Greenland has been on my radar for a while. I have a real affinity with the north of the planet, and the landscapes & cultures to be found there. Having previously visited Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finnish Lapland, in increasingly extreme environments, I really wanted to see the ice of Greenland. In particular, the enormous ice bergs of the west coast. To begin with it seemed too remote, and too problematic to get to. But I still harbour regrets about not going to Iceland earlier, so as soon as I felt I had the opportunity and the information required to see Greenland, I was keen to get involved and see it before it really opens up to the mainstream. I also felt like the ice there was something I should take the opportunity to see at some point in my lifetime, since it's a spectacle that won't be around for future generations to enjoy.
Getting to Greenland
Greenland is an 'autonomous territory of Denmark', and at this point in time you can only fly to Greenland from Copenhagen or Reykjavik. So not only do you have that restriction, but with only two airlines (Air Greenland and Icelandair) monopolising flights, it's an expensive flight too. So we had a flight to Copenhagen, a flight to Kangerlussuaq (Greenand's international Airport), and then a flight to Ilulissat (our destination for a week).
Kangerlussuaq is a town of around 500 residents which has developed around an old US Airbase - now the airport. The Airbase was built during WW2 and operated by the US Airforce until it was returned to Greenland/Denmark in 1992. It's used as the international airport as it's the only runway in the country that's long enough for large aircraft. The town itself is a strange place to an outsider. Officially a desert, it's a dry, dusty, windy place, full of mosquitoes, with a kind of ghost town feel. But beneath the surface it does have a certain charm. I'd rather live there than a busy city anyway.
It's worth stopping over in Kangerlussuaq for a night on the way or the way back from Greenland. There are several hiking trails from the town, as well as tours available to the Russell Glacier, and the edge of the massive inland ice sheet that covers the 80% of the country. Standing on the ice cap, surrounded by ice was a surreal experience, and something unlike anything I'll get to see elsewhere. Totally out of this world. Russell Glacier wasn't particularly picturesque, and I wouldn't recommend it for photography. But it was the closest I've ever got to a glacier wall; about as close as could be considered safe. So that was cool. Below is a couple of photos taken from further up the valley, at a view point of the Russell Glacier as it winds its way down from the ice sheet.
On the 45 minute flight between Kangerlussuaq and Ilulissat, the small plane never really reaches much of an altitude, and the views are incredible the whole way. I took a lot of photos looking East towards the enormous inland ice cap, but they were all lost to an annoying colour-cast from the window tint. However, I did take some photos of the beautiful arctic tundra around Kangerlussuaq.
We chose to stay in Ilulissat for three reasons. Firstly, it's situated right next to a huge icefjord, full of massive ice bergs from the nearby Jakobshavn Glacier. Calving an average of 40 meters a day, it's the world most productive glacier. Below, the scale of the ice soon becomes apparent, as the icefjord meets the sea here. Spot the fishing boat.
Secondly, it's a relatively populous town, that embraces tourism, which makes things much easier as a visitor. Tours, guides, accommodation, supermarkets, and restaurants are available.
And thirdly, it's on the Disko Bay. I mean, who wouldn't want to go to 'Disko Bay'?
Unfortunately I must confess it's all downhill from here on in, as this photo above is probably my personal favourite of the trip. If you know me by now, you won't be surprised to find my favourite photo ticks the boxes of high-key, minimalist, telephoto, and misty. What can I say - I like simplicity in images. I took this looking from out the front of our rented house, across the Disko Bay, to a large glacier, with the silhouetted mountains of Disko Island behind. This berg took around 24 hours to slowly drift passed Ilulissat, and I saw it several times that day. Morning was quite a good time to see the bay, as it would often be shrouded in mist first thing, before it burnt off from the relentless sunshine.
Light in Greenland
Greenland is a massive country, so I'm having to generalise here. But we were well above the Arctic Circle and visiting in June, so that meant we'd have 24 hour daylight; no sunsets or sunrises. Photographically I'd have preferred to go in May, when you effectively have several hours of 'Golden Hour'. But June has other benefits; logistically it's easier. It's well before peak tourist season, but tours and guides are more available. The snow has gone, so hiking trails are also accessible, and humpback whales are arriving. Plus I'd never seen the midnight sun before.
In landscape photography bright sunshine and blue skies are tough conditions to work with. It can lead to very flat-looking, dull photos. In June it was bright. Almost all the time, and from almost every angle. And after a day or so to get used to that, I started to realise that this should be the style of light that I should seek to represent, especially given that others generally overlook it. I can see why photographers generally stick to darker portrayals of arctic scenery, but I wanted to try and capture the Greenland that I saw, and in a way that represents the bright midday and midnight sunshine we experienced.
Below are a couple of photos taken in the bright sunshine from the coastal path which runs alongside the icefjord.
It can take months or years for the larger bergs to break free from the icefjord, but once they do, they float out into the bay. And to be honest, they're considerably easier to photograph from a boat than they are on land.
In a rare attempt at a wide-angle photo, I was able to use the foreground ice to create this image which leads the eye to my favourite pointy ice berg.
When there's no ice in the foreground, the water alone makes a pleasing texture.
Here's Pointy again. What a handsome beast.
As night approaches, the sun lowers in the sky, and we start to get some pink light.
Last one of the night. Got to sleep some time.
