Finland Winter Wildlife Report February 2022

In mid-February of 2022, I ran a winter wildlife workshop in the northern region of Finland. This is the second workshop I have led into Finland in winter that has been dedicated to wildlife. In my experience, Finland is one of the most underrated destinations for wildlife photography and offers everything from Wolves, Wolverine, Pine Martin, Eagles, Owls, and a plethora of wonderful small Arctic birds. Winter can throw up its challenges including freezing cold weather, but for the photographer willing to get out of their comfort zone, the rewards can be really fantastic. Winter paints a stunning white canvas in Finland in February. The Taiga forest is frozen and frequently draped in snow and the opportunities for minimalist emotive photography abound.

The first part of the workshop was focused on Wolves and Wolverines and saw us based close to the small town of Kuhmo near the Russian border where there are a number of photographic hides positioned in the demilitarised no man’s land region. These are the very same hides I use on my Autumn workshops to Finland (Read last year’s Trip Report) and are exceptionally well-positioned for photographers looking to capture wildlife photographs of these elusive species. Conditions for this period of time were exceptional with a fantastic covering of snow and soft overcast conditions. On several of the days, we had heavy snow and dramatic spindrift. At this time of year, there is sufficient daylight to shoot from roughly 8am until 5pm. Typically we were in the hides by 7am and departed not earlier than 5pm; giving us the maximum amount of time for photography and encounters. Although we were skunked on wolves this year (there were a lot of prints in the area), we did have a fantastic encounter with a young Wolverine that provided some exceptional photographic opportunities in the heavy snow. Both Golden and White Tailed eagles also visited on frequent occasions.

From our private cabins near Kuhmo we traveled roughly four and a half hours to the municipality of Kuusamo where we spent our time in the nearby Oulanka National Park photographing Golden Eagle, Green and Black Spotted Woodpeckers and many of the smaller birds including Siberian jays, Siberian tits, Greater tits, and Crested tits. Conditions were similar to our time near Kuhmo with excellent snow cover and photographic conditions were superb. We had fabulous encounters with a pair of Golden Eagles on both days in the hide.

On our last day, we took the opportunity to photograph Dippers nearby to our accommodation before we wrapped up our winter workshop with onward flights home. This particular image of a dipper was captured at just 1/5th of a second in order to blur the water around the small bird.

This was the second outing where I have had a chance to use the new Canon EOS R3 in winter. Like my experience in the prior Iceland expedition (Read the Trip Report), the R3 proved a stellar performer with outstanding battery life and truly incredible autofocus.  As I noted in my Arctic Fox expedition report, the addition of black-out free shooting is a godsend for wildlife photographers and the R3 has now most defiantly found a permanent home as my number one camera of choice. Quite honestly, if you had suggested to me twelve months ago that a mirrorless camera would supplant my EOS 1DX MK3 cameras I would have probably laughed. Nevertheless, there is no question in my own mind at this point that the benefits of the mirrorless R3 outweigh the few cons in comparison to professional DSLR cameras.

Participants shot both Sony and Canon (no Nikon this time). Cameras included the Sony A1, Sony A7RIV, Canon EOS R5, and Canon EOS R3. We typically photographed with telephoto lenses ranging from 400mm and the way to 600mm.

Due to my limited time in the studio in Australia (before I leave for Ellesmere Island in just three days) I have only had time to edit and process a few images from this workshop but will update this post later this year once I have had more time to go through the photographs from this trip.

Iceland Winter Arctic Fox Expedition Report February 2022

In early February of 2022, I ran and completed my winter expedition for Arctic fox in the far north of Iceland. This has been an annual wildlife workshop that I have been running for many sequential years now. Due to the COVID pandemic, however, I had not been able to return since early 2020 and missed 2021. It did feel absolutely wonderful to again return to this remote and rarely visited area of Iceland. The Hornstrandir Nature reserve is a very special place in winter that lives very deep in my heart.

The starting location for this workshop was the small town of Isafjord in the West-fjords of Iceland (around 45 minutes flight from the capital city of Reykjavik). As is common in Iceland in winter my flight north from Reykjavik to Isafjord was delayed a day by strong winds. The weather in Iceland in winter can be fickle and brutally strong winds are not uncommon. I always allow an extra day or two for delays and the following day our group was able to fly to Isafjord in better conditions and depart on our charter boat for the Hornstrandir Nature reserve. 

The boat ride from Isafjord to Hornstrandir takes around an hour and gave us a chance for a last-minute briefing on what to expect on arrival at our small and remote cabin. During our time in the cabin, we had a pre-arranged house sitter to prepare our meals and keep the cabin warm and cozy. On our arrival, the foxes were there to greet us and we barely had time to unpack and settle in before the curious foxes were providing us with some wonderful photographic opportunities.

