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Joshua Holko braves cold and claws to photograph the Arctic’s elusive beauties

The vast landscape and wildlife of the High Arctic – the top of the world – provides limitless photographic opportunities for those brave enough to venture there.

Those who do can look forward to dramatic scenery: iceberg flows and snowy tundra, with wildlife that includes polar bears, seals, and the Arctic fox. Depending on the season, conditions in the Arctic can get extreme and dangerous, with temperatures dropping below minus-30-degrees Celcius.

In addition to harsh weather conditions, there is the danger of getting too close to the wildlife you are photographing. The polar bear, for one, moves very fast on the ice and snow, and will actively hunt people. So, it’s important to keep a safe distance.

During the 2016 PhotoPlus show in New York City, Digital Trends sat down with the winner of the 2015 Global Arctic Photographer of the Year award, Joshua Holko, and talked to him about how he got into photographing polar bears in the Arctic and penguins of the Antarctic (far treks from his home in warmer Australia), the effects of global warming, and his methods. Holko runs photography workshops and expeditions to some of the world’s wildest and remotest regions in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Digital Trends: How did you end up shooting in the extreme north and south poles?

Joshua Holko: I have always been drawn to the world’s polar regions and I think it was only natural to gravitate toward the remarkable wildlife that survives in such a harsh environment in these parts of the world.

The polar bear [in the north] is the largest land predator on the planet and can weigh upward of 1,500 pounds. It is an incredibly powerful, beautiful, and photogenic animal. There is something about its ability to survive in some of the coldest and most inhospitable areas of the planet that I find very appealing, and that really speaks to me on a very deep emotional level.

I enjoy the thrill of the hunt to find these endangered marine mammals and then to try and photograph them in the context of their environment. Just finding wild polar bears in thousands of kilometers of pack ice represents a real challenge. Watching them survive on pack ice is really an incredible experience and being able to photograph and document their lives is a real thrill and privilege.

I also find the Arctic environment to be one of untold splendor and beauty. I love the often-monochromatic nature of the landscape that is often black and white in appearance. I also love the many shades of blue, aqua, and turquoise to be found in the ice and snow. It’s a constantly changing landscape and environment that offers superb opportunities for photography.

Polar bears are probably one of the most dangerous mammals to photograph. How do you get the shots you need while staying safe?

Yes, they are. The problem with polar bears and humans comes when you lose respect for this powerful animal. They can run a hundred meters on ice in seven seconds, so you need to be incredibly vigilant and careful when you put yourself in a position to photograph a bear on the ice. It’s about having respect for this powerful animal and always maintaining a safe distance.

I try and do a lot of my polar bear photography from a ship and zodiac (small rubber boat), as this keeps a barrier between the bear and myself at all times. Polar bears are unpredictable, at best, so it’s very important to never place yourself in a position where the bear could potentially get to you. Safety is the number one concern and comes above any and every photograph or other concern.

Have you had any close calls?

I’m very, very careful when photographing polar bears, to avoid putting myself or anyone I am with in harms way at all times. It’s actually about protecting the bear more than anything else.

Polar bears do what polar bears do, and it’s only human stupidity that causes them to be shot in self-defense.

Polar bears do what polar bears do, and it’s only human stupidity that causes them to be shot in self-defense. The key is not to put you in a position where the bear becomes a real tangible, viable threat. Keeping a respectful distance is key and always having enough distance between you and the bear that you can make an easy getaway if the bear decides to charge or becomes aggressive in any way.

What lenses do you typically use to get up-close?

Typically when shooting polar bears I am working with long lenses, such as my 600mm, because of the danger factor of getting close to them. If I am working from a snowmobile where I will be on the ice with the bear, then I will probably also be using a 1.4x teleconverter so I can keep a very respectful distance from the bear and ensure I can easily move away if required.

