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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Penguin Planet

The top 5 locations to photograph the world’s most unique birds

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Too often we make the mistake of photographing penguins from our level, looking down. I always find better pictures when I get down to their level, as I did with these incubating king penguins in the Falklands.

Penguins changed my life. In fact, it was a chance encounter with a group of emperors on the Antarctic ice more than 30 years ago that turned me into a wildlife photographer. It also inspired a multiyear and slightly obsessive quest to find and photograph all 17 of the world's penguin species in the wild.

Among the world's animals, penguins are absolutely unique. Although true birds, they can't fly, and despite being considered slightly ridiculous, they're spectacularly adapted for the world they inhabit. What's more, penguins enjoy some of the most beautiful real estate on the planet.

Seeing penguins in the wild is a top goal for many wildlife photographers and animal lovers everywhere. For those of us in North America, however, it can seem a daunting enterprise. Inconveniently, and as every schoolchild knows (hopefully), penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere, so grueling plane rides are almost unavoidable. In addition, a classic cruise to Antarctica may cost as much as your kid's college education. Fortunately, there are other options to get your penguin fix (more on those later).

Not every picture needs to be a close-up. Here, I designed the picture first, using the rocks to create a composition I liked. Then I simply waited for these African penguins to waddle through on their morning commute.
Wherever you encounter penguins, you might think they would be the easiest animals in the world to photograph. To begin with, unlike most wildlife, they don't tend to run away at the first sight of you. It's true; their legendary fearlessness makes getting close-ups of penguins much easier than with other, more skittish creatures. (That's the good news; you can leave the big glass at home.) But penguin photography isn't without its own, real challenges.

First, there's the chaos. You would expect that a colony of thousands of penguins would offer nearly endless picture possibilities. Yet, although the big group shots, including vast ranks of penguins, are impressive, capturing details and intimate behavior can be surprisingly tough. The fact is, there are almost always other birds, or great swaths of white guano, in the background of your picture, ruining even your best composition. I find it more productive to find a small number of birds on the edge of the action, where you can more easily find an angle that offers a clean, uninterrupted background.

The other chief barrier to good penguin photography is our size. Even a modestly sized human towers over a penguin, a fact that can cause the bird considerable anxiety. Even worse, pointing a camera down at a penguin's head is a surefire way to get lousy pictures. Happily, both problems are easily solved; just get down to the penguins' level.

Sitting down will improve your images considerably, but for best results, I prefer to lie flat on the ground. Yes, you'll get filthy, and your reeking clothes may have to be burned afterward, but I guarantee you'll get a more intimate, eye-level perspective. The birds, meanwhile, will be much more relaxed; most will quickly forget about you entirely and go back to their busy, waddling lives. In my experience, that's precisely when the best pictures start to happen.

Finally, I have one last piece of advice for the aspiring penguin photographer. Yes, you'll go a bit overboard when you see your first penguins (it's okay, everyone does), but after you've filled that first memory card with portraits, take a deep breath and step back. Some of my favorite images have as much or more landscape in the frame as they do penguins. These kinds of "environmental portraits" (fancy talk for small bird/big landscape) often tell the penguin's remarkable story as well or better than any close-up.


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