#616. High Arctic Photography

By Dallas Thomas | Travel Photography

Jul 05


I had the privilege of spending 10 nights inside the Arctic Circle in Longyearbyen, Svalbard in late March. It’s a geographically remote, harsh but beautiful place. It’s some 2,000 km north of Oslo, Norway and is the most northern permanent settlement in the world. The North Pole is another 1,309 km north.



Amazingly, I’d never been in snow before so landing in Longyearbyen with an outside temperature  of -15° was a shock to my senses. For the record I’m an Australian, cold for me means anything under 5°. Walking through fresh snow up to my knees was a new and challenging experience.



Longyearbyen is/was a coal mining town. The mining has now been scaled back, they mainly rely on tourism for economic survival these days. Dog sled time trials is how the locals spend their Saturday afternoons.  That was my experience when I was there. I’m not sure whether money changes hands on the outcomes.



Even in March, daylight stretches to over 14 hours, the sunsets are well worth the wait.



8 nights aboard MS Origo was the entire point of being in this huge fridge exploring the fjords of Svalbard looking for the illusive polar bears and other wildlife to photograph. The expedition leader later said the beautiful landscape is interrupted with wildlife, I would have to whole heartily agree. I travelled to this area for the wildlife but I quickly became engrossed in the majestic scenery.



This short film “Kingdom of the Ice Bear” was made 2 years by our expedition leader Joshua Holko, it gives you a better perspective of the landscape. The film was shot later in the season than I experienced, the exposed rocks were not evident on our trip.



Day 2 saw the mercury drop to -29°,  after our friendly crew added in the wind chill factor it worked out to be a nice round number -50°. The Captain later told us he has never experienced colder weather and he’s Swedish!



The ship was covered in ice and one deckhand had the thankless task of removing the ice with a very large rubber mallet daily. I’m afraid he shouldn’t have bothered as 3 hours later it looked like this.


The Origo is a Swedish flagged vessel operating in Norwegian waters, for those of you who noticed it’s wasn’t a Norwegian Flag in the previous shot.



This was a very common sight.



Photographing in these conditions requires you to be dressed in 3-4 layers of thermal clothing, then ski pants, jacket, balaclava, woollen wind proof beanie and gloves and boots. The majority of us had gloves that were recommended by the tour leader, they were designed for use by the Austrian Special Forces, and could be used as either mittens or  with fingers. Within a day I could operate the camera in full mitten mode. The added chemical hand warmers made for snug warm fingers and toes.



An hour or more on deck dressed like this was very possible which I did regularly. I found it very peaceful just to stand on the bow and be “The King of the World” for those times when “Origo” was underway.



Another issue for me is that I wear eye glasses and they fogged the second I exited the warm cabin. These were quickly discarded for all future deck excursions and I quickly got use to this added handicap. Breathing is another thing you have to be careful about, well not breathing per-say but where you exhale, not near the viewfinder, instant fog out if you do.

You may well ask how do modern DSLR’s handle being used under these harsh brutal conditions. Of the 12 paying passengers the split between the Nikon & Canon were about even with 1 Fuji and no Sony in sight. Normally I am used to seeing 30/70 split between Nikon & Canon.

The crew used N with only one exception and he used Canon. I had read and been briefed  about the horror stories of poor battery life in these conditions and for the first few days decided not to use my GPS, what a mistake. After the first days shooting of some 450 frames I had only used 25% of my battery. I use a pro body Nikon, even my other body with a normal sized battery managed 3 days before a charge was required.

We left our gear outside in dry bags at all times to prevent condensation, at night batteries and cards were removed. The temperature differential was something like 40°.

Camera problems you ask, well only one was that the Fuji wouldn’t AF accurately, the owner was not a happy camper and was wishing he bought his Phase One. This trip was the Fuji’s last outing and was replaced by a Nikon on his return to the States.



Unfortunately, we only saw 3 polar bears, but seeing these magnificent animals in their natural environment was something l’ll never forget. If l’d come later in the season I would most likely would have seen more bears. The downside is then that the landscape near the sea would not have been bare rock.



Seeing a Walrus in the middle of nowhere on a small chunk of ice was a sight.



Sea mist (sea smoke) is something I’d heard about and not expected to experience. The crew said that it could appear when temperatures  go below -15°.



Our voyage took us as far north as the sea conditions would allow, the sea ice stopped us at 79’43’38’ for the technical minded, this is well inside the Arctic Circle which starts at 65’.



The landscape is brutal, harsh yet very beautiful.



My advice is if you are thinking of visiting a wilderness like this do it now while you still can.



