Photographing Svalbard: an Interview with Rayann Elzein
In preparation for our forthcoming photography tours in Svalbard, we caught up with Rayann, our photography guide and expert, on what he loves most about photographing in the Arctic.
Hi Rayann, what drew you to the Arctic as a photographer?
I have always been drawn to ice and snow and travelling to the Arctic was a long time dream of mine. The very first trip to the Arctic was also motivated by a strong desire to observe and photograph the northern lights. Besides wildlife, I have made it one of my specialties to chase the northern lights and photograph and film them especially in the northernmost parts of Finnish Lapland. I still wanted to go further north but there is not much land left in that direction in continental Europe. So Svalbard was the next natural step for me to travel to.
What is your background and passion as a photographer?
Interestingly enough, I did not start photography in nature or wildlife. I have been a concerts and events photographer for nearly a decade before making the move to nature photography. I am a self-taught photographer, although nowadays, there are so many sources and tutorials online to learn specific techniques that I cannot take all the credit. The online photography community has been a huge help in developing myself as a photographer and I love giving something back now! I am also a civil engineer by trade, specialised in ports and maritime transport, which turns out to be a really good match with ships expeditions in the Arctic as it gives me a good background and lots to talk about.
What do you like about Svalbard?
Svalbard is the real high Arctic. Besides a couple of settlements and research communities, there is nothing else there than wild and untouched nature. This is what I enjoy the most about Svalbard. Well, this and the northernmost whisky bar in Longyearbyen. They have one of the largest and fanciest collection I have ever seen!
Why visit Svalbard as a photographer?
The Arctic in general and Svalbard more specifically offer amazing opportunities for photographers. The first thing that I want to talk about is the Arctic light. Light is gorgeous in the Arctic because the sun remains relatively low. It is also ever-changing so you can visit the same place twice in the same day and get completely different moods on your images. Even on a clouded day, you can produce exceptional images, with for example every single tint of blue on ice shining bright.
The other thing about Svalbard is the abundance of wildlife. In May, seabirds start coming back on land to breed. Arctic fox will often be seen near birds colonies trying to steal some eggs. Reindeer sometimes even visit the centre of town in Longyearbyen. Of course, we also all want to get a view of the King of the Arctic, the Polar Bear. It is very exciting to be constantly on the lookout, and I love seeing guests spending hours watching through their binoculars to help the expedition’s team.
Finally, on a more abstract level, but also very important for photographers, time is a different concept up there in Svalbard. We are never in a rush as photographers, which stimulates creativity and the quality of the images that we produce. As a photography guide, this allows me to give quite a lot of attention to every single guest who requires it. This is something that you cannot easily do in more southern latitudes where a sunset lasts for no longer than 30 minutes before it becomes complete darkness.
Why is a small expedition vessel the best way to experience Svalbard?
There are several advantages to travel in a small expedition vessel in the Svalbard archipelago. First of all, a small vessel can get to places that larger ships can’t access. Also, on a small vessel, shore landings give so much more opportunities for photography: between the guests and guides, the group won’t be larger than 12 people, allowing for great flexibility in what we photograph. Also, wildlife such as Arctic fox and reindeer will be less scared and could be easier to approach.
Finally, with a small group our footprint is limited and we can limit our disturbance to the slow growth vegetation. We also encourage our guests to walk on rocks and stones whenever possible and to avoid moss for example. This is not something you can do with a group of 150 people.
Why is it important to protect the Arctic?
What you read and hear in the media is true: the Arctic is very fragile. During one of my voyages in 2019, we were lucky enough to call at Ny-Ålesund where the leader of the French-German AWIPEV research station gave us a presentation on the research they carry in Svalbard. The numbers are truly alarming: the temperatures in Svalbard are raising about twice as fast as the rest of the world. Having this explained to us from the source of the data itself, without any media filter or exaggeration, was a real eye-opener for all of our expedition guests.
How can photography be used for conservation and help spread the message about the threats the Arctic faces?
The Arctic is not accessible for most people due to its remoteness and the harness of the conditions there. As a result, many people have no idea what is happening there or even how it looks like. I am a strong believer that showing the beauty of the world through powerful photographs is one of the best ways to touch people. It helps people realise that there is a whole world of glaciers, plants and wild animals out there that are all suffering from threats such as contamination or rising temperatures. The Polar Bear has been made the “Ambassador” of the Arctic in the last years and rightly so, but I try to show that other species do suffer as well and do need all our conservation efforts as well. Look at the walrus for example. It came to the brink of extinction in the first half of the twentieth century, and the walrus population on Svalbard is only very slowly recovering. Walruses are also a key species in the Arctic ecosystems and they strongly rely on the presence of sea ice to subside.
All the images on this page are copyright of Rayann Elzein.
If you are interested in joining on a photographic exploration of Svalbard on an expedition vessel with just 12 guests you can see our latest departures below.