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Iceberg Photography Tips: An In-depth Guide

The first time you see an iceberg, the moment can be so striking that you’ll recall the image forever. Icebergs can be impossibly large and often present a colour palette that seems contradictory: in a monochromatic world, the intense blues and greens of an iceberg can seem so out of place. The realisation that you are seeing a fraction (80-90% is below the surface) of the size of that berg can add to the surrealism of the visual encounter.

I’ve had the incredible fortune of travelling to both the north and southern polar regions, including the Arctic, Svalbard, Canada’s High Arctic, Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands: places in which icebergs can be plentiful. I’ve put together a few thoughts on photographing these incredible ice sculptures. This guide looks at iceberg photography tips that you can use next time you are faced with such an opportunity.

How to Photograph Icebergs

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What is an iceberg?

Icebergs are a result of calving, the breaking off of chunks of ice from glaciers into ocean waters. Any chunk of ice larger than 5 meters across 30 meters thick can be called an iceberg.

Tabular and non-tabular icebergs comprise the two main categories. They can be described as tabular, dome-shaped, pinnacled, dry-dock, glacier, weathered, blocky, or tilted.

Potentially very dangerous to shipping, Iceberg patrols now use GPS to help locate and track icebergs. The lifespan of an iceberg, from first snowfall on a glacier to final melting in the ocean, can be as along as 3,000 years.

Why such an intense color? One of the incredible photographic appeals of an iceberg can be the intense blue of the ice. It’s created by the chemical bond between oxygen and hydrogen in water, which absorbs light in the red end of the visible spectrum, producing the rich blue colour. The blue of the sky has nothing to do with the colour of the ice.

Northern and Southern Polar Region icebergs

Most Northern Hemisphere Icebergs break off from glaciers in Greenland, but can also calve from Alaskan glaciers. The most southerly record for a northern iceberg is about 150 nautical miles north east of Bermuda.

As you might expect, southern icebergs calve off of the Antarctic ice shelf. One Southern iceberg, named B-15, was the world’s largest at nearly 185 miles long and 23 miles wide – that’s larger than the island of Jamaica.

This massive chunk of ice had calved off of the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000, breaking up into smaller bergs; the largest of which was named Iceberg B-15A. This iceberg drifted north into the Ross Sea. As of 2018, a large piece of B-15A was located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.

Icebergs, seals and penguins

How to Photograph Icebergs: Camera Settings

1. Exposure

This can be one of the more technically challenging components of photographing icebergs. When photographing in direct sun, the cardinal rule here is “add light to make it bright.” A camera’s metering function is to make the mid-range into an 18% exposure, which works perfectly when photographing a subject that is mostly mid-range in tonality.

Photographing a predominantly white subject like an iceberg often throws the exposure way-off.  Not incorrect, as the meter is doing exactly what it’s been programmed to do: make the overall exposure based on 18% gray. So, you base your exposure on what your meter says in that super-brightly lit scene, and the final image is muddy and dark… but theoretically correct.

What you do in this situation is add up to 1 to 2 stops of overexposure to the image: “add light to make it bright.” Or, you can use that “Scene” mode built into many cameras, setting it to the “snow/sand” mode, which will accommodate that difference.

penguins jumping off an iceberg

When on a moving ship and photographing wildlife in motion, if you’re trying to freeze action you should use a minimum 1/500th of a second shutters peed. Double this if in a Zodiac moving along rapidly. Birds in flight? If you want to freeze the wings, you’ll be looking at 1/2000th or above.

Read more: How to Photograph Birds in Flight

Bottom line, your histogram is your friend here, providing valuable information on exposure. Photograph your scene, check the histogram and make appropriate exposure corrections, then stay with the subject until the exposure and environment change drastically.

How to Photograph Icebergs

One of the best situations in which to photograph ice/icebergs is on overcast days. The dynamic range of the scene is essentially reduced when it is overcast, allowing a better overall exposure. Plus, those atmospheric conditions of fog, overcast, snow, sleet, rain, etc. can provide wonderful situations in which to shoot. I love shooting in these and find the extra texture of clouds can bring a wonderful and dramatic ambience to the photo.

Iceberg in a stormy sea

I shoot exclusively in raw format, and I shoot almost everything with my white balance set to “Auto”.  One other advantage of a raw file is that you can “set” the white balance during post processing, with no deterioration of image quality. This then provides you with a huge range of possibility in the edit. Perhaps a bit more of a cooler image is preferred, so simply push the temperature slider to change the “ambience” of the photo.

If shooting jpeg, consider setting the White Balance to either “Auto” or “Cloudy”. Auto will get you within the general ballpark of accuracy. Using “Cloudy” is similar to using a slight warming filter, as I’d use in film days.

2. Composition

Think of your viewfinder as your canvas: you are responsible for every square centimetre of your frame. I always suggest “cropping” on location, rather than in post; this makes you a better photographer.

Of course, there are times when you’ll have to crop, such as when not wanting to miss an incredible moment because you simply can’t get close enough. But, forcing yourself to engage with the entire frame makes you see more photographically.

Icebergs offer a plethora of compositional approaches: from leading lines, to “S” curves, rules of thirds, not putting your subject right in the centre. However, every one of these rules can be broken, if the image works.

