The Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to West and East Greenland
Greenland is one of my favourite places in the world to go for hiking, sailing, exploration and of course photography. Greenland is a massive landmass covered in 90% ice and the remaining 10% is seasonally covered in snow. The regions that inspire me the most for photography are the regions of West and East Greenland. I have extensively explored West Greenland and I find a deep pull to this location for my photography purpose driven work. The Ilulissat Icefjord is the second fastest moving glacier in the world next to Antarctica and the result of this is dramatic, skyscraper icebergs caused by natural rhythms of seasonality in addition to the warming of our climate. On the East side of Greenland expect to see dramatic landscapes with mountains and icebergs and fewer settlements. Scoresbysund is the world’s largest fjord system that offers one of the best photography expedition environments in the world. West and East Greenland are best explored by vessels in order get to the best access for photography opportunities. West Greenland is highly focused on land and seascapes whereas in East Greenland region, there is slightly greater possibilities of seeing more wildlife. This article will introduce you to the West and East regions of Greenland and hopefully inspire you to consider exploring one or both of these locations one day soon.
A dramatic end to the day with incredible midnight summer sun lighting against the icebergs in Disko Bay, Greenland by Chase Teron
What are some of the best subjects to focus on in West Greenland for photography?
Icebergs and more Icebergs
What is fascinating about Greenland are the ever changing seascapes. One moment you are photographing this colossal iceberg and the next minute that iceberg can appear completely different or it can collapse on itself and be gone forever. These temporary iceberg formations are mesmerizing, temporary works of art created and crafted by nature. Photographers who like to photograph landscapes and seascapes are likely photographing similar locations with slight variations between photographer and photographer whereas in Greenland no seascape and iceberg are likely photographed by more than your immediate group. This impermanence and unpredictability is what drives me to visit Greenland year after year and to tell the story of climate change. In addition to each iceberg being unique, you get unique lighting conditions and weather conditions that can dramatically change the scene before your eyes. When photographing icebergs from a boat compared to land, you’re able to play with the perspectives both with focal length but also proximity to the iceberg, to be able to work with leading lines of calving pieces and maybe even get to incorporate whale sightings into your shot.
What is ideal about traveling to Greenland in the summer is the midnight sun. Golden hour in the months of July and August seem to last forever and you’re able to position yourself perfectly while circumnavigating each iceberg in order to get the best light, composition and overall scene. On top of this, if you’re an experienced drone pilot you can capture aerials where you’re able to see the under portion of the iceberg as seen below.
An aerial photograph of the Ilulissat Icefjord in West Greenland Chase Teron
Disko Bay Colossal Iceberg Aerial Photography by Chase Teron
Dramatic deep blue icebergs taken in Disko Bay, Greenland by Chase Teron
Icebergs just off of the coast of Disko Island in Disko Bay Greenland located in West Greenland by Chase Teron
As previously mentioned, whale watching here in Disko Bay is an extremely popular activity for photographers and non-photographers alike. These humpback whales make their way up from the warm Caribbean waters to the icy waters of Disko Bay for the summer months. The photography opportunities are incredible from both a boat based perspective but also an aerial perspective if you have the ability to fly your drone or to fly in a plane chater. The whales have often approached our ship and sailboats and have put on quite the shows for our photography groups. It’s always a bonus when you can experience the humpbacks of Disko Bay. Additionally, there are just about as many husky sled dogs as there are residents in Ilulissat. Although these are working dogs, you may get lucky and see the newborn puppies come in the spring and summer time. The little ones roam free and provide better photography opportunities than the full grown ones that are tied up. Additionally, if you are able to fit some hiking in there is opportunity to discover Arctic fox. They are scavengers so your best bet is to find them close to farmland or to bird nesting areas.
