Photographing the hostile Arctic

There are not many people that would relish the thought of spending several months in the extremely hostile conditions of the Arctic. Fortunately for us,Martin Hartley is one of these people. An expedition and adventure travel photographer, Martin first gained public recognition in the world of photography at the age of 17 and now commits himself whole-heartedly to capturing the beauty of unadulterated landscapes and remote communities all over the world.

Martin takes some time out to talk to us about his photography and the particular challenges that confronted him in the Arctic’s freezing climate.

Montane:  How did you discover your love of photography?

Martin [MH]:  I got my first camera at Christmas aged five in an ‘Adventure kit’. In the box was a compass, an army style water bottle, a small camera and a pen knife – the pen knife had been removed by my parents as they thought I would ‘hurt myself’ with it (!)..The camera was entirely plastic and on its first outing I blasted through the whole roll of black and white film while photographing my sister and her friend skipping at the side of the house. Seeing the prints a few weeks later was just magic!

Montane:  Your career as a photographer began at the age of 17 when you were runner-up in the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year (1987). What were your next steps after this?

[MH]: At the time I ‘won’ that award I had just finished my A levels. I been to see the ‘careers advisor’ at school whom after I told him I wanted to be a Vet specialising in farm animals, glanced at my grades and suggested that I might try nursing as a career. It was my Dad who suggested I might try to be a photographer…I hadn’t ever thought that a career in photography was within my grasp, certainly not what I do now; a high street baby photographer perhaps, but not for a second did I ever imagine I would be photographing some of my childhood heroes – Ranulph Fiennes, John Barry, Eric Newby. I applied for a place at nearly all the photography colleges around the UK and got accepted at Hull and Bournemouth. So I went to Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design with the intention of becoming a wildlife photographer. One important thing I did learn was that I didn’t want to be a wildlife photographer anymore but I did want to be a photographer. Straight after I left college I got a job working as a scientific photographer at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

Montane: What attracts you specifically to photographing the Arctic?

[MH]: The main attraction is the huge combination of cold and time pressure the Arctic Ocean environment puts on a photographer. From a psychological, physiological and equipment point of view the Arctic Ocean environment is, I believe, THE most difficult environment to take photographs on Earth. Having been exposed to desert, jungle, alpine, Antarctic and Himalayan environments (I have not been to 8000 metres) I do feel it is safe to say that. An Arctic Ocean expedition has for the first 40 days, the longest sustained low temperatures of any Polar Expedition currently possible. This statement excludes winter crossings of Antarctica – not yet technologically possible. It is also based on my 65, 76 and 87 day expedition experiences in Antarctica and on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. This degree of difficulty to take photographs is the primary attraction…whatever situation I am in I try to assess which is the most technically difficult shot to get and aim for that.

Montane: How do you care for your camera in conditions that include temperatures as low as minus 50°C, intense wind chill and the ever-present risk of frostbite?

[MH]: I use the same equipment for capturing images wherever I am, but on the Arctic Ocean I always take a Leica MP. This is a mechanical camera that doesn’t need any batteries and is the epitome of precision engineering. It always works and is easy to focus. At low temperatures (below minus 35oC) autofocus lenses become almost impossible to focus and often the mirror in SLR cameras will lift up but will not go down when the camera body shrinks due to the cold. At the end of a cold polar day on the Arctic Ocean I will have to sleep with my Leica next to my body to warm the film up so that at breakfast time I can rewind the film without snapping it.

With regard to the wind and ever present cold, I adopt the Inuit method of a very warm (large) mitt and a very thin Polartec liner glove. In order to take a picture I take off the big mitts and do all the usual stuff – focusing, light readings, setting the camera etc. with just a pair of thin gloves on. I keep the camera on my chest in a bag I made especially for the job. It’s oversized so I can get the camera in and out of the bag quickly. I keep the battery for the camera in one of two pockets on my thigh. I have a pocket on the front of my leg and one at the back – depending on which way the wind is blowing (to avoid wind chill on the battery). I use the heat from my thigh to keep the battery warm. The battery has to stay in a mini dry bag to avoid perspiration getting onto the battery contacts. When it’s properly cold, below minus 40oC or thereabouts I put the camera inside my jacket in a dry bag to keep it working. I also have a Leica compact camera right inside my jacket inside a mini Pelicase hanging around my neck to grab quick snaps and low res video as I move along. If I am shooting in the tent at night I use a stove to warm the camera and lens up to get rid of the condensation before shooting. Every week or so I take all my kit from outside the tent (where it normally lives at night), put all my lenses and camera bodies inside a few dry bags and scatter them around the inside of my sleeping bag with a load of silica gel to suck out any moisture inside the camera and lenses. It’s not cold that kills cameras, its moisture trapped inside them that freezes and cameras don’t like that. If I do find moisture inside a lens during the day, the lens goes into a dry bag with silica gel and spends the day next to my skin using body heat to warm up and allowing the silica gel to do its job.

Montane: Finally, we were intrigued by one particular photo on your website; Sir Ranulph Fiennes with a bloody nose (image below). What’s the story behind this image?

[MH]: I was climbing with Ran and Kenton Kool on the Italian side of Mont Blanc in the winter – Ran was training for his Eiger North Face trip. A lump of ice came loose above Ran and hit him on his face. Ran was unimpressed by my enthusiasm to photograph him covered in blood, but that’s what photographers do…take photos…which is the only reason I was there.


Read more about Martin here.

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