It’s easy to romanticize freezing destinations. From The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich to Clearing Winter Storm by Ansel Adams, some of the most lyrical and poetic works of art of the last several centuries have been made in frigid terrain.
What’s different about today’s photographers is that they have the tools to navigate and withstand cold weather for extended periods of time. With DSLR batteries and multiple layers of gloves, they can remain in inhospitable landscapes for hours as the bitter wind whips around their cheers and the sun peeks out over the horizon.
While they’re able to come into closer contact with the forces of winter, contemporary photographers are also haunted by the knowledge that with global warming, these otherworldly, ethereal locations are as fragile as they are formidable. Glaciers and ice caps are melting; polar bears are starving. Mankind is losing the last of our winter wonderlands.
In honor of the coming winter, we asked five seasoned cold-weather photographers to tell us about the cruelty and joy of making pictures in places few people dare trod. They told us about their favorite destinations and the one memory they’ll carry with them wherever they go. Each of them also gave some tips to fellow photographers hoping to follow in their snow-covered footsteps.
“bring backup equipment. Camera gear has a tendency to behave in weird ways when exposed to extreme cold…”
Churchill, Manitoba is a special region of Canada that I return to again and again. In this place, where the mighty Churchill River meets the ocean, the township is isolated; a heart with a few paved arteries spreading out from it that quickly dwindle to makeshift roads before disappearing altogether.
Back in 2011, I was on my first assignment in Churchill. It was November and I was documenting the late freezing of the bay, where the largest congregation of polar bears in the world hungrily paced the rugged shore waiting for the water to turn to ice so they could hunt seal. After a long summer living off fat reserves, these massive predators were hungry and could pose quite a real danger to humans…unlike grizzly bears, wolves, sharks, or any other apex predator I’ve ever encountered before.
Stepping away from the warmth of the fireplace at my host’s home 20km out of town, I donned my winter garb and opened the front door to the eerie quiet that settles over the far north after sunset. Bill, the lone fellow who ran this remote little bed and breakfast out of his home, ambled over from the next room and looked out at the starry night over my shoulder. “Going for a walk?” he asked. I nodded. Without a word, he rummaged through the closet by the front door. Amidst the boots, coats, and furs that fill the alcove, he pulled out a gun, double-checked to make sure it is loaded, and handed it to me. “You know how to use this?” he asked. I nodded. “Watch out for polar bears, and mind the wolves that have been around the yard lately.”
Churchill is a difficult place to wander around safely, and therein lies perhaps the greatest logistical challenge for the visiting photographer. For those who prefer to wander alone, you can’t really do that here. An off road vehicle and a gun are required to access much of the wilderness. The good thing is that their is great ecotourism infrastructure in place to open up the wilderness to you. Dogsleds, tundra buggies, and zodiacs are commandeered by knowledgeable guides daily.
First, understand the climate you are entering, and make sure you have proper clothing. This is a requirement to merely be outside in the cold and doubly so for us photographers, who often have to patiently wait in stillness for light, subject, and conditions to change. Bring more layers than you anticipate needing; I’ve never regretted bringing too much, but have often regretted leaving an extra pair of long underwear at home.
Second, know the environment you are entering, or hire a guide who does. Understand that daylight hours tend to be short in winter, whiteout storms can come up quickly, smooth surfaces (snow, glaciers, ice, etc) can have hidden dangers underneath, and animals can be hidden in plain sight with seasonal camouflage.
Third, know your camera gear well. You need to be able to operate your gear through layers of clothing and essentially operate it blind.
Finally, bring backup equipment. Camera gear has a tendency to behave in weird ways when exposed to extreme cold, so redundancy could mean the difference between getting the shot you’ve spent so much effort getting yourself out here for and nothing. A second camera body is a good idea, both as a backup and also as a mount for a second lens, since it is often difficult to change lenses in winter weather. Also, batteries. Battery performance plummets in the cold. Always carry plenty of spares, and store them in an inside pocket to keep them warm until needed (subsequently cycling “dead” batteries into another warm pocket – you can often reuse them once they’ve warmed back up).
“Wear wool socks, two layers if needed. Oh, and bring extra batteries!”
I think that the most intense experience I’ve had was in Thingvellir National Park, shooting the aurora in -20°. It’s not that is was so awfully cold but the fact that I forgot my remote trigger at home and had to take my fingers out every time I took a shot, refocused, and whatnot. My fingers went numb, so I had to look for the light on the camera to see if I had pressed the shutter. I couldn’t feel it.