An aerial of our idled sailboat as we had two humpbacks approach our boat and breach, dance and engage with us for over 2hours in Disko Bay Greenland by Chase Teron
Another shot of the plentiful humpback whales in Disko Bay Greenland with the Ilulissat icefjord in the background by Chase Teron
One of the 3.5 thousand husky sled dogs in Ilulissat Greenland by Chase Teron
Before the creation of the colossal icebergs, you need to visit the source. At first glance these glaciers Eqi and Sermeq Kujalleq look to be permanent landscape features. But then you’ll hear the voice of the glaciers bringing the landscape to life. These glaciers are constantly moving inch by inch and up to 40m per day. This is an ideal scenario where you’re able to creative long exposure photography opportunities where the smaller pieces shift and move while the larger pieces stay still. Additionally, if you pay close enough attention you can determine where a calving might occur and be able to capture it on camera well before you hear the voice and echo of the event.
Looking the away from Eqi Glacier in West Greenland. The shards and ice pieces seen from this aerial are from a recent calving at Eqi Glacier by Chase Teron
Disko Bay Region and Ilulissat
Midnight summer sun in West Greenland provides incredible lighting conditions for photographers when photographing the colourful settlement of Ilulissat by Chase Teron
A picturesque settlement in Jakobshavn Greenland taken in Ilimanaq, Greenland by Chase Teron
Disko Bay is the temporary home to all of the resulting icebergs from the Sermeq Kujalleq’s calvings most notably during the spring and summer season. The Ilulissat Icefjord’s Sermeq Kujalleq’s glacier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which exemplifies how fantastic this location truly is on a global level. This Arctic region of West Greenland is also home to multiple colourful Greenlandic settlements including Ilulissat, Rode Bay, Ilimanaq and Uummannaq. Most West Greenland expeditions in Disko Bay begin by flying to Ilulissat (JAV Airport) and then starting a boat based expedition or doing a land based expedition with an accompanying daily boat charter option. This region is jam packed with breathtaking photography opportunities from the colossal icebergs, to the active calving glaciers, to the breaching humpbacks, the playful husky sled dogs and of course the charming colourful homes and cultural experiences of the local Greenlandic people.
Our photography expeditions begin in Ilulissat and this is the perfect location to get your journey started as you will be able to capture photographs of icebergs from the shoreline, aerial photography opportunities with local plane charters or drone opportunities, timelapse opportunities of the fast moving ice river Sermeq Kujalleq at the Ilulissat icefjord, long exposures from the shoreline, portraits of the locals, hiking opportunities and the potential to discover some Arctic fox dens and this is before the true photography expedition even happens if you’re boat based.
The Arctic atmosphere will satisfy all of your photographic needs. If there is one thing to know about the Disko Bay and Jakobshavn region is that it’s extremely difficult to commit to sleeping each night. Most of the time, as a photographer, flip flopping your schedules to coincide with the best light is a necessary endeavour!
The picture perfect settlement of Uummannaq is located 590 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and around 165km north of Ilulissat. This settlement is home to an impressive mountain called Uummanaq Mountain which shoots 1170m up from the island. This mountain on Uummanaq island dwarfs the Uummanaq town, which is the 8th most populated town in Greenland, at just ~1,400 residents. For a photographer, this location is a dream location for both landscape and aerial photography. Uummanaq offers the dramatic mountain scenery that Ilulissat, Rode Bay and Ilimanq can not. Therefore with a boat based expedition, you are best to get the most photography diversity of your Greenland experience. When choosing photography tours, it’s imperative that you do your research in terms of what is nearby and choose a photography tour accordingly. The longer boat based expeditions from Ilulissat offer the greatest options for photography. These tours may be at a premium cost when compared to land based tours, but it’s for good reason. Traveling to Greenland is an investment and therefore ensure that you choose a tour with the highest quality of photography opportunities and overall itinerary.
This tiny little settlement located just on the other side of the icefjord is a charming place to say the least. There are colourful homes scattered across the land, a small lake, huskies and often humpbacks that come to visit. There has been investment in recent years to help this dwindling settlement be home to some tourism activities. There is a little lodge where the cabins are scattered throughout the coastline on a boardwalk and a fine dining restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients only. To get to this little settlement you can take a boat taxi or schedule your lodge visit with local operators or you can join a photography tour where this place is a stop.
