Svalbard during winter - foto expedition into the high arctic

Svalbard winter 2022 - finally I made it.....

I do not know how often we (together with Jürgen) planned this trip and how often it did not work out, was cancelled or postponed! First it was the wrong operator, then Covid struck several times! After visiting Greenland during winter, summer and autumn I wanted to see and photograph another island in the high arctic and I wanted to do it during winter. Travelling on land and on the (frozen) sea is so much easier during winter, the landscape is archaic and winter is more typical for this area than summer. You have 2 months summer the rest is winter and short periods of spring and autumn.

I spent close to two weeks on Svalbard, nearly all days driving a snowmobile guided by an armed arctic guide. Svalbard is polar bear territorry! However it was clear from the very first moment, that polar bears will not be the focus for my photography. Svalbard on land is not the best spot for polar bear photography! The picture market is flooded with perfect polar bear shots, impossible to achieve competitve coverage on Svalbard in the time frame I had!

I wanted to cover the ice and snow covered landscape, and the very few species, which survive the hardship of arctic winter on these remote islands, but not Polar Bears (and this was a wise decision.... as all my guides told me from their experience)!

The second arctic (land) predator, which will pop up in everybodies mind, is the polar fox, very photogenic and very agile. This species was definitly on my list! As typical as the arctic fox is for the arctic the Svalvard Reindeer is for Svalbard. It is a completely wild, very small subspecies of the Reindeer or Caribou species and not semidomesticated as the Reindeer in Scandinavia or Sibiria. It is still not really understood how this species migrated to Svalbard after the last ice age. It was big fun to take pictures of these hardy animals. They are not so difficult to find and more important, the pictures are very atmospheric and show how hard the winter in the arctic is for wildlife.

The third species and I must say, I did not know about it, is the Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan, again an endemic subspecies of our Ptarmigans. You can find them in many places and they do not care much about you, as lang as you move slowly. Very often they follow the reindeers, which scrape away the snow, and pick for seeds after the Reindeers have left.

Longyearbyen - the capital of Svalbard

Svalbards economy depended on hunting and mining for coal. The traces of hunting nearly vanished completely, but the mining history is visible all over the islands. If you have a settlement or town, sometimes still thriving, sometimes a ghost town, it is due to mining. Longyearbyen is no exception to the rule! The town center is new and sprawling, sometimes it reminded me of a little boomtown. But the history is visible on all slopes. Mining shafts, excavation material, ropeway masts and some memorials and museums.

I had not much time in Longyearbyen and only due to Lauma, one of my guides, I got more than decent pictures. I arrived mid afternoon at the airport and was picked up by her. The weather was perfect and she did not drive me to the hotel before sunset. We visited many places in and around Longyearbyen, I would not have seen otherwise. As we started already next morning to the long trip to Pyramiden, I had a rather short night. But no reason to complain...

Landscape Photography in Svalbards winter

Landscape photography is very rewarding, but does not come easy. Landscape photography during winter in arctic regions faces one major challenge. Everything is white, blueish white, yellowish white and if you are lucky you might have an intersting sky. Working with color as an compositional element is hardly possible! You have to work with contrast, shapes and patterns in all sizes, basically everything but color.

At this time of the year, you hardly have dawn, but long sunsets. The sun is, of course,  above the horizon, but even around noon, the low angle of the sun can create hard shadows, you can work with as a photographer. If you are lucky the evening hours will paint everything yellow to red, if you are lucky and have no clouds....

In the worst case you will have opaque light or even white out conditions, no color, no shades, no structures, no clouds, no sky. In such situations it is no fun at all and you can try to find wildlife or just cover some miles to get to your destination. I was quite lucky and we could use these days for driving, but I had my share of near white outs......

The landforms of Svalbard are easy to explain. Coastlines, wide flat valleys, cargged but not very high peakes and lots of glaciers flowing down mostly from huge icefields. As you have winter, all the lakes and rivers, which are visible during summer are just white flat areas, sometimes with exposed ice.

