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Arctic photography: Capturing the cold

In the far north of Canada, Somerset Island is a bleakly beautiful, uninhabited land of tundra and ice. It’s a challenging place to master the finer points of photography, but with polar bears and beluga whales for company, you may just end up with the shot of a lifetime

Arctic photography: Capturing the cold
Tamsin getting photography tips from Dave Merron

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“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but some polar bears are swimming our way,” says our expedition leader, Hadleigh. “We may have to pack up lunch.”

I put down my rubber cup of mushroom soup, spilling half of it on the pile of jagged slate that’s been my makeshift seat, and frantically attach my long lens. I know the ISO (light sensitivity setting) needs to be as low as possible — the light is already ideal, as there are no clouds in a sky that’s lit up with 24-hour sunlight — but that’s the limit of my photography knowledge.

We move away from our picnic spot, at the foot of a jagged hill of broken slate (a dramatic feature in the otherwise barren Arctic tundra) and clamber over a small stream that trickles into the ocean, to get as close as possible to the three bobbing blobs of white. Just offshore, beyond a cluster of small icebergs, the bears swim against the current of the Northwest Passage — their black noses pointing upwards, with momma bear at the front, bearing the brunt of the waves, as her two cubs follow closely behind. Despite my repeated attempts to hold the camera still, the best I can manage is off-focus shots of almost-recognisable bear heads pinned in the middle of a marbled blue sea with a wonky horizon in the distance. It’s hardly postcard standard.

Sensing my frustration, resident professional photographer Nansen Weber offers me some encouragement. “There’s only wildlife and landscape out here to shoot — but when you get that shot, it looks amazing. The cold, the wind and everything else becomes worth it.” I’d had my first glimpse of beluga whales from the Twin Otter turbo-prop aircraft that I’d taken here from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. Through the mud-spattered windows I could see Cunningham Inlet in the north of the island: a slash of vibrant turquoise dotted with snow-white specks — beluga whales. Capturing a quick picture on my phone through the blur of the spinning blades, I’d hoped that a week at Arctic Watch Lodge — located 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on the northern coast of Somerset Island — would provide sufficient opportunity to get some unblemished pictures of the wildlife.

Later that evening, I spot the whales for a second time; I actually hear them before I see them. Valeria Vergara — a researcher from Vancouver Aquarium — has lowered a microphone into the shallows of the bay to monitor their interactions. Then, spying their playful splashes in the distance, I zoom in and snap a pixelated outline of a tail cresting the surface.

A biting wind sends tears streaming down my cheeks, making me wish I’d brought out a scarf or snood. In my luggage is a bundle of layers, alongside a fairly basic Canon DSLR with an 18-55mm and a 75-300mm lens, an unopened manual and a few crumpled notes from a three-hour photography course I took a year ago.

The lodge can only be reached by private plane during the summer and a strict weight restriction applies, meaning luxuries such as a tripod and camera bag were struck off my packing list. While some guests have prioritised their equipment (with one bringing a lens almost as big as him), I feel the cold and have packed for the worst. It’s a good job too: temperatures in July can range from 0 to 23C.

Run by the Weber family, Arctic Watch Lodge is a network of sturdy white tents, complete with their own heating, set up from scratch every summer. Despite its remote location, it’s comfortable and cosy. Days are filled with expeditions and evenings with tales of Richard Weber’s seven trips to the North Pole, including explanations of how his wife Josée gained the nickname ‘Polar Mom’ after numerous expeditions in Nunavut, northern Canada, and what it was like for their sons, Tessum and Nansen, to spend their summers with Inuit families on neighbouring Baffin Island. Every member of the lodge has a specific role to play, with Nansen both resident photographer and Valeria’s right-hand man, using his photography skills to help her study the belugas.

The lodge also hosts a photography programme led by Nansen and freelance photographer Dave Merron. It’s fair to say I’m a novice — I generally leave my camera to its own devices in auto mode, letting it choose what it wants to capture. But here, amid the bleak beauty of this desolate Arctic island, I’ve a golden opportunity to improve.

Nansen Weber hiking through the 'Badlands'. Image: Tamsin Wressell

Nansen Weber hiking through the ‘Badlands’. Image: Tamsin Wressell

The rule of thirds

“How did that turn out?” asks Dave. I’m standing in a pool below a waterfall, trying to capture the water as it plummets over a rock face peppered with ice and snow. The waterfall and the stream above are a rare deviation from a landscape of endless grey and the brown-gravelled sea. We’ve travelled here from the lodge on quad bikes — up streams, across ice patches and over spongy tundra, scattered with the occasional hardy flower that’s squeezed its way up through the permafrost below.

I can’t read Dave’s eyes through his shades, but his slight smirk gives it away — the picture is rubbish. “Well, at least you’re not using auto — that’s something,” he says, clearly unaware I’d flicked the wheel on my camera from auto mode just before he reached me.