West Greenland settlement of Ilimanaq, Greenland by Chase Teron
West Greenland settlement of Ilimanaq, Greenland by Chase Teron
What is there to photograph in East Greenland?
East Greenland is a location right out of a fiction novel. This is an explorer and adventurers dream to be able to witness the jagged mountain peaks with massive icebergs in the foreground.
Scoresbysund’s Iceberg Graveyard at Red Island
One of the best locations within Scoresbysund and in the entirety of Greenland is the iceberg graveyard at Red Island. This location provides photographers with icebergs of all shapes and sizes with warm contrasting red and brown tones of the unique surrounding landscape. Another reason why this location is so fantastic is that it’s somewhat sheltered and therefore providing you with reflection opportunities with the right, wind free conditions. The moraines below the surface and the more shallow depths stop the icebergs in their tracks by bottoming out, hence the name Iceberg Graveyard. This location is accessible by zodiac where it can be then explored further by zodiac or by hiking along the hillside ridges. This location is ideal for shooting with various focal length for both large dynamic scenes, abstract scenes and of course aerial photography opportunities.
This settlement location is ultra unique as you can see with the aerial below. This settlement is located north of Ilulissat and it’s home to a few colourful homes and a small resident population. With the currents and tides, icebergs often find themselves grounded here and unique photography opportunities are to be had. Mixing in the colourful homes with the nearby icebergs is definitely a dream scene.
Wildlife in East Greenland
There is plenty of wildlife viewing and photography possibilities in East Greenland within Scoresbysund. Some of the mammals include Musk Oxen, Polar Bears, Reindeer and Arctic Fox and then below the surface you may get to see Seals, Beluga whales, Narwhals, Atlantic Walrus and if you are extremely lucky, then even a Greenland shark. Additionally, if you’re a birder then there are plenty of bird species to be photographed as well. The reason why East Greenland is an incredible photography tour destination is not only for the breathtaking scenery and landscapes but you also can photograph wildlife with these incredible backdrops.
Remote Settlements and Villages
Ittoqqortoormiit sits on the Scoresbysund’s northern entrance and it sits 800km away from the nearest town. This is a desolate, small village of approximately 450 inhabitants and it is the hub of tourism for the 18,000km of coastline on the eastern side of Greenland. This is your main opportunity to capture the colorful homes on this side of Greenland, meet some locals and learn about how they survive in such a remote region of our planet.
The Best Way To Photograph Greenland
As you may have guessed it, there are not any highways in Greenland nor is there an abundance of connected trail systems. Therefore the very best way to explore Greenland is via boat. Specifically, small expedition vessels that can navigate fjord systems and that can provide guests with zodiac cruises in calmer waters and to get to the land to explore by foot. In order to get the most out of your trip to Greenland I would recommend small vessel exploration as you want to keep the remoteness, atmosphere and desolation a part of your story and traveling by a large cruise ship will ruin this unique experience to distance yourself from other travelers and people in general. Greenland is not a location you want to go to, to be surrounded by a lot of other people. In West Greenland, it is possible to be land based but in order to get the best possible experience and photographic opportunities ensure you have a boat charter organized. In order to get to the most remote picturesque regions traveling by small expedition vessel is your best option.
Best time of year to travel to any location in Greenland
My favourite time to visit Greenland is in the summer when the weather is more predictable, you have the midnight sun and you can travel via small vessel. In the spring and winter, the sea ice blocks your ability to travel far distances and the extreme cold temperatures add in complexity. In the fall, the weather is very unpredictable as high winds and storm systems pass through the fjord systems both in West and East Greenland. If you’re looking to go see big icebergs and to have the best photography and exploration experience look to book a photography tour in Greenland for July or August timeframe. Additionally, flying to Greenland is easy in the summer time as your flight will likely depart and arrive on time with better summer weather conditions. If you choose to go to Greenland in the shoulder seasons be sure to add buffer days in between your travel to Iceland if you go this route, in case of flight delays.
For more information about traveling to Greenland and to the Arctic. Be sure to read up on my blog about the Arctic photography gear kit and what I pack in order to get the most out of the experience and do so comfortably.