so we didn’t see too many sunsets, and considering the sunrises were around 4am, I missed those as well. However, when we did get a clear evening, and I stayed up late enough to catch the sun go down, it was pretty spectacular.
Shooting from the boat made for a unique perspective of being on the water and watching the sun depart over the horizon….which took hours, often until 11:30pm. One night we got a colorful sky above the mountains and it was definitely worth the wait.
Overall Antarctica hands down is one of the most epic travel destinations I’ve explored to date, and I encourage you all to make the trek to the bottom of the earth, and be sure to bring your cameras!
If you want to see and read more about my Antarctic travels head to my website at T-Stop Gallery.