There are few experiences better as a photographer than being an explorer of an untouched place. The east coast of Greenland is one such place.
In the late summer, behemoth icebergs drift down from the North Arctic, while Humpback whales arrive from the south. Water temperatures in Greenland usually range from -1 to 3 degrees Celsius, so cold water equipment with a good drysuit is essential to dive there, but extraordinary dive skills are not required. You basically want to be trained in cold water diving and feel safe handling all your gear.
But there are also big-time photo opportunities above water as well, like topside whale watching, quaint villages tucks into the mountain landscape and even a celestial lightshow.
Diving next to an iceberg is any cold water diver’s dream—but this very special experience is not easy to capture on your camera’s sensor. In summer, when the visibility in Greenland is only about 8-12 meters, you’ll need t to be close to the iceberg so that it doesn’t get blurred out from far away. This often requires choosing an iceberg that is quite small to save as much room as possible in the frame.
However, don’t make the mistake to measure the iceberg from the surface, as nearly ninty percent of its icy mass is submerged below the surface. The lack of visibility and enormity of the icebergs make a fisheye a must to limit the water column and get close to the subject.
Lighting isn’t as easy as you’d imagine. The dark blue water surrounding the white iceberg can confuse your camera and result in TTL pushing the strobes to too high of an output. This often results in reflecting the strobe light back from the iceberg and blowing out the shot. This is one case were shooting your strobes manually is critical. By selecting half power on your strobes and shooting at a slightly upwards angle, you can give enough light to the shadows of the iceberg without producing a blinding flashback effect.
Having a diver in the background or foreground is always a very good idea as it shows the size dimensions of the subjects to the viewer, who might otherwise be disorientated. Split shots are also asthetically pleasing and informative, showing the viewer really how much of the iceberg is hidden below the surface. While this is a good idea in theory, there are only a few good split shots of icebergs to be found.
The difficulty here is to first find an iceberg that is small enough to capture the dimensions both above and below the water. Second, the limited visibility of the arctic waters from the melting freshwater of the icebergs won’t let you show the full dimensions and forces you to stay too close to the ice.
Closer to the coast the visibility is usually better, but the icebergs are really big, which can be dangerous: The bigger the iceberg, the bigger the risk that ice could break off under or above water, which can injure the photographer. If you’re the member of an organized trip, the dive guides usually know where the risk is low and where it’s not.
When it comes to do the actual split shot, try to focus and expose on the top of the iceberg. An underexposure is better than overexposure because it’s easier to push the dark parts then to pull the highlights. A higher f-stop will help you to get both, the over and under water part, in focus.
Whales Above and Underwater
Many different species of whales arrive in east Greenland during the late summer time. Off the coast, mostly Humpback Whales can be seen, but Minke Whales, Sperm Whales and Fin Whales have been spotted as well as Orca’s. The smaller whales like the Minke’s and Orca’s are difficult to spot, as they are very shy. The most common subjects are Humpback, which swim up and down the coastline and relax inside the fjords.
For topside shots you’ll need a good telephoto lens, such as a 300mm on a full frame sensor camera or 70-200 for cropped sensors. A zoom is always the more flexible option, but the prime lens definitely allows the better image quality. To focus on only one point in the AF field is the better option than leaving the focus to the automatic AF field search, which can result in sharpness on the background or foreground, but not on the whale.
It’s always nice to catch the fluke of the whale when the animal is diving. Burst mode of the camera is a good option for this, because the focus will be fixed and the best image can be chosen later. What also works well is to show the whale while it’s breathing out, showing the fountain. Framing this behavior in front of an attractive background like Greenland’s snowy mountains or glaciers adds to the image as well.
Photographing Humpbacks is a different story underwater in Greenland, where the cold temperatures seem to make the subjects especially uninterested in divers or snorkelers. The whales are quite busy traveling or feeding, so there is not really time to be curious about new things. Inside the fjords there are sometimes Humpback shales resting and socializing, but the visibility inside can drop down to five meters, which will not allow for a good picture.
So the best chances are off the coastline where the whales are cruising. Usually once a whale is spotted, it will dive a few minutes later. Then the boat drives slowly to the last know position and waits for a new encounter. Sometimes the whales are curious during the first contact and swim by close. This would be the best chance to see the whale underwater, so it’s certainly recommended to be ready at all times.
As far as equipment, it helps to go without strobes—just the housing with a large dome port. You can attach a small weight to the dome if it’s too buoyant. It’s critical to slip into the water with as little as noise and splash as possible as not to scare off the Humpback.
Don’t approach the whale, instead let it come to you. In these conditions, where you are consumed with just getting into proper position, a good camera setup is time automatic mode with slightly underexposed setting like -1/3 aperture. With such timid subjects you may be tempted to use a zoom lens, but you’d really regret that choice if the whale is especially friendly—so stick with the fisheye.
Other Greenland Underwater Subjects
Don’t forget to pack your macro lens on a trip to Greenland. Despite the fact that most of the subjects are wide-angle, there is also a good reason to shoot small life.
When it’s not icebergs or whales, the underwater landscape in Greenland mostly consists of a large kelp forest. The kelp doesn’t grow high like in California, but gets up to three or four meters and rests relatively flat on the rocks. It’s definitely worth some shots, but not very photogenic on its own.
Interesting is what lies below: When you push the kelp to the side you can find a lot of small things that can attract a photographer like nudibranches, skeleton shrimp, sea stars and small growing corals. By getting as low and shooting up you can frame the macro subject in front of a clean background. It’s a little work to get the right position in the kelp, but at least there is nothing to damage.
There are some nice spots of white and yellow corals in a depth of 25 meters or lower. A fisheye together with a compact dome port works very well to get a close-up of the coral, as well as including background elements like a diver or sunball. In the kelp forest it is especially important to have a good eye for macro images or to follow an experienced dive guide who knows where to look for well-camouflaged subjects.
Aurora Borealis and Other Topside Magic
Even on dry land (relatively dry) Greenland doesn't dissapoint. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be more photographic subjects, from smiling dogs in fields of grass, to stunning vistas and handmade sleighs there's a littly bit of everything.
The Northern Lights are yet another reason for photographers to travel within throwing distance of the polar circle. These mystical solar winds have their own special charisma, which make them so attractive, especially when captured on digital “film.”
In the summer months it’s quite rare to see the lights, but when it comes closer to winter, the Aurora borealis gets more likely. The Northern Lights can be bright in the sky, illuminating the whole landscape, and one moment later they are gone. So be ready with your camera and tripod when there is a clear day and when you are able to see the stars. A wide-angle lens would be the best choice to cover a large part of the sky.
It’s a good idea to have the f-stop and ISO as low as possible and the shutter speed no longer than eight seconds, which prevents the stars from “streaking.” To get a sharp picture, try to setup the camera at daylight and remember the focus setup on the lens. You can use a small tape to mark the right position onto it. What you also can do is to have a little bit of light in your picture, which illuminates the foreground and where you can focus on. But make sure the focus light isn’t too strong; otherwise it will burn out the image in that part.
It’s also a good idea to use a remote control to trigger the shutter of your DSLR to avoid shaking and keep your eyes peeled to the sky. Once the Aurora borealis is visible, just press the shutter and enjoy the outcome.
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