Land of the Midnight Sun
By many standards the Greenland flag is unconventional, but I love it as a product of graphic design. The circle resembles the sun on the horizon line, reflected below, with a white top half to represent the ice, and red lower half to represent the sunlit ocean. It perfectly sums up the uniqueness of this incredible region, and I wanted to try and capture some midnight sunlight for myself.
Although shooting at 'sunset' was difficult logistically (since the sun doesn't set, it's generally lowest between midnight and 2am), I managed to get a few photos during the golden hours. Below, we're looking out towards Disko Island, as a local fisherman passes by on his way out for the night.
I took this one at around midnight to show how low the sun does get.
And the answer is not as low as I would have liked.
Another one from around midnight on a different day, as the cloudless sky turned yellow, looking through the sea mist.
How could I not just want to play with the patterns in these colossal walls of ice?
Here, a fulmar soars effortlessly past, and I took the opportunity to give some scale to the ice behind.
When ice is in direct sunlight it's often very washed out colour-wise, but if you catch it in the shade, the variation of textures is more apparent, and that's when you get the more interesting shades of blue. This berg was notable for it's geometric split lines.
I really should have chosen just one of the photos below to share, but I can't.
First off we have my personal favourite (and running the high-key Disko Bay photo close for overall favourite of the trip). Graphically I think it's much superior, but I wonder if it's just too confusing without the context of the next photo, taken shortly after.
I zoomed out a little for the second version, to provide a little context with the sea in view at the bottom.
This corner of the ice berg demonstrates how light and shade effect the colour and texture that ice reflects in those differing lighting conditions. I like them both for the richness of the blue ice, and the simplicity of the visuals, but I prefer the first one. How about you?
Guided Tours & Hiking Trails
In Ilulissat you have plenty of choice for tour guides and excursions, but I can recommend Ilulissat Tours. I took two tours with them; A Whale Safari with Chris, and an Ice Berg Cruise with Ivan. On both occasions they were extremely flexible in allowing me to book whatever time of day worked best for me (10pm-1am was no problem!), and they were knowledgeable and good fun. All the photos in the Disko Bay and Ice Abstracts sections above were taken on one of those two trips with Chris & Ivan.
I also treated myself to a sight-seeing flight over the glacier, the inland ice sheet, and the icefjord, with AirZafari. I shared the photos from that 60 minute flight in a separate blog post, but for now I'll just say that it's highly recommended!
Lastly, I wanted to mention that not all the sights cost money. Probably the best sights in Ilulissat are available for free, via the marked hiking trails. We hiked the blue trail once, and the yellow trail twice. I wanted to do the yellow one a third time, but we just didn't have the time. Like most coastal paths, both trails are quite up and down, so not trivial, but certainly not difficult. The views from the yellow trail in particular, are out of this world. You're looking out at a city of ice, with bergs ranging from the size of cars, to houses, and even tower blocks. No photo I could take would do it justice. Here's my brother-in-law soaking in the sights and sounds of an active icefjord.
On our last night the cloud came in, and I took this photo from the yellow coastal hiking trail, at around 11pm. I used a polarising filter to accentuate the dark sky and water, in contrast to the sunlit ice bergs.
Greenlandic Sled Dogs
The Greenlandic people have a long history of partnership and reliance on their working sled dogs. All the settlements are home to almost as many dogs as people. To prevent cross-breeding, Greenland dogs are the only breed allowed north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland. In the winter they pull sleds on hunting trips and expeditions which can run into the hundreds of kilometres. In the summer they stay on the outskirts of the towns. The puppies run free, while the adults are on chains. I really wanted to capture some attractive portraits of the sled dogs; being such an important part of the Greenlandic culture. As working dogs, they represent more than simply pets would. They're an icon of the hardiness, capability, and enthusiasm for the arctic, which you find there. To be honest I think I got better photos of the dogs than of the landscapes, so here's a selection of those portraits.
I love Greenland
It's official. Greenland was everything I hoped it would be; spectacular geography, lovely people, and so much to see and do. And since I mentioned the people, I have to say I was really struck by how kind and helpful the Greenlandic people were. I had some concerns about how they would take to the increasing number of tourists in their towns, but they seemed to be very happy about it, and proud to show us their incredible country. They have a rich culture, and a friendly and inclusive attitude. Photography-wise, the light is harsh during the main daylight hours, but the landscape is so incredible, that you can pretty much shoot something interesting any time, day or night. Whether you're into photography or not, I'd highly recommend seeing Greenland sooner rather than later.
I'm sure that before long Greenland will become 'the next Iceland / Faroe Islands / Lofoten'. Of course Greenland is totally distinct from those places (as they are from each other), but what I mean to say is that I'm largely bored of seeing photos from the same spots, which have been deemed trendy landscape photography locations, and subsequently overrun with photo tours and shot to death. So if you're thinking that Greenland sounds like your sort of adventure, I recommend looking into it now. You won't regret it. If you have any questions I might be able to help with, feel free to ask for advice in the comments section below, or find me on social media.
I like to save a photo for the end, and this was one Greenland saved for me too. As we flew home, I took this out of the plane window, of the mountains and glaciers of East Greenland. Here we're looking from the inland icecap, through the coastal mountain range, and out to the misty sea behind. I think if I'm ever able to visit again, I'd like to see the East a little closer...
Follow-Up Post: Aerial Photography In Greenland.