Journey To Antarctica

The massive frozen continent offers photo opportunities of glaciers, otherworldly coastlines, massive mountain peaks and, of course, incredible wildlife

While it’s by no means easy, getting to Antarctica for a photo expedition has become much more doable over the past decade. It’s likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip that gives you a glimpse of landscapes and wildlife that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Above: Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) on an iceberg.

For most of us in North America, Antarctica seems very far away. Even if you know which pole it is (South), you may not know that it’s actually a fairly accessible and totally photogenic destination. Working for National Geographic, world-class nature photographer Frans Lanting has spent many months in the Antarctic region, which encompasses wildlife-filled islands such as South Georgia, Macquarie and Campbell. He shares his insights to help Outdoor Photographer readers plan their own once-in-a-lifetime Antarctic trips.

“This part of the world has become very accessible in the last 20 years,” Lanting says. “In fact, it’s become quite popular. I did a private expedition to South Georgia 25 years ago, when I chartered a sailboat and we did what I believe was the second circumnavigation of the island in history. For three months we didn’t see another ship; it was all remote wilderness. When I went back a couple of years ago as part of a cruise, I was told that summer 65 vessels called on South Georgia. There’s been a huge change in 25 years; it’s much more accessible for photographers who want to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to visit one of the most extreme environments on the planet at a time when things are changing very quickly because of global warming.”

Black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophrys) nesting, South Georgia Island.

Lanting says that not only is Antarctica a tremendous destination for interesting wildlife (such as penguins, seals and albatross) and landscapes (featuring towering icebergs and untouched rocky coastlines), but it’s also important because of its status as a barometer for the world as a whole.

“It’s the most extreme environment on the planet at a time of great change and great accessibility,” Lanting says. “And it’s just breathtakingly beautiful. It has a complete otherworldly beauty and a stark feeling of isolation.”

Because the Antarctic has become so popular, there are many possible itineraries, catering to everyone from pauper to prince. All of them are seafaring. Departing from South America—Argentina or Chile—after a few days at sea, a vessel will put you ashore on the Antarctic Peninsula, the most popular destination for travelers from the Americas. The typical trip, whether booked aboard a ship with 300 people or a smaller vessel carrying fewer than 100, will remain boat-based for the duration, with day trips ashore for photographic and sightseeing excursions.

Coming ashore from the base vessel to photograph wildlife gives photographers incredible access and opportunities.

“Typically, the trips take in a couple of the islands,” Lanting explains, “such as the Falklands, which aren’t quite Antarctic, but they’re very convenient, and there’s lots of wildlife there; they’re quite photogenic. If I could go to Antarctica only once in my life, I would consider an itinerary that takes in the Falkland Islands because it’s a gentle way to become familiar with seabirds and marine mammals onshore, and then go to South Georgia Island, which is really raw. The ultimate wildlife experience in the Antarctic region, without a doubt, is South Georgia Island. Think of it as Switzerland thrown into the middle of the ocean. It has over 100 tidewater glaciers and over 50 million seabirds, including millions and millions of penguins, and millions of elephant seals and fur seals—it’s spectacular beyond belief.

“There are other options, as well,” Lanting continues. “You can also approach Antarctica from Australia or New Zealand. Then you can take in other islands, such as Macquarie or Campbell Island—which are the Australian equivalent to South Georgia—and you land on a stretch of Antarctic coastline that’s very different from the Antarctic Peninsula. There are even some really remote expeditions that take in some of the islands in the Indian Ocean, but then you really need to have a lot of spare change and a lot of time.”

Lanting says that the best way to keep costs down on an Antarctic voyage is to stick with a fairly large vessel, anywhere from 100 to 300 people. These ships are convenient and affordable, but because you’ll have so many traveling companions, it leads to inevitable crowding onshore. Most operators do a good job of crowd control which, coupled with strict rules about human activities on the continent, means even on a large ship you can still have a pretty special experience.

It’s the most extreme environment on the planet at a time of great change and great accessibility, Lanting says.

“If I were a serious photographer,” Lanting says, “I would look for an outfitter and an itinerary and a ship that would have fewer than 100 people onboard, and ideally something like 50. There are a number of those vessels; there are converted Russian research vessels that were built for doing work in sea ice in the Arctic that have been converted for tourism. At the smaller end of the spectrum are any number of private vessels, yachts, that make themselves available for charters. That’s where you can expect a very exclusive experience, but that can also get pretty rough because the sailing time is pretty significant and the sea conditions can get pretty rough.”

