Why the Ice is so Nice

Inspiring Journeys

The Photography Blog

Photographic Field Guides
Practical Philosophies
Careers and Ideas
Good Gear

December 2010

1/800th @ f/13.0
ISO 400
Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Why the Ice is so Nice
A few tips on travelling south to Antarctica and how to get the most of your time in the freezer. The penguins are rock stars on such journeys, have no doubt, but it's the ice that makes it so nice in the southern polar regions.

The Photography Blog

I just returned from a month aboard the expedition cruise ship Professor Kromov and sharing my ideas on photography. We visited Sub-Antarctic islands along the way and found ourselves surrounded by more penguins than pebbles. But it wasn't until we dropped below the Antarctic Circle that the photography takes a turn into the mysterious world of ice. And what lovely ice it was.

The ice of Antarctica is so abundant and diverse that every single day is a new exploration into the ever changing landscape. Nature shapes frozen water in a myriad of ways. Sea-ice tainted with a hint of yellow is created from the annual winter freezing along the coastline, glacial ice tumbles into the sea to create massive blue bergs, and fresh snowfall coats chunks of brash, bergs and pack-ice with a fresh layer of pristine white. The combinations of these are endless, and differentiating the true source of a chunk of frozen water is not always obvious.

This variety provides opportunity and challenge for photography. Shapes, textures, hues and motion appear and disappear in a flash. Sometimes you come across a massive monolith of ice and have time to cultivate some inspiration through the lens, but more often than not a perfect moment of shivering brilliance lasts for barely a few seconds before being replaced by a new facade. Decisive moments are fleeting and hard to chase down, so you need to be fore-armed with a game plan.

Are you planning to extract detailed frames of fragments within a berg using a telephoto lens? Are you aiming to shoot wide to draw in the texture of the sky for composition? What role will penguins, birds and mammals play in the architecture of each shot, if at all? Do you need or want to balance the sky and water with a graduated neutral density filter? Is snowfall on the bow or salt water spray in the zodiac going to affect your equipment, or just ruin an otherwise brilliant image when droplets smear across the lens?

With a clear idea of what you want from each encounter with the ice you now have a few technical challenges to deal with. Most people cite exposure metering as their number one issue when heading into snow and ice, and usually they're making a pitfall for themselves. I had several people on our cruise ask me about exposure compensation to balance out the expected errors when shooting on the Antarctic continent. One had been told by their camera store to underexpose all his images by one stop, another had been told to overexpose everything by half a stop. Either strategy is misleading.

The problem isn't that your camera will get it wrong, rather you have wildly varying exposure conditions within a single frame. If 90% of your shot is brilliant white snow then a few black penguins are likely to be underexposed in some way. Alternately if you're getting a decent close-up of a friendly Adelie Penguin then you're likely to blow-out some of the highlights through a white background. Either way you're getting a true exposure, as modern digital SLR cameras are not easily fooled by a bit of ice or snow.

RAW files gives you some flexibility in these situations and can take the worry out of exposure selections. Adjusting the dynamic range of a RAW image using Capture One or Lightroom also enhances your ability to retain details across these exposure zones even when they are heading in different directions.

So long as the sun is shining you'll be hard pressed to get the exposure too far out of the ballpark, and if the sun isn't shining then the moody nature of dark skies and flat water give you a whole new canvas to play with. Do note that dust marks on your sensor will stand out most strongly under these cloudy flat skies, and you may need to up your ISO setting to get good depth of field in the dimmer light.

RAW files also give you room to move on the white balance without compromising quality. This is really the most difficult part of shooting in the ice and snow, as a slight skew in tint or temperature of the shot can yield dramatically inaccurate colours. It turns out there are different kinds of white, leaning to warm or cooler colours. It also turns out that the green and red balance can get whacked as well, often to compensate for imbalance in the colour temperature.

Aside from looking off-target when you upload images to Facebook the major trouble caused by misaligned colour balance is the loss of detail. Subtle variance through the mid-range of grey levels are easily washed out by saturated tones and textures fall flat when the colour balance drifts. So avoid dialling up the colour saturation unnecessarily and pay attention to your white balance when processing the images.

Snow on it's own behaves pretty good on a sunny day, but overcast conditions are the worst. I had a particular day of shooting this trip when the sky was bright but clouded over, resulting in a powerful saturation of UV light across the scene. This caused havoc with my colour balance, to my eye and camera accordingly. I was walking through a deeply tinted blue world and the camera captured an honest reflection of the tonal environment. The effect looked as though someone had put a blue filter across the lens, a result that simply fails to look natural even though it is.

It's one time when a corrective adjustment to white balance is in order, and without the correction the detail and texture of my images were washed out by the tint. Later that day the sun made a brief appearance the white balance was no longer an issue. The handful of shots taken in that half hour were easily the best of the day. And that should be no surprise to regular readers of Photography for Travellers, as the light is the main event when taking photos. It all begins with the light.

Letting the light guide your photography is one of my most employed mantras, but so is "get closer". In Antarctica this rule pays dividends. A quality 70-200mm telephoto zoom is a vital part of any wildlife exploration, but a 24mm wide angle is not to be sneezed at either. Almost any shot that looks good through the telephoto will look even better if you can get up close and shoot it wide.