When shooting from ship or zodiac I have more of a buffer with the bear unable to get to me, so I typically like to work wider if possible. I have actually made images of polar bears from ship and zodiac with lenses as wide as 24mm. Of course, it all depends on the bear in this instance and how close it wants to come to the ship. I never chase wildlife so the wildlife has to decide to come to me. I never use bait of any kind, as I am interested in capturing natural behaviors. Therefore, I have to spend a lot of time out in the field.

What camera gear do you use and why?

I have been shooting Canon cameras all my life and today I exclusively shoot a pair of Canon EOS-1D X Mark II cameras and an EOS 5DS R.

I primarily shoot the 1D-series cameras for their incredibly rugged build quality. These cameras are literally just about bulletproof. I have had them so frozen in Arctic winter conditions that all the buttons were literally frozen in place; yet the camera continues to function and make great photographs.

I have dropped one from a helicopter in New Zealand as I was coming in to land on a glacier. It bounced across the ice, we landed, and picked it up, put a lens on it, and the camera just kept working. Try doing that with just about any other camera and you will be picking up pieces of camera for the next few days. Reliability is incredibly important to me. Cameras are tools and just a means to capture photographs and I am very hard on my equipment. I expect it to keep working even in the harshest of environments and it needs to take a lot of abuse.

The Canon 1D-series cameras really inspire a lot of confidence when working in difficult conditions. I have had them soaking wet in waterfall spray on many occasions and never had failure. That’s very important as it means I can focus on getting the shot and not worrying about whether my camera will fail or keep working. I like to focus on creativity and not being a technician when I am working out in the field.

How do you prepare yourself to shoot in extreme conditions?

Venturing into the Arctic to photograph wildlife and landscapes really requires some thought and preparation. It’s very important to be dressed appropriately and to be prepared for bad weather. In winter, temperatures can drop well below minus-30-degrees Celsius, which can very quickly become life threatening.

The right clothing is critical as is carrying GPS-based emergency position-indicating radiobeacon station (EPIRS) and having local knowledge of the area and local guides. It really comes down to preparation. Being properly prepared is the key to being able to make great photographs in extreme conditions.

What are the biggest challenges?

The challenge of photographing polar bears in the Arctic varies by season. Just finding them can be really difficult and it can take days. So you have to be prepared to put in some long hours with binoculars as you search the ice. Being masters of camouflage you also have to know what to look for, as a sleeping polar bear can be virtually invisible on the ice.

Of course, in winter, you also have the challenge of dealing with the extreme cold. It is challenging to stay warm. The weather is more unsettled during winter and storms are more common. The ice is another variable and changes season to season. You never know what it’s going to be really like until you actually get there and the Arctic always throws you some surprises.

A problem affecting the Polar Regions is global warming. How serious is it?

I can tell you unequivocally – as someone who has travelled to the Arctic twice a year, every year for the last ten years – global warming is not only real, but it’s far more advanced and far scarier than anyone in politics is talking about.

For you, what makes a great image?

Making powerful and emotive images of Arctic wildlife really requires that you get down low and connect with the subject at eye level. Just like a portrait photograph, we need to make a connection with our subject and we need to try and capture and convey intimacy in our photographs. I spend a lot of time in the field lying down in the snow so that I can be at eye level or below with my subject.

What are some tips you can share for anyone interested in going on a polar expedition?

The Arctic is an incredible place. It is a landscape of spectacular beauty with incredible wildlife. Whether it’s polar bears, puffins, Arctic hare, musk ox, reindeer, Arctic fox, or the plethora of Arctic sea birds, there is something for just about everyone interested in nature and photography. You can make fabulous photographs just about any time of the year in the Arctic.

The key is to be prepared and travel with an experienced guide. Give yourself the best opportunity to make great photographs and go with a small, dedicated group of photographers. Avoid big tourist ships that are not going to enable you to get close to wildlife or to get low enough on the ships deck to make intimate powerful photographs.

Know your camera intimately so that you can free your brain up from being a technician to being a true creative. We make the best photographs when our cameras controls are muscle memory and we are free to think about composition instead of camera settings.