Arctic coasts are very special, you my have seaice, with no real coastline at all, or coasts with icefloes, or pancake ice or ice covered rocks. Plenty of options. As I spent many days on the sea ice in Greenland near Uummannaq and Kullorsuaq, this was not one of my major goals. Svalbard's area 10, with all the global warming effects, is not the best place for it anyway. Some of the existing seaice in the fjords may be crossed, but you are not allowed to stop. Seaice is hunting area for Polar Bears and Svalbard wants to limit any disturbances to a minimum! Therefore not stops...... Good for the bears but not very exciting for a photographer. But these measures have to be appreciated, at least if you are an environmentalist (which most, but not all photographers are)!

You might think, that nobody will see you, but..... One of the unexpected things in Svalbard is the presence of police in the areas allowed for visitors and locals.

Back to the coasts with some more pictures to give you an idea of how arctic coasts might look.

Glaciers, mountains, peaks, and icefields, all the landforms have been created by ice during the iceages and the processes are still going on. Svalbard during winter is a time warp back into the pleistocene, very interesting. You can imagine how the alps and the prealps looked like at the peak of the glaciation.

Svalbard was and is a quite dry area and the snow cover ist quite often not very thick. The ice buildt up during a long period  and is now melting quite quick......

Driving up a glacier up to the enormous icefields is a unique experience and it is more than worth the effort to come to Svalbard and to endure the icy temperatures (up there we had about -30 or more, probably...). You have to feel the expanse of ice which is still there, capturing this feeling as a photo is however quite a challenge. Really nothing breaks the monotony up there...... But if you look back you often see, weather permitting, mountains peaking out of the ice or a valley leading down to the sea. A real challenge to capture this atmosphere, but a rewarding experience!

The landforms like glaciers tumbling down a valley, icefronts and so on, are something you probably have seen and you might have also experience in taking pictures. Nevertheless some more pics of svalbardian landscapes.....

Equipment.....

It is a cold environment, but the necessary clothing is completely supplied in addition to a rented snow mobile and if you join us in an expedition, you can be sure, that everything you get will cope with the environment. Camera equipment however will be your own responsibility  and you have to take care of it. As we are out in the open for 6-10 hours, all your equipment will cool down to the outside temperature. And this is -10 to -30 C. Keeping it warm is not an option, as sudden changes in temperature will do more harm to your equipment than keeping it in sync with the outside temperature. Batteries, of course, have to stay warm, you have to keept them close to your body, NOT in outer pockets of your overall. Therefore there is not much to care about. However it starts to get more tricky, when you return to your hotel room. I have a very simple rule. Take out the battery and all your storage cards, when you are outdoors, zip up your bag and let it slowly adopt to the inside temperature in your room. I never had problems.....

All the same such an evironment is hard on the equipment and everything can fail. You should have some spare lenses, or overlapping focal lengths and a backup body is no luxury either.

Towns and ghost towns

There are not many "towns" on Svalbard and if you want to see more than what is possible in day trips from Lonyearbyen you have to stay in these places. It does not matter whether you want to visit them or not (as a photographer) you have to stay there anyway. To name them is easy, it is Pyramiden, a ghost town, and Barentsburg. Svea is closed and then you hace Icefjord Radio. All other places like Ny Alesund are not in area 10, which means you have to apply for an expedition permit.

I stayed in Barentsburg and Pyramiden and visited the very small ghost town Coles Bay. Even if my focus was wildlife and landscape, the (ghost) towns are worth while to be seen as an own worth while photographic opportunity. By the way wildlife is more tame around these places, especially Arctic Foxes.....

I do not want to go into details, this would be to much, lets the pictures speak!

Wildlife

Wildlife photography in Svalbard during winter is very, very rewarding! It is not the amount of species you might encounter, it is the atmosphere! Glaring sun, blowing wind, white outs, just to name a few. At least two of the mentioned species are quite easy to find and I never got bored of svalbard reindeer. I now have thousands of files, I just could not stop taking pictures! Of course I have to cull them now, but nevertheless it is extremely rewarding.

Lets therefore start with reindeer!

As I already mentioned, it is not clear when and how the svalbard reindeer migrated to Svalbard. As the archipelago and the surrounding seas have been completely covered by ice during the iceage, it must have been well after the end of the last iceage. But how a big enough group made it on seaice or floating ice to the island is open for discussion. According to a genetic analysis, it must have been from Sibiria, which is not very surprising.

