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.

No Such Thing As Bad Light?

There is a saying in photography that there is “No such thing as bad light”. Whilst you may not come away with the image you were hoping for, there’s one thing for certain, if you don’t go, you won’t get anything. With this in mind, I set the alarm for early last Tuesday morning hoping to catch a window in some grey, wet weather. I headed over the moors to the coast and arrived at Runswick Bay on what proved to be a dull morning with heavy rain clouds on the horizon. A biting wind off the North Sea battered me as I set up my camera and tripod and I fired off a couple of un-inspiring frames.

At times like this it’s tempting to pack up and head for the nearest café, but I decided to stick with it and try a little harder. I had a wander around and soon found a composition I was happy with. The sky was pale and lacking any texture, so I decided a long exposure would give me a light-coloured foreground to match the light sky. I spent some time honing the image, before heading off for that coffee knowing that I had a shot in the bag on what was essentially a most un-promising day.

In The Zone

As someone who shoots both monochrome and colour, I’ve long found it fascinating how I can’t bring myself to shoot both on the same day. OK I know you’re looking for something entirely different with mono, you’re looking for contrast in tone and texture, whereas with colour you’re predominantly looking for contrast in colour. But I really had this brought home to me in a big way on our Strensall shoot. I set off with the mindset that I would be shooting a subtle pink sunrise through the mist, but when I got to Strensall Common it was just crying out to be recorded as minimal monochrome.

Janet and I were like kids in a sweet shop, there were compositions all around us and we both really got into the swing of it. So much so that as the sun finally burnt through the mist to light the frosted grasses we were both packing up to go. Now I like these well-lit frosted colour scenes as much as anyone, but we were so much in the mono zone, our creative heads just didn’t want to change tack to colour, so colour would have to wait for another day.

Slowing Down

A few months ago, we attended a lecture by Dave Mead, who talked about his experiences in the Antarctic with Joe Cornish. Dave mentioned that he spent so much time out in the field trying to capture everything that he got so tired he was hallucinating! He later mentioned that his best images from the whole trip were captured during a session at an old whaling station. As he pointed out, he concentrated on getting a small number of images dead right, rather than rushing around like a headless chicken, trying to capture everything, but doing none of it well.

Reflecting on our recent trip to Strensall Common, it struck me that we were in a similar situation. We were surrounded by compositional protentional, so I found it hard to concentrate on a single image and work the scene to it’s full potential. My Three Trees image is a good example. I spotted the potential and was able to get a reasonable composition, but a fallen branch to my left spoilt the image. This meant moving forward, which compromised the composition a bit, but at least I was working the scene rather than rushing off to capture the next set piece.

 

 

 

 

                            Seven Trees

 

Three Trees

Far better to slow down and concentrate on getting a couple of outstanding images, rather than come home with a memory card stuffed full of mediocre images and missed opportunities.

The Art of the Sublime

A few weeks ago, we attended the “On Landscape” conference in Penrith where we were treated to fascinating talks by some of the world’s leading landscape photographers, but the talk that most caught my imagination was Simon Norfolk’s talk on the “Sublime”.

In the modern world, sublime has come to mean little more than superb, or wonderful, but in older times its connotation was much more far reaching, meaning something truly astonishing, bordering on terrifying. In the 17th century, English gentlemen used to send their sons on the “grand tour” to complete their education into the finer things in life. They would travel to places like Rome and Venice, then often venture into the Alps in search of the “sublime”. Being noble born they didn’t walk, they employed locals to carry them into the mountains on sedan chairs, then viewed these wondrous scenes via a Claude glass (A slightly convex tinted mirror) to reduce the terror induced by these sublime, or terrifying scenes.

This may seem strange to us, but I think it has some amazing parallels with the modern world. We might think it crazy to turn our backs on a scene, then view it via a slightly tinted mirror, but think of the equivalents in today’s world. People “bag” iconic places by going on their own mass market “grand tour” in a coach, rather than a sedan chair and turn up at an iconic scene, bag a few selfies and move on to the next viewpoint on the list. It’s exactly the same way of viewing the world. But hang on a minute before all of us photographers start to laugh at the selfie takers, how often do we turn up at a sublime scene and immediately view it through our cameras. Shouldn’t we also put down our cameras for a moment and sit quietly and just view the scene for the simple pleasure that landscape gives us?

 

 

Attention to Detail

Way back in the dark room ages in the early 90’s, a gentleman by the name of Bill Ruark was briefly our mentor and Bill taught us a valuable lesson in photography, “attention to detail”. When Bill lifted a viewfinder to his eye it was generally several minutes before he pressed the shutter, as he scanned the viewfinder looking to illiminate any items that didn’t add to the scene.

I often wonder if it’s the smart phone effect, or a product of our busy lives, but people always seem to “snap” and run, never taking the time to “compose” an image. There is a saying that “an artist starts with a blank canvas and only puts in the elements he wants, whilst a photographer starts with a cluttered scene and must exclude any elements that don’t add to the scene”. It’s that attention to detail that can turn a so-so image into a good one, just by leaving out distracting elements, or by separating elements so they don’t collide with each other and distract the eye.

With the Ullswater image, I was drawn to the early morning light on the tree, so I climbed a hillock to capture the brightly coloured tree against the contrasting darker water of the lake, but I was struggling to get separation of the tree from the reflection of the hills on the right. I couldn’t move to my right without falling in the water and I couldn’t move higher without ending up in the tree canopy above me, so I had to precariously position my tripod right on the edge of my vantage point, then extend the centre stalk to just get that separation I was looking for.

A frosty winter morning at Costa Beck

The Costa Beck image was captured during a walk down my local beck, just a few minutes’ walk from home.  This is an area I’m very familiar with, but such is the joy of photography, changing light and conditions means the scene is always different each time I visit. On this occasion, I was drawn by the reflection of the tree, but capturing a satisfactory composition was always going to be difficult, so I spent some time moving about until I got a composition I was happy with. I moved as far to the right as could without falling in the water to separate the reflection from the left-hand bank, then had to turn the camera to get the track to act as a lead coming out of the corner of the image, but I also had to move to ensure the I didn’t cut the trees on the right in half.

So, as you can see, it always pays to put in the effort and work your compositions, rather than snap and move on and regret it later.