The weather conditions were close to perfect for our time in the Nature reserve with consistently low temperatures that fluctuated between -6º and -10º Celsius plus wind chill (around -20º C with wind chill). Iceland is typically a freeze/thaw climate and this sort of temperature consistency is quite uncommon in my experience. We had many days of blowing snow and blizzards that made for absolutely superb photography and we typically spent from sunrise to sunset in the field with a short break of an hour or so for lunch. One of the wonderful things about operating from a small remote cabin such as this is its very convenient to take a short break and warm up with a hot drink if you get a little cold, or want to take a break. The photography was so ‘hot’ this year that no one took even a short break during our time in the field. 

Although many photographers seek out the White morph of the Arctic Fox, it is actually the Blue morph that frequently provides better photographic opportunities in my experience. The wonderful contrast of the snow on the chocolate brown fur really helps give a sense of the environment in which these animals live and survive. Typically, the blue morph is the rarer of the two morphs, however, it is the most commonly found in Iceland. The white morph is more typical across the rest of the Arctic range.

During our expedition for encountered four separate blue morph foxes around our cabin; two of which would regularly come to within just a few feet of us! We photographed every single day of the expedition; including our arrival and departure days. The total shot count per person ranged between fourteen and thirty-thousand images over the course of the expedition which goes a long way toward illustrating how amazing the conditions were and how incredible our photographic opportunities were.

Just one of the comments received post-expedition: “I got home safety yesterday late in the evening but my soul is still in Hornstrandir… It was a great time in nature with a group of fantastic people. Thank you Josh for everything! I have not only amazing images but I have learned lots of new things. “

This was also the first outing where I have had a chance to use the new Canon EOS R3 in winter. The R3 proved a stellar performer with outstanding battery life and truly incredible autofocus.  I was able to get in excess of five thousand images out of a single battery charge in temperatures as low as -20º C with wind chill! The addition of black-out free shooting, in combination with animal eye autofocus is game-changing and I will have more to say about the performance of the new Canon EOS R3 in a future podcast.

Participants shot both Sony and Nikon so all three marques were well represented during the expedition (with myself shooting Canon). Cameras included the Sony A1, Sony A7RIV, Nikon D6, Nikon D750, and D850, and Nikon Z9. We photographed with lenses ranging from 11-24mm all the way to 400mm. There were no camera failures or issues despite the freezing cold and driving snow. The current generation of mirrorless cameras does seem much more reliable in the cold than early iterations.

Our return to civilization from our remote cabin and home away from home in the Nature reserve saw smooth sailing back to Isafjord; however, strong winds had again canceled our return flight and it was necessary to execute a pre-prepared plan ‘B’ and drive our group back to Reykjavik (a drive of approximately six hours). There are three mountain passes between Isafjord and Reykjavik; all of which can be a navigational challenge in winter. Roads are frequently covered in ice and snow and driving conditions can be extremely challenging. All roads were open however and we were able to make our way over all three passes and into the small town of Borganes (roughly an hour’s drive from Reykjavik) where we were forced to overnight in a local hotel due to road and tunnel closure from extreme winds blowing in excess of 42 meters per second (hurricane force). The next morning saw us safely return to Reykjavik and conclude our expedition in time for onward flights home.

I am already looking forward to returning to the Hornastrandir nature reserve in early 2023 to lead my annual workshop for Arctic Fox. Places are now extremely limited on this expedition. If you would like to secure one of the remaining places or would like more information please drop me an email at info@jholko.com. Places are filled on a first-come first-served basis.

Photograph of the Month March 2022 – Into the Blizzard

The photograph of the month for February 2022 comes from my very recent expedition to the north of Iceland to photograph the Arctic Fox in winter (trip report coming very soon – tomorrow I hope!). We were extremely fortunate this year to not only have a fantastic covering of snow on the ground but also to have falling and blowing snow on almost every day of our expedition.

In this photograph, I wanted to use the wonderful shapes in the windswept foreground snow to help frame the fox in the context of its surroundings. It is, in my experience, a rare combination to find both wildlife and sculptured and textured snow. The added drama and impact of the blizzard caps off a wonderful moment with this blue morph Arctic fox.

Workshop and Expedition Update and Availability

The pandemic (and now Putin’s war) are still having an ongoing effect on travel for many and as a result, there are a number of places that have become available on upcoming workshops and expeditions. Please drop me an email if you would like any additional information or would like to register for one of the remaining open places.

Bookings are closed until further notice for the planned expedition this July to Wrangle Island (Russian Territory). Further details on the viability of this expedition will be provided as soon as possible.