Read more: Composition in Landscape Photography – The Essential Guide

Viewing and reacting to photos is a very subjective dynamic, and I feel that the better a photographer understands those rules of composition; they know when to break those rules in order to create a powerful photo.

Exploring the Visual Narrative

How to Photograph Icebergs

1. Sense of Place

I always emphasise the importance of the components of visual narrative, which includes a sense of place. This can be critical for your audience. They weren’t standing by your side at the railing of the National Geographic Orion (an expedition ship) feeling the bracing air, listening to the sounds of the ocean and ice, immersed in that spectacular world.

You have to provide that feeling to your audience; it can’t be conveyed in your description or caption. A powerful photo puts your viewer into the frame, allowing them to feel what it felt like for you when making the photo.

Kayak and iceberg

2. The Moment

In almost every style of photography, the “moment” plays a significant part. The loud moment of a wide receiver going up for a catch, the quiet moment of two friends talking, one leaning back to laugh.

Moment is critical for a powerful photograph. This applies to photographing icebergs: the moment of penguins leaping off the edge of an iceberg, to a wave peaking in front of an iceberg. Think about using this powerful component to further enhance your photographs.

penguin and iceberg

3. Scale

Icebergs can be just a few meters high or extend to miles across. How does the photographer provide a sense of scale to illustrate the size of the iceberg? Scale is a powerful tool here. I’ve used two photos as an illustration here.

The first, I used Photoshop to remove the penguins; the second is the image as shot. In the the first, there is no way to determine the size of this ice behemoth,. Is it 2 meters tall or 30? Using the penguins, which we know are of a certain size, the immensity of the ice is illustrated. 

How to Photograph Icebergs

How to Photograph Icebergs - showing scale

4. Detail

Look for photos within a photo…that incredible detail of a glacier just meters before calving to create an iceberg. Landscape is made up of the minutiae of detail, and by including that detail the photographer forces the audience to see that huge landscape in terms of what it is composed of.

How to Photograph Icebergs

5. Black and White or Colour

The dilemma that has faced photographers since the invention of colour-rendering emulsion. Which is better? Simply answered: it depends. One cannot deny the beauty and power of color and palette from icebergs. The blues, the hues, the colours, all can play off each other to provide a canvas of invigorating colour.

Then, there’s black and white. I’ve been in the business for over 40 years, having cut my teeth on black and white. I love this medium. In the B&W world, it’s all about form, structure, moment, composition, and shape.

By eliminating colour, you allow the viewer to respond to your photo on a different level than colour. Is it better? Well, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish. One of the many benefits of the digital technology, there is no image quality loss by converting (if done correctly and well) your file to a monochrome image. This is another reason to be shooting raw files, as there is more info/data from which you can work.

Read more: How to Photograph Landscapes in Black and White

How to Photograph Icebergs - colour

How to Photograph Icebergs - black and white

What Equipment to Bring

If signing on to a polar expedition, be prepared. Choose your equipment carefully. Here are a few items on that checklist may help:

1. Weatherproofing

This can be critical when photographing from the bow of a ship or on land, when the weather lifts its head. Think of layers; not for the camera, for you. You’re often photographing in the same environment found in your refrigerator or freezer. If standing on the bow or bridge of a ship as it’s moving, the windchill can be quite cold.

I always dress in layers, so I’m able to peel off clothing if too warm. It’s hard to add layers if you don’t have any! A good pair of shooting gloves can make all the difference in the length of time you’ll be shooting.

Read more: How to Use Cameras in Extremely Cold Temperatures

iceberg in stormy sea

2. Lens choice

Less is more. In choosing what lenses to take, I’ve found that a full-frame equivalent of 24-200mm is a great all-around lens.

My lenses of choice when working in Polar regions: I like to work with two cameras, with a wide angle zoom on one, a telephoto zoom on the other. Those lenses would be the Olympus 12-100mm f4 (equivalent to full-frame 24-200mm, FX) and the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 with the MC-14 teleconverter, which gives me an FX equivalent length of 120mm-420mm f4.

3. Camera choice

I use Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, as I love the compact size, the portability, and the extremely high quality of the images. Whatever system you use, I suggest getting to know the gear so well it “gets out of the way”, empowering the photographic process.

4. Extra batteries and dual chargers

Extra memory cards, and make sure those are fast cards! I’ve seen too many trips in which photographers became incredibly frustrated with a slow memory card for their camera.

Paying thousands for the trip, often with new cameras/lenses/latest gear which can add additional thousands of dollars, then the great idea to save a few Dollars/Pounds/Euros by purchasing a cheap, and slow, memory card. You’ve got a waddle of penguins heading to leap off an iceberg, and your camera hits the “buffer” of the card in 8-12 frames. Give yourself every advantage in shooting.

Read more: What You Need to Know When Choosing a Memory Card

In conclusion

But remember: take a breath, look around, and let the enormity and beauty of those icebergs floating serenely in the cold ocean. Enjoy the magical process of recording those frozen moments forever.

waterfall iceberg

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and National Geographic photographer, Jay is a highly traveled, experienced and celebrated photographer. Working with National Geographic Expeditions, Jay has been on more than 70 Expeditions/Workshops. Jay was cited as one of Travel + Leisure Magazine’s “Ten Fascinating People You Can Travel With in 2017”. Jay is also an Olympus Visionary, Lexar Elite Photographer, and Singh Ray Ambassador.

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