More than a century ago, a British photographer by the name of Herbert Ponting introduced the world to Antarctica. In 1910, he had followed Captain Robert Falcon Scott and documented historic scenes from the British Antarctic Expedition. At the time, the icy continent was largely a mystery: it was unpredictable, frightening, and cold. Ponting’s photographs captured humankind’s reckoning with the elements; the wilds of Antarctica seemed massive and invincible, and the explorers appeared small by comparison.
These days, we know Antarctica is not invulnerable; in fact, this precious ecosystem is especially fragile, and in the last 100 years, climate change has devastated this continent and areas like it. In the 21st century, traveling to frigid, hard-to-reach corners of the world is just as thrilling as it was in Ponting’s time, but today we must carry with us the knowledge that these places are delicate and worth protecting for generations to come.
We asked five outstanding photographers to share their stories from cold, rugged, and out-of-the-way destinations. Below, they take us on a journey to some of the most inaccessible spots on the planet, including regions of Antarctica, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Read on to learn more.
1. “Take your time getting the shots you want, and don’t fill up your memory cards in one day.”
Image by robert mcgillivray. Gear: Canon 6D camera, EF 100-400 lens. Settings: Focal length 100mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f10; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
One of the most inaccessible places I’ve been to is called Baily Head on Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands. It’s also my favorite place to go to in Antarctica. While most ships with tourists visit Deception Island, Baily Head is on the outside of the volcano and fully exposed to the wind and waves of the Southern Ocean.
In the last six years, I have tried to go here nine times yet always failed due to the weather conditions. That is, until last year on the last day of my trip. Finally, we had a beautiful sunny day without any wind and ideal landing conditions. The one thing that made this place so special is that it encapsulates everything Antarctica is for me: it is full of chinstrap penguins (around 50.000 pairs), gentoo penguins (a few thousand pairs), elephant seals (100+) and fur seals (1000+). The Mountains of Livingstone Island in the background remind you of how rugged this area is. And the constant stream of penguins going up and down the highway to their young is a sight that I personally will never forget.
Unfortunately, Baily Head and the South Sandwich Islands are feeling the effects of climate change, and the penguin populations and permanent snow cover are rapidly disappearing.
Image by robert mcgillivray
Antarctica is getting more and more open for everyone with many “expedition” cruise companies now providing trips here. The issue is actually having the time to take the shots that you want and not being rushed around in a tourist group. If you are going to take a trip like this, go with a company that gives you maximum time ashore. Find a company that puts the emphasis on seeing the wildlife and the natural surroundings and not a company that goes on a “cruise” because that is exactly what you will get. Smaller ships are always better due to the amount of shore time you will get.
If you are in Antarctica in the Austral summer, it won’t actually be that cold. Temperatures usually hover around -5/-2 Celsius, although at times the temperature will drop to -15/-20, especially in areas like the Ross and Weddell Sea. You have to be prepared for this, and the best way is layering your clothes. If it’s a warm day, you can take something off, and if it gets colder, you can put it on again. Protecting yourself against the sun is far more important. The sun is very strong due to the hole in the ozone layer, and the snow reflects that light back up to you, so sunburn is not uncommon. Factor 50+ is a must.
Anyone taking a trip to the Antarctic should remember that it is an unspoiled ecosystem. Don’t leave anything behind. Follow the rules set out by IAATO (the organization that oversees and regulates Antarctic tourism), especially taking care not to disturb the wildlife as they are only in Antarctica in the summer for breeding and feeding. If we as humans disturb that or destroy it, then we destroy the last pristine area on earth.
Don’t carry all your gear in one go. Too many times, I have seen people with three to four bodies and several lenses, and they spend so much time changing lenses and trying to sort out settings on their cameras that they miss all the great shots. Have one body with one lens on you on small boat excursions, and take a few more lenses when you go on land. Make sure to have waterproof covers as well.
The most important thing when coming to Antarctica is not to spend the entire time looking through a lens. Enjoy the serenity and the unspoiled beauty once in a while by putting away your camera. Take your time getting the shots you want, and don’t fill up your memory cards in one day. Those amazing shots will come. If anything, Antarctica always delivers.