As their main predators on the sibirian land mass are brown bears and especially wolves and sometimes wolferines. But none of them made it Svalbard. They do not have a real predator on Svalbard. Polar Bears are taking them from time to time, as it seems this pressure is a bit increasing. Locals have a very strict quota on Reindeer, therefore we are no danger as well.

Winter is a hard season for the svalbard reindeer, even without predators. Food is very scarce! As a photographer you therefore do not want to put additional stress on them. They are used to people and snow mobiles and you can approach them quite easy in the open landscape. but understanding their signs, when close is to close was impossible. Sometimes they did not react at all, sometimes they just moved on and came closer and closer and sometimes they started to run in panic, when you have been 200m away.

Finally I decided to stay in a safe distance good for my longest lens, and waited. I let them decide. Only close to the towns it was easy and safe to approach them closer, much closer. One evening close to Pyramiden a large group decided to graze around us. I could move around, no problem.

By the way the females still have their antlers during winter, not the males. The theory behind this fact is as following. If you have antlers you are higher in the pecking order, therefore this gives an advantage to the females to survive the winter and give birth successfully. Interesting.

Watching reindeer and their behaviour in such an environment was an awesome experience and photography was fun and rewarding. I do not know whether the picture market will reward me as well, but for me it was a surprising highlight of my weeks on Svalbard!

There is not much birdlife on Svalbard. I have seen some gulls and Eider returning for the approaching spring, but that is it. But there was the Svalbard Ptarmigan, which is overwintering on Svalbard. Their white plumage is hiding them well in the snowy environment of Svalbard. Sometime I was taking pictures of Reindeer without knowing that I was surrounded by a group of Ptarmigans.

You can find them all over the valleys, but they are hard to spot, especially while driving on a scooter!

Arctic Foxes! For a long time I wanted to cover them! I have some nice shots on film from Alaska during summer, but I wanted to have the stereotype white fox in a white environment. It is very clear that the fox is always faster than you, during winter they do not yet have dens, where they are around. The likelyhood to watch them in the open valleys is not so small, but taking pictures is another story.

You find tracks nearly everywhere and probably the fox is watching you.....

On Svalbard you find both color morphs, the blue or coastal and the white morph. I was very lucky to find both morphs and I even managed to take pictures of both. The likelyhood to find Arctic Foxes is the highest around the mining towns. They are used to people and of scavenge for food in leftovers they find in the garbage in the vicintity of the towns.

In and around the (ghost) towns it is very likely to find the foxes and to take nice pictures. But all the same I was quite lucky as I had scenes with interesting behavour, portraits, different morphs and so on. I cannot complain! And they are really cute!

No I want to thank my guides, as everything depends on them

Lauma for a wonderfull afternoon in Longyearbyen and Reindalen

Lauma and Lauris for the day out in Reindalen (where Misha got his well deserved day off)

and of course Misha who guided me all the long days to and around Pyramiden and Barentsburg

Svalbard was a great experience and is a worth while winter destination for any nature photographer. If you can accept that the winter is cold, you can consider this destination!

It is an interesting combination of landscape, wildlife, lost places and towns, something you cannot find anywhere else!

Szentendre, May 2022

The final word in german, next workshops

Wir haben das Angebot an Fotoreisen überarbeitet. Neue Ziele sind im Programm, einige andere in Vorbereitung.

Außerdem ist der neue Katalog endlich zum download verfügbar!

Auch Spitzbergen ist jetzt als Fotoreise verfügbar, entweder alleine oder in Kombination mit einer Reise nach Senja. Wer ein interessantes Winterziel sucht ist hier sicher richtig.

 

 

 

Unsere Fotoreisen und Foto-Workshops

Ein Klick auf die Reise bringt Sie zu einer Beschreibung der Reise. Dabei steht weniger der Reiseverlauf sondern was wie und wo fotografiert wird im Vordergrund. Der eigentliche Reiseverlauf und die Konditionen werden über links zu Auf Kurs! Inselreisen erreicht. Man kann sich natürlich auch gleich den Katalog holen

Thats it for the moment! Stay tuned and healthy!