Greenland: Landscape Nirvana On The Viking Trail

After two days sailing from Iceland, across the Denmark Strait, we spot the snow-capped rocky coastline of Greenland. It’s late-summer and the coastline is free of ice. Well, almost. As we near Greenland, we sail through the iceberg conveyor. An incredible 90% of all North Atlantic icebergs were born from Greenlandic glaciers with about 40,000 medium to large-sized icebergs calved every year. The closer we get, the more icebergs we can see, drifting north to south, heading to Canada and North America.

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Denmark Strait, Greenland with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₈₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 800

After taking a closer view of some of the larger bergs, we enter Northern Skjoldungen Fjord as part of our journey to circumnavigate Skjoldungen – a large uninhabited island on the King Frederick VI Coast. The fjord is littered with icebergs, bergs bits and growlers. Some adrift, some grounded next to the shore. They’re the tantalising appetisers before the main course, Thryms Glacier, situated at the northernmost point of the fjord.

The landscape through the fjord is truly astonishing. Everybody stares skyward to take in the jagged icy peaks, towering over a kilometre above us. It’s not just their height that’s so imposing, but their precipitous nature. The further into the fjord we sail, the more bergs we pass. I’m used to seeing plenty of icebergs in and around the Svalbard Archipelago, but these are considerably larger. They definitely wet the appetite for what is to come.

I want to get out on the zodiacs and take close-up wide-angle shots of the icebergs with the dramatic scenery beyond. But, as with all these expedition cruises, our time is governed by a strict itinerary and fuel quotas. I settle for photographing the vista and bergs from the outer decks and bow, using my 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S and 70-200mm VRII. It’s a great combination for photographing from the ship. While the 24-70mm is clamped on my tripod for a time-lapse movie, I can use the 70-200mm to isolate features in the landscape.

If you use a super-wide 14mm or 16mm, the landscape is just too far away and all you have is large amounts of water and sky. It was bad enough with the 24-70mm, hence shooting for a panoramic 2:1 format. As an option, you can shoot a stitched panoramic, however a moving ship is not exactly the best foundation. Unless you shoot quickly, the foreground motion will be very difficult to stitch. It’s surprising how much I used the telephotos for scenics, including the 200-400mm.

I am always on the look out for seals or whales in the fjords, but wildlife is hard to spot. I’m surrounded by nature but there’s nothing obvious with a heartbeat.  Good job the landscape is so inspiring! My one close encounter with wildlife is with an immature great black-backed gull, evidently seeking a place to rest. It may well have never seen a ship or humans before and lands right on the railing next to a couple lost in their conversation – they freak out and run away.


Reaching Thryms Glacier

Thryms Glacier is not a record-breaker on any level, but still a spectacular sight to behold – like a gigantic icy-blue tongue stretching out from the land into the fjord. The terminus is really curved, meaning you can shoot plenty of different angles with the majestic rocky landscape behind. These glacier images (above) are all shot from a zodiac.

Firstly, I wanted to capture the scene as a whole and favoured a view of the retreating glacier, disappearing into the mountains – dragging the eye into the landscape. The glacier wall used to extend 180° around the bay but there is now a gap at the end where Thryms Glacier meets another smaller glacier. Global warming and glacial retreat in action! The light was really dull, but a polariser helped boost the deep blue hues, even under this heavy cloud. Some post-processing in Lightroom gave much-needed contrast to the ice and texture to a flat grey sky.

From afar, the wall of ice looks smooth and solid but as we approached the glacier, you could appreciate just how fractured and splintered the terminus really is. Jagged peaks and plates of ice thrust out at all angles and the blues were phenomenal. The Nikon 200-400mm VRII was the ideal focal length to isolate tight compositions and details in the ice from such a distance. When you’re exploring glaciers in zodiacs, you must keep your distance from the glacier (3x the glacier’s height) in case it carves. When a glacier calves, the explosive force can throw blocks of ice hundreds of metres and tsunami waves several metres high.

So many views to photograph. I picked out isolations where ice meets rock with the high contrast between the ice and granite mountainside. Diagonal in the ice create a more pleasing composition than a horizontal lines. An upturned iceberg, revealing it’s sapphire blue underbelly… Everywhere I looked, there are more lines, more angles, and more compositions. They all looked great through the viewfinder, but in two dimensions and with such dull light, only a few were strong enough to keep.

We cruised back and forth along the terminus, so I could pick out the best views. I would dearly love to photograph here with soft morning or evening sunlight – the combination would be photographic nirvana. Whilst we were at the glacier a few large chunks of ice calved away, but I was either too slow with the camera or too far away for a decent shot. The most alarming ‘glacial activity’ is a torpedo – a chunk of ice that breaks away from the submerged base of the glacier or a larger iceberg. It rockets out the water like a missile! If your zodiac is over one of these when it erupts, you’re going to have a very bad day.

Calving ice is awesome to see, but can be deadly. The sheer weight and volume of ice creates enormous waves above and below the water’s surface. If you are too close to the glacier, you can be struck by exploding ice or overturned by the waves. This is why there is always a mandatory working distance when cruising around glaciers. You must remain 3x the height in distance from the terminus, i.e. if the glacier is 200m high you must remain 600m away – hence bringing the 200-400mm for the glacial details.