2. “Take double the amount of batteries you think you need; in the cold, they lose capacity extremely quickly.”
Image by Dmitry Chulov. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens. Settings: Focal length 75mm; exposure 1/320 sec; f8; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
These are the mountains of Malselv in Norway in winter. At first, getting there was easy. I took a flight to Tromso, followed by a 90-minute drive to the Malselv Mountain Village. And then the real adventure started!
The idea was to photograph reindeer in their real and natural environment. In winter in Malselv, that means going high up into mountains that are covered with two meters of snow. The temperatures easily drop down to -35C, and there are strong winds. To reach this remote snow-covered plateau, I needed transport.
After a long talk, two Saami men agreed to drive me uphill with snowmobiles the next morning. My gear, my camera backpack, and my tripod were all fixed with ropes to the backseat of a snowmobile, and the only available seat for me was a flat metal sledge covered with deer fur attached to the back of the vehicle.
Your grandmother’s car would seem like a roller coaster compared to Saami snowmobiling. We conquered steep, almost vertical snow grounds. It was extremely slippery on the cold bare metal, and on one of the turns, the Saamis lost me. I landed in the middle of nowhere, in deep snow, thrown away from the sledge by the centrifugal force, with snow in my eyes, ears, and mouth.
When we finally got to the right place, it was fantastic: majestic white mountains glazed with ice, glimpses of shy arctic sunlight, and no sign of human presence on the horizon. Only silence and frost. And there was a herd of reindeer! We brought two sacks of dry reindeer food to attract and feed the animals, and while filming one group, I suddenly heard rustling behind me.
At the exact moment I turned, I instinctively pushed the button on my camera with a frozen finger. There were two curious young males coming towards us, pushing fresh, soft snow with their feet. It became my favorite shot of the day. You can get lucky if you are able to get to the right place at the right time.
Image by Dmitry Chulov
Get ready for surprises and serious cold! I never bring my cameras and lenses back into the warmth of a vehicle or indoors once they’ve been taken outside. That way, I avoid condensation on lenses and inside the camera body. Take double the amount of batteries you think you need; in the cold, they lose capacity extremely quickly. Additionally, keep them in warm pockets close to your body.
When it comes to extreme cold—my personal record was shooting at minus 54C in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, Russia—be careful with all your gear, set everything up in advance, and only expose your equipment to the extreme conditions at the last second. Pay special attention to sound, power, and GPS cables, as they can become unexpectedly fragile. Be ready to work fast. In harsh weather conditions, your filming session may last only a few minutes!
I keep with me two catalytic gasoline pocket warmers, like the ones you can buy from Kovea. No one can work with a camera with completely frozen, unbendable fingers. They need only gasoline and air (no batteries or any other power supply necessary), and they are light and applicable in all sorts of situations. I put one in each of my mittens to try to stay warm.
3. “The best time to shoot icy Lake Baikal scenes is between late February and early March…”
Image by Marina Khlybova. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mk II camera, Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 16mm; exposure 0.6 sec; f11; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
Lake Baikal is one of the best places in Russia for shooting frozen landscapes. The thick ice and water are so transparent that you can see stones at the bottom of the lake, even if the distance from them to the soles of your shoes is more than ten meters.
Image by Marina Khlybova
The best time to shoot icy Lake Baikal scenes is between late February and early March, but it’s not easy to get to the most spectacular shooting spots. You can walk some kilometers on the ice, but you have to take very small steps so there is less of a chance of slipping. It helps to have spikes on your shoes or something similar. You can also get to the best spots on skates, carrying all your equipment on special sledges.
A photographer walking in this area might have to spend the night in an ice grotto or an old hunters hut. You can also reach these places by car, but bear in mind that in March, the air temperature gradually rises, and as the ice begins to melt, it becomes more and more dangerous to drive through it. One day, we went to shoot the ice stencils on the rocks, called “sakui” here. The ice didn’t seem to be very strong, so we left the car half a kilometer away from our destination and went on foot. The next evening, we were told that someone had driven to the rocks further than we had, and the ice could not bear it. The car drowned.
