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Exposing Antarctica with David Schultz

Seduced by its divine polar landscapes that expand across the ice-carved region, it is no wonder nature photographer David C. Schultz left his career in fashion photography for a renewed interest that would turn into a life-long passion for Antarctica. The ice-coated habitation creates the perfect imagery he is captivated to shoot. Inspired by the works of Australian photographer Frank Hurley’s Endurance Expedition to Antarctica and with some extended research, he began his first voyage to the alluring continent, where he would return another fourteen times.

Its appeal lies under the radiating sunlight showcasing the weather-worn environment and its inhabitants, drawing photographers like David in. Whether it is shooting 200,000 penguins or two polar bears sparring in the windblown snow at -30C, the altering demeanor of Antarctica can be a difficult challenge to shoot as wildlife comes with chaos. However, to illustrate the conditions in which these animals survive is what David strives for. We asked him to give us an in-depth insight of his experiences and important factors one must uncover to explore this natural treasure with photography.

A great photographer, David says, is tenacious. Rethinking his shot and capturing the best of his capability.  An example of this is a photo tour he held with several opportunities to photograph bobcats, something he had not seen then in the past. “One morning we followed a cat as it walked on the opposite side of a river for almost 2 kilometers. At one point I was able to get ahead of it, anticipating the trail it would follow, then I immediately got ready. I framed in, took a shot, checked my exposure, made a slight adjustment and then waited. This allowed me to focus my attention to the subject. I got the shot, thanked the bobcat and was done, for the moment anyway.”

His Gear

A long telephoto lens, anything over a 400 mm is not necessary and may actually restrict a photographer from getting a good shot especially when out in the Zodiacs cruising around icebergs. David tell us his favorite lens is the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR for wildlife and the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED for landscape shooting. He always has at least 3 bodies on his trips, currently using the Nikon D810 and D4s. A zoom lens gives you more flexibility when moving about, so you can quickly recompose your shot if need-be.

Know Your Equipment

While there are many potential dangers in shooting wildlife photography, the rewards seem to outweigh the risks.  On a recent voyage, David set up his gear on a group of rocks where he saw a large concentration of penguins flying out of the sea. Not only did this give him an opportunity to capture some actions shots but pre-focusing on a likely exit or landing spot, and making sure his exposure was correct made all the success much greater. His tip for learners is to sit, wait and be prepared.

“Know your environment along with the habits of the wildlife that you may be out to photograph. This will improve both your ability to find and photograph the animals but also make it safer, for you and them as well. It’s pretty easy these days to do your homework and if I’m about to go to a place I’ve never visited before I take full advantage of the search tools now available, and a network of friends.”

A nature photographer with an interest in landscapes as well as wildlife, David is always prepared for the wildlife shot, well almost always, he says jokingly. Taking the time to be aware of his surroundings and what might happen makes a considerable difference in getting a memorable shot.  His key advice for upcoming photographers however, is to know their equipment. Making adjustments as needed should become natural, the last thing a photographer should be doing, he stresses, is fumbling to make changes when an event occurs unexpectedly. “I can usually take the time to set up a tripod and make setting changes that might be needed for a shot of the mountains, they’re not going anywhere. Now, coming around an iceberg while in a Zodiac to see a leopard seal chasing a penguin out of the water… you’d better not be switching lenses or exposure settings!”


Capturing the perfect exposure when shooting in white surrounding or from the dark mountains that surround Antarctica can be a difficult task to master. Shooting in these conditions has become second nature to David. He is critical about getting the exposure right to begin with rather than trying to fix it in post-processing. The settings on the camera would probably work for 18 per cent of grey conditions but depending on the subject and lighting conditions at the time, David says he’ll usually compensate by 1- 1 ½ stops over at a starting point.

“Being in dark surroundings is no different. Anticipate, trust the histogram and in this case probably under expose. I have a black Labrador and as you can imagine, many shots of her have been made and exposure compensation is often used with her. I tend to use Aperture Priority a lot and usually the first setting I consider is the ISO, which gets adjusted according to the situation.”

Protecting Your Gear

The main issue of a cold environment is how it affects battery life and the condensation it produces when moving to different temperatures. Water can cause fog spots which make it difficult to shoot. David says the harsh, unpredictable weather conditions have made him prepare his gear in advance should he get stuck in a storm. He usually packs his gear in a waterproof or all-weather bag and stows his kit when the unforgiving cold environment takes over. He always has back-ups of the most critical pieces of equipment since a camera shop nearby would be impossible to find. Extra, full-charged batteries and a number of memory cards are all within reach when David is shooting.

Capturing wildlife images that might bring a smile to someone’s face is a factor he considers when deciding what to display and usually generates his favorite photos. A great and fitting example of this would be the image of the Emperor penguins he captured looking through his camera and appearing to be posing in front of it. A funny, memorable moment. 

David aspires to put his collection of polar work in book form and will most likely return to Antarctica this coming November. Until then, he has several photo workshops and tours that he’s holding just a little bit closer to home.

About David

Some might say you haven’t really seen the contemporary American West, especially Utah, until you’ve seen it through the eyes of local photographer David C. Schultz. As the owner of the West Light Images gallery in Park City, Utah, David has made a successful career of capturing the brilliant colours, stunning natural features, and tiniest details of the Western American landscape and the cold frontiers of the Antarctica.