One of my favourite locations to shoot was also this park close to downtown Reykjavik. It was snowing heavily, and I just loved the fact that everything kind of disappears. You only see a few meters in front of you. I had my Sorel boots on, but the challenge was to keep them from filling with snow, since it was up to my knee. I came back wet but happy.
Pro Tip: Dress well and smart. Wear warm clothes, but also have a top-layer that is water repellent.I personally like to have two layers of clothing under my jacket (wool, not cotton) that I can un-zip. You can get quite warm if you are walking in the snow- no mater how cold it is- and you get cold if you start to sweat, so I tend to open up a bit regularly to cool down. Wear wool socks, two layers if needed. Oh, and bring extra batteries!
Petr Jan Juracka
“When talking about the cold, two things are of the utmost importance: batteries and fingers!”
I shot the Greenland glacier directly under the glacier. The camera was on the tripod, but I was pretty far out, because it is very dangerous to stay underneath the glacier in the morning. As the sun rises, big pieces of the ice fall all around you and can kill you easily. I was waiting for the moment for about two hours. It would have been a substantial risk to stay, so I controlled the camera remotely. I admired the beauty of the place; however, all these regions share one very sad feature: you can see the global warming with your own eyes. This glacier loses about one meter of its height every year!
Pro Tip: When talking about the cold, two things are of the utmost importance: batteries and fingers! You have to warm your batteries (for the DSLR, drone, as well as for the accessories); otherwise, they lose their capacity really fast. And the fingers? When you leave them to freeze, they will not be able to press the shutter button, to release the tripod, or to change the memory card. My advice is to use lining gloves, just very thin gloves under your gloves. This way, the skin of the fingers is never naked but still covered with the second merino layer. It makes a great difference!
“Always keep your camera gear in your camera bag as much as possible, and only take it out when you’re going to use it.”
There was this awesome cornfield down the main road from where I live that belonged to a local university. They used it for the students to do environmental research, so the field was left untouched for the most part, other than the students who were allowed on the property. The field is surrounded by this mature forest with beautiful tall trees, and many times I would pass by the property, and there would be a family of deer grazing in the open field.
A couple of years a go, we had a huge ice storm in our area. It seemed that the entire city got hit really badly with a thick sheet of ice, and then snow on top. The ice was so heavy that it began to cause the branches on the trees to snap and break. In fact, many trees themselves began to fall over and cause a lot of damage to homes, cars, and properties around the area.
But when the sun came out, it was like the entire city glowed and glistened with the ice reflecting the glow of the sun! It was beautiful! So I went around the neighbourhood with my camera to document this beautiful tragedy. And at the end of the day, I ended up at the cornfield, with the sun setting directly behind the ice and snow covered trees.
You see, this field is the only open space close by to my home, that I can quickly run to, to catch the sunset, in an area that is completely surrounded by homes and local businesses. It’s the only place that seems to teleport you into a wooded area, where you feel like there’s nothing else around you but trees and this cornfield, and affords you the luxury of viewing the entire sunset, without telephone wires and other distractions getting in the way.
However, sadly enough, the property was recently sold to land developers, who have already started the process of preparing the land to build homes right on the cornfield. So now, I no longer have the luxury of quickly running to the edge of the fenced up property of the cornfield to photograph the sunset, and the lovely family of deer that lived in the area.
Pro Tip: Always keep your camera gear in your camera bag as much as possible, and only take it out when you’re going to use it, then put it back in the bag. Especially if you have just come from a warm car. Your camera and lenses need time to adjust to the sudden drop in temperatures in order to keep them from fogging up. So make sure to plan ahead and even leave your gear outside, in the camera bag, a good 15 min. before you head to your destination so it has time to acclimatize to the weather outside. Keep a lens cloth handy with you at all times, to wipe off any particles from the surface of the lens and camera viewfinder, as there tends to be a lot of static in cold, dry climates. Keep a pair of good warm gloves with you at all times, and dress in layers because you can end up easily working up a sweat, which you don’t want, especially if you’re planning to be outside for a good part of the day.
“Prepare for the worst! And remember you will likely be the weakest link.”
I’ve had a couple unforgettable moments. During winter in Finland, -36 degrees celcius was mind boggling cold. The camera would actually freeze onto my face. Svalbard is extremely remote and hard to get to, very desolate. Then there was one winter in Norway, where we shot orca’s and whales during the day and northern lights in the evening. This was quite the spiritual experience for me.
Pro Tip:Prepare for the worst! And remember you will likely be the weakest link, so bring the best technical clothing you can afford. Also bring lots of spare batteries and keep them warm by storing them underneath your clothes.