Lanting actually has been dropped off, alone, in a force 10 gale at an abandoned Antarctic whaling station, but most travelers will have to work a little more to find their own bit of Antarctic isolation.

“You can get an inkling of that by choosing your own experience once you’re onshore,” Lanting says. “That’s really the key. I would advise folks not to try and do everything when they go onshore. The temptation is to photograph the first penguin that you see, and you end up taking the same penguin pictures that have been made thousands of times before. What I would advise someone to do is to walk in the opposite direction of most other folks, and to sit down on the beach and put the camera next to you and just soak it up, to really experience what it’s like to be down there, because you may never be back there in your lifetime.”

Necessary Preparations
Preparing to photograph in the Antarctic region involves a few key steps. First, Lanting suggests that you read up on what has been done before photographically so you can look in another direction. Try to create your own private view of Antarctica, and be contrarian in your approach.

Next, determine when you’ll visit and for how long. Lanting considers nine days a rushed trip, with two weeks being fairly ideal. Since the seasons are the reverse of the Northern Hemisphere, trips are normally organized in the warmer months from November to March. November and December are springtime, Lanting’s favorite to experience the ice melt and birds beginning to nest. For penguins, including hatchlings, midsummer is ideal, meaning December or early January.

Autumn scenic of Eagle Lake and Eagle Peak in the Chugach Mountains, Chugach State Park, Alaska.

Even though it’s summer, it’s still Antarctica. That means cold temperatures, though not necessarily as cold as you might expect. Because trips are sea-based and don’t venture far inland, it’s a maritime climate that typically keeps temperatures above freezing. Still, you’ll want to prep for wet weather and muddy ground.

“You’ll end up on a shoreline and then you have to be on foot,” Lanting says, “so you need to be physically prepared for wet landings. Rubber boots, especially insulated rubber boots like muck boots, are absolutely the best thing to wear. You want to be prepared to deal with mud and snow, so before we even think about the cameras, you want to be able to get comfortable in muck and sleet and wet conditions.

“The core of preparing yourself to be able to do anything photographically,” he continues, “is to be comfortable in wet, cold weather, and to be mobile. So you want to be able to carry all of your gear on your back, you want to keep things dry during landings so a photo pack with a rain cover is the ideal thing to bring. Dry bags aren’t really necessary. Wear a serious rain jacket with layers of fleece and down underneath and, of course, gloves and hats and all of those things. The single best thing to bring along if you really want to get serious about photography is a serious pair of rain pants so you can crouch down in the mud or on cobblestone beaches and you don’t have to worry about getting mucked up.”

An aerial photograph of a melting iceberg in Antarctica; King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) colony, South Georgia Island.

With your body covered, you can start preparing the necessary camera equipment to carry on your journey.

“If you’re really serious about photography,” Lanting says, “you bring a tripod along. But in my experience you can do a heck of a lot just by bringing a monopod. Monopods are very useful down there because you’re often on uneven beaches, slippery rocks or on snow, and your monopod doubles up as a walking stick—very useful.

“What goes inside your pack?” he continues. “If I were to go really compact, I would take one camera body with a wide-angle zoom and a telephoto zoom and an extender. Zoom lenses are the way to go in Antarctica. If I translate this to the gear that I carry around—like a Nikon D3 or a D700—I will equip it with a 17-35mm and a 70-200mm with a 1.4x or 2x converter.”

A wide-angle and a telephoto zoom with an extender are definitely enough, Lanting says, because the animals are so approachable. You don’t really need long lenses; of course, serious photographers will bring them anyway.

“There are rules that govern how closely people can approach a penguin,” he explains, “but there are no rules that govern how closely penguins can approach people. And penguins have absolutely no fear of humans. They look at us as another funny penguin.

“For serious photographers,” continues Lanting, “I recommend that you consider bringing a longer lens. Personally, I would never leave home without my 200-400mm ƒ/4. It’s such a spectacular lens; it gives me so many options. It’s pretty heavy, but I can still fit it in a photo bag very easily.”

The nice thing about a boat-based trip is that you’re never far from the relative comfort and warmth back on ship. That means if you decide you’ve brought too much gear, you can always stow it in your cabin during your next trip ashore. And if you get cold and wet, rest assured that soon enough you can get warm and dry.

“You don’t have to suffer to get to Antarctica,” Lanting says. “Of course, if you want to suffer, you can book yourself onto a private yacht. There will be plenty of opportunities to get really seasick.”

See more of Frans Lanting‘s photography at