Category Archives: Greenland

Surviving Photographing in Extremely Cold Conditions

Greenland, a land of such incredible beauty, that words and pictures just can’t do it justice, but also a place with some pretty savage temperatures. Now us photographers are a strange bunch, whereas your average walker keeps on walking and generating heat, prior to ending up in a nice warm pub before dark, we tend walk to a location then hang around waiting for the light and getting cold again.

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We’ve just returned from a winter trip to Greenland, where we encountered temperatures as low as minus 35C and it’s been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t work clothing wise and it also threw up some interesting camera equipment issues. The average temperature in West Greenland in February is normally around minus 15C, but Greenland was in the middle of a cold snap during our visit, so cold in fact that the sea froze in Disko Bay where we were staying.

The frozen sea ice in Ilulissat harbour

Clothing

We all know about wearing layers, but it was interesting to see just how much (little?) was necessary to keep us warm in temperatures down to minus 35C. Fortunately we went well prepared and suffered very little, despite several 90 minute sessions being stood on location shooting sunsets. My standard kit whilst moving about consisted of a Merino wool base layer, a thin fleece mid layer all covered with lined trousers for my legs (Or salopettes if you have them). Add a fleece jumper and a lined jacket (Or better still a down jacket) to my upper body and I was generally pretty snug. For evenings spent shooting the sunset, I substituted the jacket for a lined one piece suit (that I’d purchased in Norway a few years ago) and that kept me warm even on an evening at minus 30C plus severe wind chill.

Keeping the core body warm is very important, but its extremities like feet, hands and face that tend to suffer most. We had Merino blend inner and outer socks and fur lined boots and these worked well, but feet did eventually get cold after an hour or so standing around on location. As for the hands, it’s important to keep them covered at all times, but still be able to operate the buttons on the camera. We normally wear thin silk glove liners as a base layer, but for these temperatures we took a thicker base layer and covered them with windproof flip top mittens. These allow you to expose the fingers and operate the camera, then quickly recover to keep in the heat. In my opinion, mittens keep your hands much warmer than gloves with fingers, so it’s surprising that there are currently so few on the market.

Boots with retractable studs

Feet are usually the first item to feel the cold, so warm boots are a must, but we’ve found in snowy, icy places like Norway, it tends to be a bit of a “splatfest” as we’ve always had falls even when using grips like “Yaktracks”. For this trip, we tried something new in the form of boots with retractable studs and found them brilliant. The studs are built into a reversible insert in the boot sole, so you can easily retract the studs when not needed. However, we even found that the studs work well on frozen rock.

Another area that lets in the cold is the neck and face, so we normally wear a “Buff” neck warmer and this has the advantage of being able to cover the lower face if required, particularly when it’s windy. Once again, we went for a thicker version for Greenland, rather than the thinner example we use in the UK and this proved very adequate. Though on the very cold days the Buff directed my breath into my sunglasses and they both froze up.

Even the thickest woolly hat proved to be inadequate in these conditions. Whilst the weather was generally pretty still, on the odd occasion when it was windy we needed a lined windproof hat which covered the ears.

One product we were advised to take was “Hot Hands” and these proved to an absolute boon. Slipping them into your gloves warm cold hands nicely and they stay warm for a remarkable length of time.

Camera Gear

During our time in Greenland, temperatures were often below minus 20C and it’s at these temperatures that camera gear really starts to wilt. Battery life can be an issue, though we didn’t find it to be a particular problem so long as we didn’t use “live view” too much. Mirrorless cameras are going to suffer far more with battery life than DSLR’s and one camera only lasted 14 frames in these conditions. We only took one spare battery each and managed, but I would strongly recommend you take more.

It seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it never occurred to me that leaving your camera set up on the tripod was the equivalent of leaving your hands un-gloved, so make a point of returning your camera to the warmth of its bag, or inside your jacket as much as possible. I tended to leave my camera set on the tripod whilst waiting for a sunset and paid the price, as my camera froze up on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, it did come back to life once it had thawed out back in our accommodation. Interestingly, placing a “Hot Hands” inside a sock and pulling that over your lens proved very effective at keeping the camera warm.

I was a little surprised to find that tripod leg locks hardened so much in these temperatures, my tripod was reluctant to lock and my Arca Swiss ball head declined to work at all at temperatures below minus 12C.

We were advised to take a spare camera body and this was advice we chose to ignore. We got away with it, but one of our party had a camera die altogether with the cold and it’s easy to drop a camera with cold hands, so it was sound advice after all.

Conclusion

Whilst all this may sound melodramatic, we loved Greenland and being well equipped meant we didn’t suffer much at all. The arctic in winter is stunningly beautiful, so don’t be put off by the cold and go for it! But do remember to keep your camera inside its bag or inside your jacket as much as possible.

 

Why Greenland in Winter?

Greenland, a land of icebergs and Inuit’s. Conventional wisdom says Greenland is only visited by intrepid explorers’ like Amundson and Rasmussen, plus a few hardy trekkers who come in the summer, but ordinary people like us just don’t go to Greenland in winter. Well they do now!

After the demise of my ill-fated St. Kilda trip, we spent some time wondering where to visit next. Most of our photography is done locally, but every now and again we fancy an adventure, so we on the lookout for new places to go to. We looked at Iceland, but we’re much happier shooting un-recognisable scenes, so Iceland was off the list. We really enjoyed our trips to Lofoten and may yet return one day, but Lofoten has become the new Iceland, so we decided to look a bit harder. We also looked at the Faroes and Spitsbergen, but Spitsbergen is more of a wildlife destination. Then we spotted some images by Russian photographer Daniel Kordan who’d been to Scoresby Sund in east Greenland and we loved them and this started our minds running.