Ice Puffs



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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Great shots, and a great experience, Dallas – I’m unashamedly jealous – first time I ever saw snow was in the Italian alps, at a place called Sella Nevea – although I was 30 at the time, I was like a kid – “rimbambito” is the Italian word for this phenomenon – I don’t know how many times I shot down the slope on a slitta canadese and ended up head first buried in the snow, to be hauled out by my companions and sent back up the slope for another try. No I shan’t emulate your journey, I HAVE left it too late and these days prefer the creature comforts – and the only ice is in my drinks (or an artisanal sorbet, perhaps – failing which I make my own 🙂 )

    I was curious as to how the different cams handled the climate – can’t help wondering what exactly was the issue with the Fuji, it seemed an unlikely candidate for failure to perform.

    Oh – and like far too many animals, birds etc – j’adore les ours polaires et les moines – just be careful though, they ARE wild animals !!

    • Hi Pete, yes a great experience I would love to go again, but won’t too many other places to visit.

      Not sure what happened to the Fuji all I know the owner has since replaced it.


      • Adrian says:

        Fuji X system.doesnt have a particularly good track record for quality control and issues. The original X100 had a defective aperture mechanism that made it stick;several owners of the “pro” 16-55 f2.8 lens have had to have their new lenses replaced due to focusing issues caused by manufacturing issus; I had to return a lens to them twice under warranty; several firmware updates have introduced issues including with focus (mostly manual); the ports leaked light on the XT1. I’m not flaming them, the after sales support is generally good, but before the X cameras the only experience they had making digital cameras was with pocket cameras, and in spite of the “made in Japan” marketing, the quality control (particularly with software) hasn’t always been that great.

        I hope the owner on your trip managed to get photos using manual focus?

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    What an adventure and you brought home some really good photos!

  • Adrian says:

    I particularly like the landscapes of ice and sky at the start of the article, probably because of their minimalism and subtlety of tone. It looked like an incredible trip, although the increased popularity of Iceland and the arctic is slightly lost on me, preferring warmer climates. Expense is also a consideration as I know that part of the world isn’t cheap to visit!

    I got a bit lost in the comments about batteries.

    • Hi Adrian

      Thanks for your kind comments.

      Battery life can be dramatically reduced in cold conditions, so I was surprised that I did not experience it, hope that helps.


      • Adram says:

        Hi Dallas, I was aware of thr issues with batteries in cold weather, which is why I was confused by your comments. How did you battery life compare to “normal” – no significant deterioration at all?

        Interestingly, in hot humid climates there are also problems with condensation etc when going from.air conditioned indoors to outside (though not as extreme) – I have certainly had condensation on sensor glass and lens elements before, and the only solution is to wait.

        I liked your comments about finding time.on the deck relaxing, I can appreciate that.

    • Steffen says:

      I see the popularity of Iceland and especially the Arctic skeptical. Although a experience of a lifetime for sure, it’s one thing destroying these animal’s habit with global warming and stuff, but it’s another to directly enter it with huge ships crushing their way through, high noise, and pollution. I don’t want to calculate the carbon footprint it takes to carry someone from Australia to the Arctic or moving just 10 guys on such a ship around that area. Getting to this area has become more affordable and therefore more popular, to the point where it breaks … just my thoughts.

      However, great individual experience. Some questions to Dallas:
      1. Did you had the opportunity to get on land for some trips or have you only been on the boat?
      2. Did you buy all the clothes for this specific trip or did you rent them?
      3. Was this ship only for you tourists or did it had another mission (science, cargo)?
      4. Why didn’t you go to Antarctica? As far as I heard of, those vessels start from Hobard, Tasmania. Which should be closer to you, right?

      • pascaljappy says:

        Hi Steffen,

        yes, it is a shame to see Iceland become so crowded and some sort of regulation would be a good thing. Something I think Iceland is currently considering very seriously.

        However, I believe that them impact of cruise ships on global warming is non measurable compared to the impact of the transport industry as a whole and the wasted energy as a whole. In France, up to 50% of electricity is wasted in cable transport over long distances. The US, 5% of the world’s population, use 25% of the world’s energy in huge V8s and other wastage. WV Group cheated on their diesel emissions and are reported to pollute as much as *40 times more* than the allowed max. When politicians decide to clean up their collective shit for real, we’ll be able to focus on the very minor issues such as once-in-a-lifetime trips to the pole 😉

        • Steffen says:

          You’re right: the impact on global warming by cruise ships in the high arctic is negligible and mankind has larger problems to solve. However, it has other, direct impacts on the area it’s cruising. Imagine this: There’s a area of untouched land/ice with some of the most remote, isolated and endangered animals living there. Now, big, noisy, fetidly ships cross this land every once in a while. They break the ice, chase the prey animals, dumping their wastewater into the water, and in general disrupt this fragile ecosystem. And this happens oftener and oftener because the high arctic has become easier to reach and tourists look for even more exotic places.

          Yes, there is are massive, global problems with warming, waste, pollution … But there’re also the small disruptions that may have direct influence.

          I don’t want to denounce everybody doing this as bad. I’m not sure how I would react if I had this once in a lifetime opportunity. Though, I don’t go to Iceland because of exactly these problems.

          … just my personal point of view, no offense.

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