I really did contemplate whether driving down from Calgary back home to the Edmonton Ice Castles was worth it. I mean it was -30C that weekend! But who would have thought I ended up getting the staff there to join me with the photo shoot in this winter wonderland at Hawrelak Park?! Did I also mention I met the master builder there, and they closed the place down later just because of me? (sorry haha) That in itself was definitely worth all the sacrifice I made to go. Come to think of it, we were all just passionate big people playing in an adult sized sand box in a playground at our own natural habitat. I began my Ice Castle shooting with the University of Alberta Photography Club as a photowalk right at sunset. My plan was to go once with the group and another time at night with my family. The line didn’t actually take that long, and there are lots of staff there who came around the line to make us sign waivers. Yes, the possibility of slipping on ice and us breaking icicles and stabbing people is indeed possible.
We were told that we should not be late for our booked time slots, and we are allowed to stay there as long as want before leaving the exit. No matter what time you book it for, you are still expected to line up at the door. The Ice Castles in Edmonton is basically a large fenced up ice land with different paths. It has a “lobby type” area which contains mainly the entrance and exit. It also has a very fire pit area where a staff sits on the top to manage a fire that I’d say is enough to fit 7 people around this fireplace. This area is rather large and that’s where most people congregate. (See photo of staff ). Once you walk in, there are also a few pathways that leads you to different areas. There you will see a large open area that leads you into smaller narrow pathways. I didn’t find the ground to be slippery at all, but definitely watch out for running children and crowd in these narrow areas. Although there are strict rules against sitting on ice and touching the icicles, I find numerous children attempting to break the icicles, and many adults grabbing snapshots while sitting on icy surfaces as thrones. What do I think? It’s basically picture worthy everywhere, so I could understand their urges. But a well trained photographer like myself obviously obeyed the rules fully. 🙂
Photographing the Ice Castles
I don’t know how many people actually care, but I get support from this i’ll definitely continue to add depth and content into this! (So here is an unpaid advertisement… like, comment, subscribe my facebook, instagram, twitter, YouTube! It’s the only way I could keep this alive you know!) ALRIHGT ALRIGHT here it goes. The Ice Castles are basically LED lit ice structures that emits light from the inside. It is also very “maze like” and stretches down the path. So creatives out there can get very creative with their angles, but it is definitely ESSENTIAL to be mindful of the colour and lighting in this place. Most importantly, staying warm and keeping your camera gears light could save you from a lot of hassles!
Staying Warm (and treat your gears properly!)
Yes the official website said it and i’m going to go more in depth with this. Keeping your body in check will probably help you get sharp photos and longer shooting time! It’s also important to mention that camera gears are also affected by the cold! Let’s start with our bodies first! I usually go with slim cotton gloves so I have a good balance of grip to press buttons and keep my fingers from getting a frost bite! Boots and double(triple) layering your socks will also really help! At the end of the day, it’s your toes, fingers, ears that are going to keep you from staying if anything!
Now let’s talk camera gears. The cold generally does not affect the mechanics of modern day digital cameras, but the memory cards, batteries, and fogging is our main concern here. My biggest life saver I learned by experience (painfully) is that covering your tripods and metal gears up with foam or hockey tape will help get yourself our of a freezing burn. One of my friend’s iPhone actually shut off after being taken out that day lol (yeah she was REALLY when that happened), so how do we keep our camera/phone batteries strong? You can bring in external heat source, or simply bring a spare battery in your pocket to swap out throughout the shoot. Fun facts!! AA batteries can actually operate in extreme cold temperature, so if you have a battery grip that takes AA batteries, that’d be another option for you. As for myself, my Nikon EN-EL15 batteries did pretty well, and I only notice batteries depleting faster than usual. As for fogging, a rule of thumb is to avoid bringing your gears from extreme low temperature to room temperature. There are lots of ways I can go in depth with, like use of ziplock bags and stuff like that, but perhaps another time…
Photographing Ice Castles at night / Tips on low light photography
So it was dark, and the ice cave turned into an amazing light show. While my family stayed there for about 15 minutes and their happy faces began to turn into a sour shivering look. That’s when I know it’s a green light for me to stay alone and get down to business!! It’s my favourite low light photography sessions! When you are in low light, your camera’s focus and metering system is no longer accurate or even disabled. Luckily, the LED lit ice structures could light your way out of a sticky situation. I would definitely double check each frame to see if it’s sharp and in focus. When focusing on a human subject, you may be able to rely on reflected highlights of the subject to gain focus, but I would put my cellphone flashlights and a torch handle if I can for sure! I will try my best to update everyone with more tips on low light shooting if more people find this helpful.
The Light Painting
As I walked around taking snapshots of this ice palace, I used long exposure to get rid of some crowd and people walking in my shot. There may be some ghosting happening, but it is safe to say that long exposure can drastically remove many people walking when done right. I am also noticing more and more people leaving, I found a quiet corner and parked all my gears on the ground. I took out my metal chain like a thief in the corner and flicked the light switch on. YES it’s light painting time! Obviously clicking the camera shutter and running around like a maniac attracted some attention, but all in good hands. Some of the staff also came to watch, and I confidently executed some shots thinking “yup this may be last shot before these guys kick me out”. I was very careful about not blocking anyone’s path, and waited most of my shots when people weren’t around. Fortunately, the staff stayed to watch with a smile of approval. Light painting at the Ice Castle is completely possible, and I even moved to different places and approached some strangers and talked them into getting some shots done. It’s almost certain that human subjects will be darker than the environment, so be sure to leave enough highlight in both the subject as well as the ice structures. Remember! Darkness and shadows are better to keep around than blown out highlights!
After some time, a staff came to me and suggested a few spots and we began to chat. I knew my time was near and i’m really limited in time. So I toughed it up and asked the staff for his axe and shovel LOL ! What happened next was pretty magical. Not only did he gave me the axe to shoot with, I got more staff to join in with the fun and they were excited about my orb light painting. These shots were a collection of 6 seconds exposures that needed stitching before turning into a panorama. I had to be extremely careful with the amount of light the ice structures emits and what color it was turning into. Be very mindful of the volume and tempo of the song, as it is what triggers the LED lights at the Ice Castles!
Exposure/Camera Settings (iPhones, SmartPhone Photography, dSLR alike!)
You may notice in my photos that there are “bright spots” inside these ice structures Many people don’t realize that the huge amount of white in this beautiful ice cave will trick your camera into thinking that your photo is too bright and attempts to darken it. So it is recommended that you should set your captures/exposure “brighter” than what your camera would like it to. A rule of thumb would be to increase exposure compensation by +0.3 to +0.7 EV. [Read More]
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