One evening in Commonwealth Bay we had a chance to return to shore and explore the landscape of ice for a few more hours. With the help of our expedition leader I organised a couple of zodiacs for photographic fanatics to go get familiar with a few penguins on the ice nearby. The sun was threatening to kiss the horizon but a heavy sky to the north was throwing a dark curtain over the scene. Add to this a few rather random ice berg curves that were drifting around the bay, plus some flat slabs of sea-ice that the penguins were using to haul out of the water.

Hundreds of Adelie Penguins were gathered on a single berg, with a moody sky behind them and a massive blue berg splashing some colour into the scene. Grey skies in Antarctica yield a dramatic absence of colour, and Adelies are easily the least colourful of penguins to match with barely a hint of tone at the beak and feet. The scene would have almost no colour at all if not for penguin poop and that beautiful blue berg. Allowing the light to guide me simply I pointed my lens north and brought the elements into a single composition. I forewarned our zodiac passengers that a wide-angle lens is the way to go, we prepared our cameras and rolled up alongside the edge of the sea-ice slab.

To our marvel the Adelie Penguins exhibited their friendly nature and came across to visit us. Helicopters scare them to panic but a single zodiac slowly bumping into the berg is cause for closer inspection. With wide angle lenses attached we snapped a few dozen frames each, and circled back and forth to the point of satiation. I can't say I got the perfect shot, but I got one of my best yet. Skies, colours, ice, wildlife and wide-angles.

You wont always be able to engineer a set of circumstance like this on a trip to Antarctica, but they are worth the wait. Patience is essential when dealing with ice, especially the thousands of years required to prepare a chunk of glacial berg that will turn blue as it melts into the ocean. That's what makes the ice so nice.

Please Share Your Thoughts


This story was written during an East Antarctica cruise with Heritage Expeditions:


Surviving the Cold

The common worry for travellers heading south is that their SLRs will freeze up and never come back to life. The majority of photographers on our boat were carrying Canon SLRs, with Nikon a solid second and Olympus sharing the glory with Sony for minor placings. Only the Sony SLR hit trouble but it was a 4 year old model and the exact cause of the fault was never determined. One other ageing compact digital also went silly with a faulty sensor capturing funny pixels instead of clear images. All the serious SLR cameras were unphased by the sub-zero conditions and occasional katabatic winds.

My Canon 1D and 5D units were repeatedly exposed to salty spray, snow and freezing temperatures but at no point did they throw a hissy fit.

The main trouble with temperature I experienced was not the camera but my fingers. I had a fairly old pair of Windstopper gloves that are fine in calm conditions but simply not warm enough once the wind gets going. The early stages of a katabatic blast had me headed for the ship and avoiding prolonged exposure to the worst of Antarctic conditions. In some respects the comfort of your fingers is a good indication for operating conditions for your camera. SLR equipment works best when warm, so if your hands are too cold to hit the button then you might be outside the manufacturers recommended temperature as well.

I did spend a lot of time watching for whales off the bow and chasing albatross off the stern, so I noticed those days when I let the gear really get cold. The 1D showed some acceleration of battery consumption but frankly both cameras performed exceptionally well in the ice and snow. I recharged three batteries in 26 days.
This feature was last updated on Friday 07th January 2011

Copyright: All images and words on this web site are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.
Article published and written by

Related Links
  Antarctica  Sub-Antarctic Islands  Inspiring Journeys  Ice  Snow  Sea-Ice  Penguins  Adelie Penguins

Inspiring destinations that offer something unique for photographers. I love sharing the beauty in this world, and sharing why I think you might want to see it too.

Doing Our Best

Doing Our Best

Be Your Best Tours is the natural evolution of my experience in travel. Since 2004 I've been designing and delivering photographic journeys to discerning travellers. Now it's time to make room for people who are happy to leave the camera at home.

Covid and Travel

Covid and Travel

Expectations of a return to international travel are giving many of us something to look forward to. Myself included. As a professional guide however, the reality of travelling in a covid filled world poses a whole new challenge.

Nordlys in Norway

Nordlys in Norway

It's been a year since last I was standing underneath an aurora, looking straight up to the sky above as it danced around my head. I'm hoping the global covid situation will allow us to return to Norway in February, but in the meantime I can travel back in time through the photos and a special podcast episode we recorded on tour.

We Made A Cookbook

We Made A Cookbook

We’ve been waiting a very long time for this moment! Cabin Fever Cookbook is coming! Finally Shellie and I get to share our cookbook and the wonderful experiences that made it possible. Scandinavian inspiration, stunning locations, wonderful ingredients and some of our very best photography.

Fiona and Sharon in Norway

Fiona and Sharon in Norway

The best thing about getting feedback from my travellers is the way it lets me re-live the moments from a journey. The 2020 Arctic Norway trip was really special because we had such a lovely group of people and so many great experiences. The weather was some of the least helpful we've ever had on a tour, and yet we still got exactly what we came for. The Aurora Borealis.

Sharing the moment with Tim

Sharing the moment with Tim

I want to share a few words of appreciation for a fellow traveller, just one of many lovely people who help to make these journeys a little bit more special.

Ewen's New Book

"ReIMAGINE" is now available to order online.
It's a very big and very generous book that will help you to reconnect with your creative side.


Stay Inspired
Join Ewen's newsletter for short updates on new articles and photographic inspiration.

Thanks, you are now subscribed. Please check your inbox for a welcome email.

Computer says NO.
Please check the email address.