Penguins, Cuverville Island, Antarctica

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

How large is a penguin? Well, there’s the birds actual size and then there’s its relative size compared to its environment.

Photographing Penguins on Cuverville Island

Cuverville Island lies just off the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a dramatic, mountainous location and a great place to photography penguins quite close to the shore line.

I visited in November and was amazed and just how much snow there was. As soon as I disembarked I began sinking, thigh deep, into the snow. That made moving up the steep mountain side particularly hard going. Fortunately relatively large waddles of penguins were gathered nearby.

Camera to Subject Distance

You’re not supposed to move too close to wildlife, for obvious reasons. When it comes to penguins, seals and the like your tour guide will advise you accordingly. Let’s say it’s 5 meters (i.e., approximately 15 feet). You should respect that distance and, while you can use your lens to zoom in, you should not actually move in any closer. 

However, the penguin may not be aware of such a rule. If it decides to move in for a closer exploration that’s fine and dandy. Embrace such opportunities, though I’d be much more careful with a leopard seal or a full grown elephant seal.

Scale: An Aid to Composition and Story Telling

I made the photo at the top of this post while approaching Cuverville Island in a zodiac. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of being able to photograph the penguins in relation to their landscape.

Scale is a great compositional device. The fact that the penguins look so tiny in relation to their environment speaks to the difficulty of their life in such a harsh and rugged environment.

So, as well as helping to describe the scene, objectively, scale can also be used to tell a story and, thereby, trigger an emotional response from the viewer.

A King Penguin, standing alert on the steep slopes of Cuverville Island, Antarctica

Scale Through Juxtaposition

The above image shows one way of exaggerating size. I simply used a (borrowed) Canon 100-400mm lens to juxtapose the hero of our image, a friendly King Penguin, with another penguin in the distant background. The fact that the penguin in the background is so far away makes it seem significantly smaller than it is in reality. Likewise, it’s the perception of the significantly smaller size of the distant bird that provides the perception that the penguin in the foreground is much larger than it actually is. 

Scale is one of many great tools of composition which are well worth while learning and making an effort to consider when composing your photos.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru