Icebergs hold and intense fascination for many of us. These behemoths of the sea are both strikingly beautiful yet as the the Titanic disaster one hundred years ago shows us, they are also deadly. The iceberg that sank the Titanic originated on the west coast of Greenland, and it is along this coast that we find Disko Bay otherwise known as the Ice Berg Factory. The ice calves from one of the most productive glaciers in the world, the Ilulissat Glacier and forms one of the worlds most photogenic locations, the Ilulissat Ice Fields.
Although it is possible to fly to Ilulissat, the journey is long and expensive, involving a number of changes. The very best way to get there is by cruise ship, there are numerous sailings in the northern summer both from North America and Europe. The downside of visiting by ship is that you will only be there for one day and you have to take pot luck with the weather. The ship however will also visit other, equally scenic places in Greenland. From the ship, you can take an organized tour or if you are feeling more adventurous, you can hire a boat with an Inuit fisherman who will take you deep into the ice field. I have done both and truly recommend hiring a local boat.
Shooting the Monsters
I use the term monsters, because even when you are up close to them it is difficult to comprehend the scale of these mighty bergs. Some of them tower up to 300 feet above the water, bearing in mind that you are only seeing 1/8th of the berg, you start to get an idea of size. For this reason you might think that you will need only a wide angle lens. Well, yes and no, a wide angle is great for capturing the whole berg but the are some fantastic details to the bergs too and for this I would recommend a 70-200mm or similar. Before you set out on the journey into the ice fields, you will need to let your lens acclimatize. As you come from the warm air of your ship or hotel, into the cold, condensation will form on the lens surface. The best way to clear this is to remove the lens cap and let the front element clear naturally. This will take about 20-30 minutes. Do not try to wipe the lens, you will just create water smears on the lens surface. Also make sure that your batteries are fully charges and that you have spares, the cold temperatures run even the very best batteries down very quickly.
When you reach the bergs, be very careful with you exposure. The whiteness of the bergs and the bark color of the sea make for some very tricky exposure conditions, learn and understand your camera’s histogram, and preferably shoot RAW to give some extra latitude to your image. Keep your shutter speed high, not only will you be on a moving boat but the boat’s engine will also be causing vibrations, try to avoid using the boats sides to stabilize the camera as the vibration will be transmitted through your body to the camera. You will need to be very careful with your focussing, the pure whiteness of the bergs can easily fool your autofocus systems. If you are confident, switch off the autofocus and shoot manually.
When shooting the bergs try to convey a sense of size. There will be other boats around so try to show them in front of the bergs showing the huge difference in size. Despite their beauty, composition is still important in photographing the bergs, if shooting wide angle, look for smaller ice bergs, called growlers, to lead your eye to the main berg. With a telephoto, look for details in the ice, cracks, and fissures even wildlife such as gulls.
Greenland is an achingly beautiful country and more accessible than you might think. If you are looking for one of the world’s most beautiful locations for a photographic trip, then this enormous and rugged country is well worth a look. And if you do take that trip, the Ilulissat Ice Berg Factory is a must see.