ZULULAND AFRICA WORKSHOP – May 23rd, June 1st, 2022

In May of 2022, I am offering an all-new private workshop with unparalleled luxury photographic hides in the heart of Zululand, Africa. Offering luxury accommodation alongside an astonishing array of wildlife photographic opportunities from some of the world’s most advanced and superbly equipped hides. There are currently nine photographic hides, including two Bird Bath Hides or Reflection Hides. These are ideal for small bird photography. The larger Lagoon hide focuses on waterbirds and crocodiles in the summer season. There are two places available – Full details at www.jholko.com/workshops

SVALBARD KINGDOM OF THE ICE BEAR – July 6th, July 15th, 2022

In July 2022 I am leading an expedition to the pack ice north of Svalbard to photograph Polar Bears and other wildlife and landscape of this incredible archipelago. This expedition has been designed to provide the very best possible opportunities to Photograph Polar Bears in their natural environment. With the reduction in Arctic sea ice, the Polar Bears in Svalbard are dwindling in number and the number of years left to photograph them is unfortunately limited. July and August are the ideal times to photograph the landscape and Polar Bears north of Svalbard due to the dwindling ice around the archipelago. The expedition is for a strictly limited number of just 12 participants plus leader and is dedicated to the photography of Polar Bears living and hunting on the sea ice. There are three places available – Full details at www.jholko.com/workshops

WILD WOLVES OF THE TAIGA FOREST – October 10th, October 17th, 2022

This unique workshop is dedicated to photographing the magnificent Wolves and Brown Bears of Northern Finland, in a fiery Autumn / early Winter setting. After much research and highly successful on-site location testing, I am very excited to offer you the opportunity to get up close and personal with these magnificent predators. On this workshop you will have EXCLUSIVE LAND ACCESS, which means it’s only us and the wildlife, no other photographers or visitors permitted.

We will be photographing in late Autumn / early Winter conditions: We can expect everything from sunny days to clouds, fog, and even the first snows of winter. This variety of weather, landscape, and lighting conditions will provide you with the opportunity to create a diverse, creative and professional portfolio of these predators.

There are two places available – Full details at www.jholko.com/workshops

Protecting your Camera Gear from Theft During Travel

Traveling either locally or internationally with camera equipment is always stressful. The mere thought of our expensive photographic equipment being stolen or lost sends shivers down the spine of even the most affluent photographer. Having the equipment insured can help ease the pain, but does little to soften the blow of your ongoing trip where you are now sans cameras. Not a situation any of us want to find ourselves in.

When you are traveling alone there is always the thorny problem of what to do with all your camera gear and bags when nature calls and you have to visit the lounge or public restroom. Do you take your camera bag with you? Where do you put it? (restrooms are not the most sanitary of places to take luggage in my experience) Do you leave it in the lounge where you were seated? Ask someone to watch it for you? And what about when you are seated at a restaurant and need to visit a nearby store? What about at airport security? I have seen someone walk off with the wrong bag at security while its owner was stranded on the other side of the x-ray machine. And, what if you need to leave your camera bag and equipment in the car somewhere? Or even worse, put it down somewhere in the field and forget about it? (I have seen this happen – a colleague left a very expensive Phase One with a P45+ back in the field in Iceland – almost a very expensive mistake Kevin!) There are countless situations in airports and when traveling that could easily see you separated from your expensive camera gear. So how do you protect it and always know where it is located?

At this point, I want to share a tip on how I deal with this problem and how I ensure I always know exactly where my camera bag is located – even when I leave it in the lounge to visit the restroom for a call of nature. The solution comes courtesy of Apple and is known as an Apple Air Tag (you must be an IOS user) Once set up, you simply hide the Air tag inside your camera bag where it cannot easily be found (I like to put it inside the lining of the bag). Then using your IOS device you can track the camera bag anywhere in the world. Granted you need to be within 33 feet for detailed location information. But outside of Bluetooth-range you can use wide-area ‘Find My’ to get inside Bluetooth range and then just let the technology take over. Boom! Your camera bags are now traceable anywhere in the world! The screenshot below shows both my camera case and laptop case as they sit next to me here in the lounge in Doha airport.

Originally designed for locating lost car keys, Apple Air Tags are a wonderful way to keep track of your very expensive camera gear when traveling. With an Air Tag installed in each of my camera bags I can visit the restroom with nothing more than my iPhone and receive an instant notification if the bag moves. I can track the bag if I find it gone (at least until the thief finds the Air Tag – which isn’t very likely) and always know exactly where my camera gear is located. You can even put an Air Tag in your checked luggage and tell the airline where your lost bag is located if it fails to turn up at your destination. There are undoubtedly many other applications for this clever little device, but ensuring you always know where your camera gear is located is certainly top of the list for photographers. Happy and safe traveling.