If you ever happen to photograph the ice of Lake Baikal, remember that when driving on the ice, you should not lock the car door or fasten the seat belt. You must be able to leave the car as quickly as possible in case of danger or emergency.
4. “Before a trip, I try to contact locals or friends who have made the trip previously.”
Image by Foto 4440. Gear: Nikon D300 camera, Nikkor 18-55 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f7.1; ISO 400.
What’s the story behind this photo?
Undoubtedly, one of the most shocking places I have photographed in my 30-year photographic career is in Antarctica. I chose this photo because it was my first visual contact with the Antarctic zone. I arrived at Paulet Island near the Antarctic Peninsula to see that huge snowy rock, surrounded by large pieces of floating ice. I just remember thinking, “Wow, I am in a very remote place!” I felt small and insignificant when confronted with the magnitude of these spaces.
The ship I was traveling on arrived early in the morning. I was careful to capture the color of the light, and I was able to take several photos from different angles. Since I could not direct the ship, it was helpful to use a zoom to get some good variety. While we were there, I observed the sky, the seabirds, and the water, and I tried to find whales and dolphins—you can see some very rare species here.
Access to these wild places is always complex. The weather can change suddenly, and a storm can hinder the movements of your boat. In my case, there was no dock and no stairs to get off the boat, so we just went straight down into the water with rubber boots. My journey on this island continued with some stunning wildlife. This moment was just the beginning of an unforgettable trip.
Image by Foto 4440
Before a trip, I try to contact locals or friends who have made the trip previously. And although it costs extra, hiring a local guide can result in better images.
Although it seems obvious, there are non-photographic factors that are as important as the camera and lens you use. In extreme climates, it is necessary to wear several layers of clothing. In the case of Antarctica, it’s even possible to rent equipment that will protect you against the cold, rain, and snow. Gloves and a hat are indispensable, as are some type of glasses or goggles to protect you from the high glare from the snow or ice. Also, a hot drink and something sweet to eat can change your mood drastically.
Safety should be your first priority, especially in remote places. On a ship, the deck, stairs, and rails are often frozen, and once you’re walking on land, rocks and ice can cause accidents, so you must be extremely careful.
5. “I always do my research to find local guides who can accommodate private trips at odd hours to the most amazing hidden locations.”
Image by Kertu. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens with Canon EF 1.4X III extender. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f6.3; ISO 640.
What’s the story behind this photo?
I have traveled around the world and photographed many different landscapes, climates, and locations. But no phenomenon inspires me as much as snow and ice. I remember the day when I realized that there are few things as magical as glistening ice crystals. It was an amazing -29°C morning back home, and I wore my warmest jacket and headed out to the lake to capture the frozen nature and the rising sun. I can still hear the perfect silence that was only cut by the crunching snow under my feet.
Life has taken me to many places, and I live in a much warmer climate for now, so when I had an opportunity to join a sailboat crew in Greenland during midnight sun season, I did not hesitate. Three flight connections and thirty-four hours later, I reached the town of Ilulissat, ready to board the boat and sail through the night. The frozen bay with icebergs, glaciers, and humpback whales was even better than I could have imagined. The variety of pinks, purples, yellows, and blues reflecting off the water are hard to put into words.
Image by Kertu
Get really far out there—whether it’s with sailboats, with snow hiking shoes, on horseback, or with sled dogs. Tour groups hardly ever get to locations during the best light at sunrise or sunset. They also don’t tend to stick around long enough to allow time for unique angles, and a busload of footprints rarely adds to the landscape. I always do my research to find local guides who can accommodate private trips at odd hours to the most amazing hidden locations.
Keep yourself warm. It’s hard to concentrate on getting creative angles and sharp shots when I’m shivering…or even worse, warming up indoors. Good layers cost a pretty penny and take up a lot of space in the bag, so I think it all through before the flight. I also never forget to carry some hearty snacks—it’s incredible how fast your energy gets burnt in extreme weather.