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May 4th, 2009

How to capture flowing sea ice on a Bering Sea icebreaker

Posted by Chris Linder

On April 3rd, photographer Chris Linder and science writer Helen Fields joined a team of 38 scientists for a 40-day expedition to study the impact of climate change on the Bering Sea ecosystem. While crisscrossing the Bering Sea with the science team, Chris and Helen will post photo essays, sounds, and videos to the Polar Discovery website every day, as part of the Live from the Poles project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. This week Chris explains how he captured the beautiful puzzle-piece ice moving around the ship they’re traveling on. Sign up for Chris’s webinar on May 5 and check out his past posts for tips on writing grants for science-based photo expeditions and preparing for a sub-zero photo shoot.
We started driving around at 4 a.m. looking for suitable ice, says chief boatswain's mate Wayne Kidd. In the dark it's a lot harder to see, so we note where we feel resistance or places where the ship seems to be running into a bit more ice and come back at sunrise.

"A little pop of light from a Nikon SB-900 speedlight zoomed to 200mm gave me what I was looking for," Chris explains about capturing this beautiful shot of sea ice. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

In addition to documenting the tools and techniques scientists are using to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem, my other mission here on the icebreaker Healy is to showcase the beauty of this otherworldly environment. A key part of that environment is sea ice. Sea ice is formed from the freezing of seawater, as opposed to icebergs and ice shelves, which are formed on land as compacted snow and ice and slide into the ocean. Sea ice ranges in thickness from paper-thin to up to ten feet. Most of the ice we have encountered has been between 1-2 feet thick. Seals and walrus use sea ice to nurse their newborn pups. Ice cores reveal brownish-green ice algae growing on the underside of the ice, which nourishes tiny animals, which in turn feed the rest of the web of life. Without sea ice, the Bering Sea would be a very different place.

You might imagine that ice pretty much looks the same-it’s all frozen water, right? Turns out that when water with salt in it freezes, it actually goes through a number of different phases, each one of them quite beautiful. While it’s hard to say which type of ice is my favorite (I’m an ice junkie; I love them all), I am particularly drawn to the broken up bits that mark the ice edge, where waves from the open ocean cause the floes to bump into each other and crack up into tiny jagged pieces, giving the ocean surface the look of a big jigsaw puzzle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a stormy place. Cloudy days and gray skies have been the norm. So I am often looking for scene-setting icescape shots at the edges of the day just after sunset and before sunrise when the sky glows blue.

One of the tools in a photographer’s bag of tricks is the ability to stop action or blur it based on their choice of shutter speed. One evening as I watched the broken up chunks of ice slide past the side of the ship, I got the idea to shoot ice in an impressionistic way that conveyed that motion. I set up my tripod and connected a cable release. My first attempts, using just a several second shutter speed, rendered the ice as long wavy lines streaking across the frame. It was interesting, but almost too surreal. I needed to see some definition in the ice while retaining that sense of motion. A little pop of light from a Nikon SB-900 speedlight zoomed to 200mm gave me what I was looking for. I set it to a slow, rear curtain sync mode and blasted away at the moving ice again and again, hoping that just the right shapes would come into view at the right time. After a few dozen tries this composition floated into my frame.

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