Prins Christian Sund

Southwards from Skjoldungen, on the south-eastern tip of Greenland is Prins Christian Sund (Prince Christian Sound), a 55-mile long glacial-cut channel that spans up to one mile across, connecting the Labrador Sea to Irminger Sea. Sheer-sided mountains erupt out of the water, rising to over 4,000 feet above sea level. A voyage through this channel is simply unforgettable.

As with Skjoldungen Fjord, the journey to the Sound was an obstacle course of icebergs. One iceberg in particular grabbed the Captain’s interest and we sailed straight for it, coming alongside on our starboard, for an absurdly close-up view. You could even feel the cold air peeling from it and hear the air bubbles cracking and popping in the ice. It was a mesmerising encounter. Everybody rushed outside to take in the extraordinary sight. We circled the iceberg on both sides providing everybody with a staggering 360° armchair view before heading on.

As we entered the sound, more icebergs drifted past. Under-exposing and backlighting with the crisp morning light and a clear blue sky produced the most incredible blues. More icebergs followed, so I watched and waited for interesting shapes or deep blues. Sometimes it worked, but not always. The important thing is that you try to mix it up.

To give you a better idea of the view, I produced a time-lapse with a Nikon D3s and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens mounted on the fly deck above the bridge. I had to use a 10-stop ND to slow the shutter enough for a smooth motion effect. I set the interval to 5 sec and manual exposure to 2½ sec. You need to some blur in each frame to create a more fluid effect. The recommended exposure should be half the interval time. For example, on another time-lapse I used a 10 sec interval with a 5 sec shutter speed and the effect was extremely silky!

After a couple of hours cruising through this wondrous landscape, we dropped anchor in a small bay that holds a jewel of a glacier at its end. Our Captain showed his masterful skills and nosed the ship up to the glacier and surrounding cliff-face. The colours were amazing, with the rock wall in shade, but glowing with the soft light reflected from the glacier.

One of our destinations within the Prins Christian Sund was Aappilattoq (Augpilaqtoq), a small indigenous village, tucked away beneath a stunning mountain range in Farewell Cape. The village is home to hunters and fishermen and, in the warm summer sunshine, utterly idyllic with an astounding backdrop.

When I say “astounding backdrop”, I mean it. Just take a look at those shots above. Imagine waking up to this everyday? I think anybody’s artistic fire would reignite just by spending a few hours here. It has been a long time since I focussed so much on landscapes, but in these fjords, there is a gorgeous image just waiting to be captured, practically everywhere I looked.

As we reached the southern end of the Prins Christian Sund, the sunlight and atmospheric haze conspired to produce an arresting scene. The afternoon sun sinking low behind the mountain peaks, casting rays of light through the fjord. Almost everybody else is inside the ship warming-up after the chill of the great outdoors, but a few brave souls faced the freezing headwind to capture this vista. Of course, I was one of them! Who in their right mind, as a photographer, could have resisted?!


The Norse Ruins At Hvalsey

There are several ancient Viking ruins in southern Greenland, this being one of the most famous – the Hvalsey Church. It’s a spectacular location, reminding me of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles. Our afternoon arrival meant that the sun was high and very harsh, so I did my best with a polariser and a little fill-in flash for the foreground. The shadows are still pretty thick though.In such a landscape, it’s always a fantastic bonus to get wildlife, flora, or a human form within the frame – for scale and perspective. A lone human figure, lost in their sketching, works for me.

The Hvalsey Church’s stonework is incredibly intricate for the time period. I was blown away by how much still remained and how solid it appeared. Let’s face it, winters in Greenland aren’t exactly balmy. The walls are about one metre thick and the windows had an ingenious design – being far wider on the inside than on the outside.

Brattahlíð

The bay of Itteleq is the arrival point for another Norse location, Brattahlíð (anglicised as Brattahlid). An incredible pink limestone fringes the shore. I had to clamber around on the slippery rocks to compose a decent shot with the rocks and our ship, but it was worth the effort. I just loved the pinks from the rock and the yellows of the seaweed.

Trekking over to Brattahlíð, I spotted wild-grazing ponies. Something with a heartbeat! Yeah! They were nervous at first, but I just sat down on the ground and remained still and quiet. Eventually, a pair of ponies approached me to have a closer look. The light was awful, so I had use a subtle amount of fill-in flash and do some major burning in Lightroom, just to get some texture into the sky. It’s pretty obvious, but I’m ok with it.

On the hike back to the ship, we walked beside a wheat field with a bizarrely colourful margin. It looked like wild dogwood, but much finer. For me, a track of red foliage does a fine job of pulling the eye into the image, right into the hill range and then along to the ship. From Brattahlíð, we sailed south-west, on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, visiting Newfoundland, Bonaventure Island (a breeding colony for 110,000 Northern Gannets) and the beautiful Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve – forest islands lost in time.  But that will have to wait for another time.


Is it worth the effort?

If you can get there, go there! Greenland was awesome in every sense of the word. My stay was very brief and I only experienced the tiniest fraction of an immense country. I would love to return to make more of the landscape. If you’re planning on visiting Greenland, double-check the itinerary as not all ships can venture this deep into the fjords. Small photographic charters are more expensive but worth it as the timing is better for landscape photography, avoiding that harsh mid-day sun.

EndThank you for reading

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Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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