Greenland’s a place so far off most people’s radar that they understandably have no idea what it’s like, but we’ve been fans of Ragnar Axelsson’s photography for several years and had read a couple of his books, so we had some idea of what to expect.

A small boat trip like Kordan’s was out of the question for Janet who doesn’t like boats, but we found a land based autumn trip to west Greenland with Wild Photography Holidays. Unfortunately, this trip was booked up, but the company had just announced a winter trip which looked right up our street. We thought about it overnight, then gave them a call the next morning and got the last two places!

How to Get There?

Getting there proved surprisingly easy. Train direct to Manchester, followed by a flight to Reykjavik. An overnight stay in Reykjavik, then a three-hour flight west over the ice-cap direct to Ilulissat town where we were staying. A fifteen-minute taxi ride and we were in our hotel, easy!

Reykjavik

What’s it Like?

Nothing can prepare you for beauty on this scale! Flying over the ice-cap and looking down on this immense white landscape defies description. As lovers of wild, remote places, we were definitely going to enjoy this! Greenland, first named by “Eric the Red” to boost his colonisation dreams, is the ultimate marketing scam, or in today’s parlance “Fake news”. Whilst the rim of this huge island is ice free in the summer, the island is totally snow covered in the winter. Greenland’s also a place facing great social and economic change; the old hunter/fisher subsistence way of life is rapidly giving way to a modern society where people live in towns, so visiting now was going to give us a glimpse of the old life before it finally disappeared altogether.

How Cold is it?

Getting off the plane at minus 30C takes your breath away! But in reality, once we got layered up and protected from the cold, it really wasn’t bad at all. Being a very dry cold helps a lot and provided you keep your fingers  and other extremities covered at all times, operating a camera didn’t prove to be a problem at all.

Ilulissat Airport

Climate

South Greenland is renowned for having a wet climate, but the winter weather in the east tends to be settled with little wind, or precipitation, so it makes the cold temperatures much more tolerable. Kneel, or sit in the snow and you don’t get wet and it doesn’t feel any colder than the air.

Ilulissat harbour

What is there to see?

Our hotel in Ilulissat proved to be bright, modern, well-appointed and served good food, so proved to be a really good base and it was also only a 30-minute trek over rough snow covered terrain to reach the Kangia Icefjord. Kangia is rightly a UNESCO World heritage site and truly a sight to behold. A 60km glacier makes its way slowly to the sea and calves icebergs the size of Manhattan into the mouth of the Icefjord and out into Disko Bay. Our vantage point on this first evening overlooking the icefjord gave us our first view of these bergs, but the scale is so immense, words and pictures fail to do them justice.  As sunset approached, we were treated to a subtle pink and blue sunset that only cold climes like this can give you, but at minus 34C, you don’t want to stay too long!

The Kangia Icefjord

Ilulissat itself proved to be modern and sprawling town of 3500 inhabitants, but with echoes of the old life all around, with sled dogs everywhere. What really struck me as incongruous though, was how many cars there were in a town that has no roads leading to anywhere outside the municipality.

Ilulissat town

The Icefjord

Temperatures in west Greenland normally average around Minus 15C in February, but our visit coincided with an unusual cold snap and we saw temperatures as low as minus 34C. This had the knock-on effect that the sea in Disko Bay froze over altogether, making the boat trips we had planned, out of the question. Then on day three the temperature rose to the low single figures (Negative) and within 24 hours the sea was opening up again allowing us to take a boat trip to the mouth of the icefjord. It’s hard to describe the immensity of these bergs, with some of them towering hundreds of feet high, but an unforgettable experience to see them soaring high above us from close up.

Kangia Icefjord

The Oqaatsut settlement

All too soon the iceberg trip was over, but our next adventure was about to begin with a move to our second location in the tiny settlement of Oqaatsut. The frozen sea ice meant that sailing 2-1/2 hours to the Oqaatsut settlement was impossible, so we made the 30km trip by helicopter in approximately 6 minutes.

Arriving in Oqaatsut

Oqaatsut, formally known as Rodebay is a tiny settlement of some forty or so people, largely living the traditional hunter/fisher way of life, so it gave us a great opportunity to see the last remains of what was the way most Greenlanders used to live. Though the recently reopened fish processing factory has provided employment for a few of the village inhabitants and the tourism provides more much needed income with a steady stream of trekkers walking from Ilulissat in the summer.

Oqaatsut settlment

Oqaatsut proved a fascinating place and even had a supermarket which sold everything from beer at reasonable prices to sticky tape to seal my lens in focus to capture the northern lights if they were to appear. But what did surprise me in a village with more sled dogs than people, was the supermarket sold cat food!

The Nordlys hotel Oqaatsut

The Oqaatsut settlement required a totally different, documentary approach to photography, then on night two we were treated to the ultimate prize of a glorious display of the northern lights filling the sky for over an hour.

Dancing aurora lights over the blue house in Oqaatsut

Was it worth it?

You bet ya it was! Photographing in minus 30C now holds no fear and to witness such incredible beauty is worth a little bit of discomfort. Would we go again, too right we would!

One final view of the ice from the hotel Icefjord balcony in Ilulissat.