They’re friendly, they waddle, they’re pretty freakin’ cute. Ever wonder what it’s really like to photograph penguins in their environment? Wildlife photographer and official Nikon D4 endorser David C. Schultz shares his encounters with photographing these adorable flightless aquatic animals—and how you too can do it.

Scroll down for this pro’s expert tips, inspiring images, and action-packed videos on penguins! Warning: David’s photos will give you an extreme case of cute overload and wanderlust.

Tips For Photographing Penguins

by David C. Schultz

It’s not difficult to find penguins to photograph, but getting to them is a whole different story. The difficulty or length of your journey really depends on which species you want to photograph—there are 17 penguin species that you’re interested in capturing. My experience photographing them over the years has been limited to those found in the far southern hemisphere in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctica islands, such as South Georgia Island. Like I said, getting there is another story!

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First, get to know your subject. In the case of penguins, things like which species, do you want to see chicks, and what kind of terrain they like on shore are things to consider. My trips south have always been ship-based. We move around different locations, usually doing two shore landings or a Zodiac cruise each day.

Zodiacs—larger rubber inflatables—are used to get from ship to shore most of the time. But for certain trips, we take helicopters. That’s the case when you’re trying to reach Emperor Penguins.

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I recently returned from my 12th voyage to Antarctica which is a fascinating place to visit, even without the penguins present. I’ve found that what typically comes to mind when people think of penguins—besides the film Happy Feet—is the Emperor Penguin, the largest and the most difficult to reach. It’s also one of the two truly Antarctic species along with the Adelie.

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Press play to watch David Schultz’ video of Emperor Penguins. Warning: Cute overload!

Emperor Penguins are found in the sea, ice, and in waters that are much more difficult to access. To reach them would take an icebreaker, a ship designed for breaking a channel through ice, and usually a helicopter.

Once the icebreaker has “parked” in the fast-ice, a helicopter takes us out to the base camp, a staging area, and then it’s usually about a two-mile hike across the ice to reach the penguin colonies.


The other ships I travel on are ice-strengthened, and we use Zodiacs to get around. Before leaving the ship, I always check to make sure my camera settings and gear are ready for that unexpected moment.

That moment could be a penguin appearing on a beautiful iceberg as the Zodiac comes around a corner, or a group of penguins porpoising alongside us as we’re cruising to shore.


So I check the ISO, set the camera to shutter priority, then crank up the shutter speed, get image stabilization on, and the best lens selected for the possible conditions I might encounter.

Two of my favorite lenses for this scenario are the Nikkor 28-300mm and the Nikkor 80-400mm. I seldom have a need for an extreme telephoto lens, since the penguins are typically close at hand.


I remember one morning, we were approaching the beach at sunrise. The intense yellow and orange sky was beautifully reflected in the water along the shoreline. I noticed several small groups of King Penguins near the water. Upon hitting the beach, I immediately set off to capture shots of them before the sun came over the surrounding mountains. The intense colors in the water perfectly mimicked that of the feathers along the neck of the penguins. The opportunity was over within 15 minutes. If I hadn’t been prepared, I would’ve missed taking these shots. At the end of the voyage, these shots were some of my favorites.

At first, it can be overwhelming when you reach some of the beaches, because of the large numbers of penguins in some colonies. I see it all the time when I take my clients to Antarctica. I was even guilty of this myself! There are several hundred thousand penguins, along with the other wildlife — so many that most people are not sure where to begin! It’s a good problem to have when it comes to wildlife photography.


I usually start with capturing the grand scale and overall surroundings, including the weather conditions and the penguins in their environment.

Once I’ve captured a series of “reference shots”, I slow down, sit down, and just watch for a while.

I constantly observe how penguins interact with each other, especially with their nest, the egg they might be on, or a recently-hatched chick.


My favorite wildlife images are those that show some of their personalities, especially if a humorous caption quickly comes to mind.


There’s constant motion and a lot of noise around the colonies. These penguins will be coming and going from nest to the ocean, feeding, bathing, stealing stones from each other for a nest or looking for a mate. This constant moving about can be good. It will present many different photo opportunities. It can also be a little frustrating at times, so be ready to grab the shot.

I usually look for a spot along the shore where penguins come and go. Look for a sandy beach or one that is rocky.


Look for where there is a high lip of snow they have to jump over as they rocket out of the water.


I’m always looking for a way to frame a subject within something in the scene too.


Once, I spent over an hour sliding across the ice, trying to coax some penguins to a spot I’d marked so I can get them framed within a hole in an iceberg.

I’d seen the berg earlier in the day but the sun was at the wrong angle. Later, I came back and found some curious penguins — and chicks — following me as I moved away from the rookery.

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So, watch for something that can frame a shot or help to isolate the main subject from the chaos.

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Depending on the time of year and the species of penguins, the colonies can get very ripe — stinky, to put it mildly. There can be lots of penguin poop, on the ground and on the penguins. This becomes more obvious later in the season, from January to March, making it more important to select a strategic place to shoot from.

Your best bet is to catch the penguins exiting the water when their feathers are clean and wet. This is also when they’re more animated. I spend a great deal of my time at the water’s edge, especially if there’s a bit of surf coming in.


One morning, while photographing Chinstrap penguins, the light was really bad. It was late in the morning and very cloudy. The only angle I could shoot from required the penguins to be back-lit. I decided to go to an extreme: to show the motion of the penguins going into and coming out of the surf. I used a slow shutter speed with the help of a 2 stop ND filter — and fired away. The motion of the waves along with that of the birds made for interesting photos.

You could just feel the penguins’ battle of getting into the sea.

Using a low point of view with a wide angle lens can make your image more interesting, rather than shooting downward at the birds.


If you just sit and hang out quietly on the beach, you’re very likely to have the penguins coming right up to you and your camera. If you leave anything sitting around, it’s all fair game for closer inspection from the penguins.

So now I’ve got shots of penguins from the wind-angle view, which includes the landscape and other wildlife, closer shots of individuals, couples or nesting birds, some action in the surf.

The next would be to photograph some details.

Catching the penguins as they leave the water is a prime location, because you might catch water droplets on their feathers, which will also now be nice and clean.


Exposing for penguins can be a little tricky. You’re usually working with just their black and white feathers, which might have highlights from water and some snow. Keep an eye on your histogram to make sure you’re not blowing out the whites and losing details in the feathers. It’s truly amazing to see just how much detail there is.


At the end of the day — like much of photography shoots — there’s a lot of sitting around watching and waiting for something interesting to happen. Each trip South becomes a bit more of a challenge, trying to find a new perspective or to improve on something you’ve shot before. My next trips to Antarctica will probably be in March 2015. This gives me an opportunity to witness the environment as winter begins to set in.


We hope these tips, photos, and videos inspire you to pack your gear and go on a polar adventure with penguins.

To see more incredible polar wildlife images, follow David C. Schultz on 500px.

Want to sign up for his upcoming photo workshops? Visit his website for info and schedules.

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Got a question for David, or your own personal encounters with penguins to share with us? Comment below! We’re always up for a good penguin tale!