I’ve often been asked by folks, who have relocated to the north, about anomalies of their photographs here in Fairbanks. Everything seems very blue, trouble focusing, grainy photos. There are some real challenges to photographing in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the winter, and a lot of it has to do with the weather and that we are located at Latitude 65 of this planet we call Earth.
I’m sitting here, writing my blog at what should be a December, mid afternoon, and the sun has already set. For about 3 weeks, from around December 18 to about January 6, we experience less than 4 hours of relative sunlight, when the whole sun is actually above the horizon. In other words, the only way one can discern if we are at dawn or dusk is if the sun is hanging along the south/east horizon or the south/west horizon. To be clear, there are others who have it worse than we do, the folks up above the Arctic Circle experience days with no sunlight. Photographically speaking, this means that from December through January, the majority of photographs are low light scenes, with about one, maybe two full hours of true optimum daylight.
The other element photographers contend with is weather. Everything is frozen in the arctic, even the air. Don’t forget, the air contains water molecules, which condense on objects to form frost. The oceans appear blue because that is the frequency color we see when sunlight passes through water. Frozen water in the air, is the same. In short, the air here is blue.
Our cold air, is compounded by another phenomena, ice fog. Fairbanks is situated in the Tanana Valley and in between two rivers, the Tanana River and the Chena River. In addition to the rivers are what we refer to as the Flats. A large area of tundra that is mostly frozen in winter and marshy in summer. The reaction between the cold winter air and the moisture of the ground, causes ice fog. This is compounded at sub -20F (-29C) temperatures, by the exhaust from vehicles and boilers and chimneys because the particles drop and condense.
To the photographer, this can have the effect of photographing through a curtain. Even if we are experiencing a relatively warm day, say just below 0F (-18C), there are still frozen particles floating around the air. Once upon a time, a photographer friend of mine, had gone out for some winter photos, he was practicing his long exposures under streetlights, and captured some very nice images around town. He was working on his post processing and sent me a concerned note because he couldn’t figure out where all the white spots were coming from. We are so accustomed to the air we breath, that often we don’t notice the condensation, frozen particles, floating around us, until we take a photograph and there it is.
So, what’s a photographer to do? I suppose that would be a matter of opinion. Myself, I choose to embrace my location and try to incorporate the weather and atmosphere into the story. This winter I’ve been experimenting with the onboard neutral density fx in my camera and pump up the black point just a bit post process. But, I don’t do a whole lot of color correction. Artistically, I think that cool blue hue ads to the story and emphases the location of the images captured, like a thumb print, it says this image was captured in the Alaskan Interior.