Taking a few steps back, Dave uses a rocky ledge as a makeshift tripod. Switching to a slow shutter speed, he shows me how to capture the falling water as a milky, silken flow, avoiding the frozen-droplet effect produced when using a fast shutter. Leaning on a pile of stones, Dave angles the camera to create the ‘rule of thirds’ — with the sky, waterfall and pool below all making the crop. “Get it all in. It balances the image,” he explains. Setting the camera on timer to avoid blurring from shaking hands, we take a step back. The shutter snaps, the image flicks up on screen; it’s a vast improvement on mine. Dave’s not happy — the water is a little too bright, and some clouds would have made for more dramatic lighting. But I am; I’m starting to get a feel for how it’s done.

A playful beluga whale. Image: Tamsin Wressell

A playful beluga whale. Image: Tamsin Wressell

Heads or tails

I shuffle my feet and hear the clinking of bones. Looking down, I see the skull of an arctic hare. During the past few days we’ve churned up several interesting sets of remains, including those of a muskox, thought to have been eaten by arctic wolves, and 8,000-year-old bowhead whalebones, found in the ‘Badlands’ — a spot three miles inland that was once a beach.

Watching my footing, I cradle my Thermos of coffee and peer down my telescope at Cunningham Inlet. From here, on top of the ridge where Valeria conducts her research, I can see whales. With a ridge of brown tundra as a backdrop, I spy several closely gathered in the turquoise waters. Since I arrived on the island, hundreds of female belugas and calves have flocked to the inlet — as they do every summer — forming ‘kindergarten’ groups, in which the females watch over their young as they play and socialise. With the help of Nansen’s photographs, Valeria is studying the whales’ behaviour and identifying those returning.

After seeing some of the professionals’ impressive shots of the whales — frozen in action as they play in the shallow waters — I’m eager for it to be my turn. We head down to the water’s edge, as Dave runs through the camera settings
I need. “To capture the action, you need a fast shutter speed — and for that, a large aperture,” he explains as we jiggle around in the 4WD Unimog truck, eagerly preparing our camera equipment.

Making our way to the water’s edge, I kneel down in the wet sand, steadying my camera on my knee. I’ve already been briefed — it’s all a case of getting the right angle and looking for the unusual. Around 30ft offshore, hundreds of whales splash and surface the shallow water, rubbing their backs on the stones below and playing in their groups. There’s no longer a need for a microphone underwater — they’re close enough to hear from the surface. I click away at any tail or head I see cresting the water. “Remember to try and get some of the background in,” Dave reminds me. “It tells a story.”

Hours sail by as I take more shots of heads and tails, but they’re still not good enough to impress Dave. Nansen’s wildlife photography tip from the previous night rings true: be patient. As the tide changes, a new island surfaces a little closer to the whales. Making the hop over, I spot one of the snowy belugas playing in the shallows, its body twisted and bent as it comes to the surface; I take my shot. I’ve got the background in and, behind its head, frozen water droplets coming from its tail as it surfaces. “That’s your golden shot! That’s the one!” My hours of patience have paid off. And after a long day of whale-watching, I can go back to the lodge with my head held high.

Later, after our evening meal, Valeria has an announcement. “For anyone who wants to join me for the last time, I’m heading back down to the bay,” she says, jingling the keys to the Unimog. “There’s a group of whale calves playing close to the shore. Get ready, we’ll be leaving in five minutes!”

I head down, looking for that one last decent shot before leaving the island the next day. Sitting on the shore under the midnight sun, I watch the grey infants as they bob up and down, playing in the shallows. But after only a few photos, my camera has given in — it’s too cold for it tonight.

During the trip, I’ve noticed some guests occasionally heading out without their cameras. I found this extremely puzzling. But with my camera out of action, I’m forced to watch the whales without a lens in the way. The sound of the waves lapping the shore is familiar, but the combination of midnight sun, desolate windswept landscapes and the beluga whales make the whole scene seem so alien. And I finally understand. You needn’t be into photography to appreciate a place like this.

Arctic Watch Lodge, by Cunningham Inlet. Image: Tamsin Wressell

Arctic Watch Lodge, by Cunningham Inlet. Image: Tamsin Wressell

Best destinations for amateurs

Filled with historic cities and a variety of landscapes, from the mountains to desert, Morocco is a great place to practise a range of photographic techniques. Practise portraits at markets in Marrakech; highlight a depth of field in the labyrinth of souks and capture vivid sunset oranges in the Sahara.

Havana, Cuba
Cuba’s iconic, time-warp appearance lends itself perfectly to photography, whether you’re illustrating the day-to-day life of locals or picking out flashes of colour in untouched landscapes. It’s a great place to play with colour, from Havana’s vibrant vintage cars and colonial architecture to moody black-and-white shots at tobacco farms.

Shoot the epic Northern Lights in winter and use summer’s abundant daylight to snap natural wonders like the Goðafoss waterfall, Great Geysir and Dimmuborgir’s lava fields.

Focus on local culture and try to tell the story behind the picture. Highlights include the dramatic detail of the Angkor Wat temples and serene floating villages.

Kerala, India
Kerala is ideal for landscapes, with serene backwaters, waterfalls, tea plantations and verdant peaks. You can also test your wildlife photography skills at national parks and sanctuaries, training your lens on Asian elephants, Bengal tigers and leopards.

How to do it

Quark Expeditions’ seven-day Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge tour costs from £4,100 per person for a double room departing 30 June 2016. Price includes domestic but not international flights and meals, plus fully-guided activities including hiking, kayaking and ATV driving.

Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)