What It's Like to Photograph the World's Last Frontier

scene of icebergs on the ocean

Nicknamed the "Crystal Desert," there's truly no place on earth like Antarctica, largely known as the world's seventh continent. Made of rock and permanent ice, at 5.5 million square miles, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent at it's most fragile, and when the sea ice doubles in size in the winter, the continent grows to dwarf only Asia and Africa in size. At its deepest point, the dome of Antarctica's polar ice sheet is 15,800-feet thick, and it has the highest average elevation in the world, landing around 7,100 feet consistently throughout the continent. 

The opposite of the Arctic, Antarctica is a continent entirely surrounded by ocean, consisting of a deep, narrow continental shelf, and equipped with no tree line, no tundra, and no native population. The annual average temperature hovers around -58 degrees Fahrenheit, and only birds and marine mammals like whales and seals survive. 

For photographers, Antarctica is considered a dream destination, and during my trip with Intrepid Travel, I quickly discovered why. Containing several of the world's major mountain belts, the pear-shaped country comes to life in sweeping landscapes, often completely reimagining what it means to capture scale. Whether documenting seals, penguins, or the towering icebergs jostling wildly in the Southern Ocean, the ice-bathed mountain ranges provide clues to the geological framework of Antarctica, a land so vast and so underexplored, it was only discovered in 1820. ​

Today, the land is dedicated to peace and science as stated by a 1959 treaty: It will never be exploited for commercial purposes and the wildest stretches of the continent will remain so, for wildlife and natural landscapes to flourish forevermore. 

During a trip to the continent, delight in the crossing of the tumultuous Drake Passage, savoring every moment of the grand journey. Upon arrival, follow these tips to ensure you document the landscape to its full potential, as you never know when you'll find yourself in the world's last frontier again. 

  • 01 of 06

    Penguins on the March: Strength in Scale

    far away shot of 5 penguins in the snow

    When I placed my first step on the Antartic continent, I was amazed by the sheer size of the landscape. Mountains overwhelmed me - I could barely see their end. Snow blanketed nearly every stretch of the land, and the number of penguins I saw was simply unimaginable. I never knew that many penguins existed in the world! 

    Gathering my emotional response to such a beautiful land, I quickly realized I needed to focus on scale while in Antarctica. With everything so large and overwhelming, it was evident I needed to find a way to create balance in my images. In this photo, I was able to offset the blanket of white - in both the sky and land - by documenting several penguins in a row. Fate made them equidistance apart. I was just there to capture it. 

  • 02 of 06

    Drop by Drop: Sensual Shapes of Icebergs

    water dripping from ice

    Each day began with an excursion on a zodiac cruise. Although we saw leopard seals napping on icebergs, albatrosses soaring above glaciers, and hundreds of thousands of penguins marching up slopes, I was completely mesmerized by the icebergs. Like humans, their permanency is never quite in reach. They’re strong and fragile, while ephemeral and continual. They’re icicles protrude from their depths, each released trickle of water sheds their elemental existence. Just as the human body, the ice folds into its curves and edges, releasing condensation similarly to a drop of perspiration from the tip of our nose and lips. Icebergs bob and babble to the ocean’s beat, they snap under pressure, and they heat in the sun. While climate is their only adversary, time is ours. 

    The key to capturing icebergs is to focus on the curvature of their shape. How does the light hit the ice from a certain angle? I discovered this small notch in an iceberg as we cruised by, and I waited patiently while a single drop released from its ranks, creating a sensual, timeless image. 

  • 03 of 06

    Capturing Wildlife Movement: Timing is Everything

    3 penguins in the snow

    During each expedition onto the Antarctic continent, I took at least 15 minutes to just sit and marvel at the landscape and the wildlife surrounding me. I didn't photograph. I didn't write. I simply witnessed nature unfold before me, as it is such a special experience to witness penguins in the thousands march before you. 

    Finding a comfortable spot on the ice - I had four layers of pants on - I sat quietly to watch the penguins move throughout the ice. As this particular penguin approached the edge of one ice sheet, I knew he was going to make the leap to the next, and I waited patiently until he was ready to complete his mission. With a quick shutter speed, I was able to capture his jump in perfect focus. 

  • 04 of 06

    Penguins & The Moon: Angle Up

    penguin in the snow and moon in the blue sky with clouds

    If possible, try to bring two camera bodies with you to Antarctica, as the scenery changes so quickly, you may need to jump between a fixed lens and a telephoto lens rather quickly, and the added benefit of a dual body system will prove a fruitful choice. 

    For this image, I didn't have time to switch lenses, as I only brought one Canon camera body with me to Antarctica. With my telephoto lens, I positioned myself at the lowest point in the zodiac to find the sharpest angle possible to capture both the penguin and the moon, an image I would have surely regretted not taking. To ensure an easy transition, bring two camera bodies. By doing this, you won't run the risk of missing these special moments. 

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Mirrored Mountains: Reveling in Reflections

    snowy mountains mirrored in the water

    On one particular zodiac cruise, I found myself in a giant amphitheater of mirrored mountain reflections into the Southern Ocean. The beauty of it was completely overwhelming. From every angle, the mountains created a duality that was both palpable and breathtaking. 

    You can consider utilizing a polarizing filter to capture what's in the water, but the real prize is the mountain reflection, which is completely clear and worth documenting. 

  • 06 of 06

    Twilight Sans Stars: Documenting Dusk

    sundown scene of a mountain with the moon in the sky

    Antarctica never gets completely dark. One night of my expedition, I camped on the continent in a self-made ice shelter, built high to block the somewhat harrowing winds. I set my alarm at 2 a.m. in the morning in the hopes of photographing the stars, but I awoke to this - a twilight scene with no stars to be found. 

    Although I was surprised at first, I was quickly captivated by the moon's light on the mountain tops. Even if it isn't the stars, this is a photo only documentable in Antarctica's summer and a special prize to bring home.