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June 7th, 2009

Art Wolfe: Composition tips from Antarctica

Posted by Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe didn’t become one of the foremost nature and art photographers in the world by taking the same photos everyone else was taking. His diverse work is set apart by his careful composition and artistic eye. Art will give a series of three free webinars about composition starting June 10, and he gives us a preview of his insights here. If you’re interested in seeing Antarctica with Art, who traveled there most recently to film an episode of his Travels to the Edge show, check out the details of his workshops at the end of this post.
King Penguin, Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island, UK ©Art Wolfe

King Penguin, Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island, UK ©Art Wolfe

Antarctica remains the last great wilderness in the world. The continent encompasses a vast array of environments, from the lifeless high plateau surrounding the South Pole, where miles-thick ice presses down the bedrock, to ice shelves extruding into the sea and the dry valleys where snow seldom falls. The Antarctic Convergence, the boundary where cold and warm water meet, rings Antarctica hundreds of miles from land. It extends so far north that it encompasses South Georgia, where tens of thousands of King Penguins nest on beaches beneath glaciated mountains 11,000-feet tall. Elephant seals guard their harems, and albatrosses soar above the waters.

The Antarctic Peninsula is an extension of the Andes. There is no other place on earth, including Alaska and the fjords of Patagonia, where such an impressive sequence of large glaciated peaks continues unbroken for so far. As you cruise south along the peninsula’s west coast, it’s easy to imagine yourself on the Orient Express through the Himalaya.

No animals larger than micro-organisms live at the Pole, but the northern tip of the Peninsula abounds with life. Penguins and blue-eyed shags nest in the rocks where a few hardy plants have taken root. Crab-eater seals loll on flat icebergs where the top predator, the leopard seal, is less likely to attack. Minke whales patrol the bays, surfacing with an explosive exhalation. Gentoo and Adelie penguins porpoise as they approach the shore either to confuse the leopard seals, or for the sheer joy of it.

A snow overhang on the Antarctic Peninsula. © Art Wolfe

A snow overhang on the Antarctic Peninsula. © Art Wolfe

The scenery here is so grand, and the animals so numerous and spectacular, that photographers often find themselves with a common problem. How do you avoid the image that has already been taken a thousand times? Your eye is naturally pulled toward one postcard view after another. How do you endow an image with a deeper power or a sense of surprise? Here are a few tricks I use:

1. Change your perspective. Get off the ship. Unless you set off on a different route, you are limited to a single point of view (although a battery of lenses can add some flexibility). Once on shore or in a Zodiac boat, you can place an iceberg or a rack of whale ribs in the foreground, wheel around to position an animal against a good background, or crawl behind a curtain of icicles.

2. Get Closer. A close up shot usually has a better chance to be involving. In Antarctica, the rules prohibit approaching wildlife too closely. But they don’t prohibit the wildlife from approaching you. I often find if I set up in the general vicinity of penguins or seals, one of them will come to investigate, nosing right up to my lens. This isn’t for everyone, since it usually means you are sprawled in guano, and more than once a curious elephant seal pup has crawled right up on top of me.

3. Skip Dinner. It is an unfortunate coincidence that dinner is inevitably served when the light is best. You can eat later — you may never have the chance to shoot this place in this light again. Always take advantage of unique opportunities.

For more tips and hands-on instruction, join me on my next two trips to Antarctica, in November 2009 and 2010. For details, check my website, call my office at 206-332-0993, or email

One Comment

  1. April 2nd, 2013 at 6:33 pm


    Cutest penguin picture I ever seen!

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