Photographing Antarctica From a Moving Zodiac

A waddle of penguins is dwarfed by the surrounding landscape on the shores of Cuverville Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

A few years back I co-ran a photography tour to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was an amazing experience to photograph such a wild and pristine landscape. While in Antarctica we photographed from the deck of our ship (a Russian Ice Breaker re-fitted for the needs of tourists), from zodiacs and, after alighting from our zodiac, during onshore explorations.

One place we visited was Cuverville Island. This photo, made from a zodiac, provides an indication as to the terrain. It’s a harsh, dramatic and beautiful place.

How to Photograph from a Zodiac

I had no trouble photographing from the zodiac. It’s simply a matter of taking a disciplined approach and working with other members of the group so that no one is disadvantaged and misses out on making a potentially great photo because someone else gets in their way.

It’s simply a matter of ensuring everyone on the side of the zodiac that faces the action bobs down onto their knees, which allows them to photograph over the edge of the zodiac, while those on the far side of the zodiac sit on the cushioned, rubber edge of the craft and photograph from a higher position. When the action is on the other side of the zodiac folks simply reverse their roles.

This method works a treat and, rather than competing for photographs, we’re all working together and contributing to the success of our peers. The camaraderie that develops through this process goes along way to building a harmonious and collaborative team which is at the heart of creating a successful group tour

The Role of the Tour Leader

As one of two tour leaders I had no trouble continuously calling out ISO/Shutter Speed/Aperture combinations as well as a variety of suggestions regarding focal length, composition and subject matter during zodiac adventures. The success of the tour is measured as much in the happy faces of participants as it is through the beautiful photos they produced. And, after all, helping them to make great photos is the reason I’m there.

In the right circumstances the zodiac operator will slow the craft’s motor down, and sometimes even stop it, to allow you to gracefully glide past a particularly beautiful iceberg, bird, penguin or seal. More often than not the zodiac will be moving at a faster pace. The trick then is to have your camera ready for that decisive moment when subject, composition, light and meaning all come together to form a cohesive and harmonious moment.

To be able to create a great image you first need to see it forming in your mind’s eye and then set your camera’s settings so that all that’s required to actually make the image is focus, framing and, of course, timing.

My main contact onboard was an Australian explorer who, amongst many achievements, had participated in the first Australian ascent to Mount Everest. He made the comment that, in all his years running tours, he’d never met a photography tour leader who’d helped folks the way I had. I was pleased, yet not surprised as many folks seem to think that a photography tour is the way for other folks to fund their adventures. This sense of entitlement has long bothered me.

Responsibility Goes Both Ways

To be frank it’s important to know how to use your camera and understand the fundamentals of photography before embarking on a specialized photography tour. There’s nothing worse, for all involved, than watching a spectacular moment pass by while someone is fiddling around with their camera.

I pride myself with providing folks with the kind of specific, actionable and timely advice they need to make great photos. And the way I do so is different to so many others. I teach through empowerment. I have no desire in building a sense of dependency in those who pay money for the expertise and/or the experience I provide through my classes, workshops and tours.

In a formal classroom environment it’s often important to take control and instruct. But on location the role of the tutor is more to facilitate and motivate. And if that requires a joke, a story or a song when the weather is somewhat less than desirable, I’m always up for it. Above all else technical topics need to be explained in a clear and understandable manner, prior to the time they’ll most likely be needed. 

I want folks to leave my care nourished intellectually and spirituality. It’s important for me to see a new level of confidence and self awareness developing and becoming evident through the art they produce.

Maybe we’ll get to work and travel together sometime in the not to distant future.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru