Ice Formations In Alaska

By Ryota Kajita Back to

ryota kajita, ice formations, photo technique

When autumn goes and winter comes to Fairbanks, I am cheerfully heading off outside to find ice. Ice patterns shaped on a pond, lake or river, are one of the most magnetic subjects during the beginning of winter. The window to find ice patterns is short, because all surfaces on the ground are covered once snow falls in Alaska.

Wandering around looking for ice reminds me of treasure hunting in my boyhood. I used to run out into the woods after school hours. Exploring places that made up my neighborhood was an adventure and I enjoyed leaving my footprints on unknown areas. It was fun and uplifting enough to fulfill my young, innocent curiosity.

As an adult, photographing ice has its roots from those childhood adventures. It’s in that spirit I strive to know the environment deeper−and genuine curiosity propels me to keep photographing and allows me to be involved in the place I live. It’s a dialog between nature and me. The photographs are the by-products of my treasure hunting.

I first came to Alaska from Mizunami City in my native Japan ten years ago. I wanted to pursue my passion of photographing nature and Alaska has richly rewarded my photographic work.

In Japan, my hometown is in the countryside and is surrounded by mountains. A river runs through the town. I grew up in a natural environment that provided the beauty of four clearly defined seasons. Living there is totally different from the fast-paced modern metropolitan areas like Tokyo.

My first encounter with photography was seeing two black-and-white photographs on the walls of my family home. One of them depicted a hiking trail on top of a mountain and the other was of my mother. They were taken by my father, and were well composed with delicate balance. He loved both mountain hiking and his wife. Color photographs were more common, so my father’s black and white images were very special to me. They looked old but timeless at the same time.

ryota kajita, ice formations, photo technique

I was 20 years old when I decided to travel around Japan by motorcycle. My father lent me his old 35mm Canon camera. The weight of this small black apparatus was pleasant to my hand. I loved the click of the shutter release. Using it made me feel somehow special.

The old camera became a favored companion while recording my three-month journey. At the end of the journey I was a little shocked by the cost of developing the many rolls of films I shot and making prints. As a poor young college student, the costs were an obstacle to enjoying my new passion.

It was right about then that digital cameras were beginning to come onto the market. This proved an affordable way to continue to photograph and learn, though I continued to use film when I could to capture some important events and travels.

In 2002, I traveled to the remote Native village of Shishmaref, on Alaska’s west coast. I brought along my digital video camera and old film camera. These were intended as tools for my journal. Originally I planned to experience Native Alaskan life with Shishmaref residents and didn’t intend to document their lifestyle.

ryota kajita, ice formations, photo techniqueI chose Shishmaref inspired by the wonderful photographer Michio Hoshino. This was also the first village he visited in Alaska. His photographs and writings were filled with the joy of encounters with both wildlife and Alaskan residents and were very touching and inspirational for me. He was tragically killed by a brown bear while photographing in Kanchatka in 1996. Michio Hoshino’s stories told me: “Life is shorter than you think. Do what you want to do.” I chose this opportunity to change my life.

My three-month stay in Shishmaref expanded my desire to experience the wildlife and meet more Alaskans. It also fueled my desire to photograph the experiences I was having with the land and people and to become as excellent at my craft as I possibly could. In 2005 I relocated to Fairbanks to study photography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I am now in the MFA program in Photography.

Notes On Technique
For shooting this series, I use a Fuji CF670 medium format camera and Kodak T-MAX 100 or 400 films. I process them myself in Kodak’s old but reliable HC110B developer.

The films are then scanned with a Nikon 9000 ED scanner, using their double glass film holder. In Photoshop I digitally split tone, and make prints up to 16×16 on an Epson 3800 printer, or larger prints on the Epson 7800 printer. The GF670 is amazingly lightweight (the camera itself is only 1.0 kg without film and battery). It perfectly suits my ice treasure hunting on foot.

To capture the natural light/subject condition, I often use a yellow filter and occasionally an orange filter. I don’t use flash. The fixed 80mm lens on the Fuji GF670 is crisp, and I have no complaint about the quality. The rangefinder focus system is bright but causes a parallax issue, especially shooting at my usual close focus. The camera does have an automatic parallax correction.

ryota kajita, ice formations, photo techniqueThe bubbles of ice on a frozen river are not very large, so I spend time and carefully decide the composition to shoot them close-up. The season for this work is very short. You have to go searching for them before the snow completely covers the landscape. Also, you have to watch the thickness of frozen ice. If the ice is not thick enough to support you, a fatal result might ruin your day! (Once you fall into the river, it’s desperately difficult to find an exit because the water flows under the ice, taking you with it). This time period between thick enough ice with not much snow is short. Perhaps two to three weeks at most before heavy winter sets in by mid-October. I always make sure the ice is thick enough, and sometimes give up a photograph I’d like to shoot for safety’s sake.

I don’t use a tripod for several reasons. It’s difficult setting up a tripod at the typical Fairbanks winter temperatures of -20 °F, plus daylight hours are also rapidly waning at this time of year. So time is too precious for me to spend setting a tripod.

Without a tripod, I have to use shutter speeds around 1/60, 1/30 or even 1/15 to get maximum sharpness. Although the GF670 offers the maximum aperture of f/3.5, I have to focus the subject in 0.9m to 1.5m range to be close enough to see the bubble and hoarfrost forms I am interested in recording. In that short dis- tance at f/3.5, the depth of field is quite shallow and makes it hard to get an entirely sharp image. In my experience, the preferable aperture is f/5.6 or smaller, so I have to set the shutter speed slower, and I try to always shoot with the camera parallel to the ice. Because of the cold temperatures, I always bring extra batteries along to keep warm in my pocket and swap them out as the camera battery gets too cold.

While many might think winter in Alaska would be a good time to stay inside with a warm cup of hot chocolate and a nice blazing fire, I instead cheerfully pack up my camera and film and head out in the cold… seeking beautiful subjects in delicate ice formations on our nearby ponds and rivers.

ryota kajita, ice formations, photo technique


About the Author

Ryota Kajita
ryota kajita
Ryota Kajita was born in Mizunami, Japan. His photographs have been exhibited in the Japan Professional Photographers Society Exhibition (2011), Alaska’s Rarefied Light (2012) and other shows. His video documentary “Losing Ground,” about Shirshmaref Island’s severe erosion due to climate change, received the Cinema Committee Choice Award at the Fairbanks Film Festival (2007), and was broadcast on the AK Shorts program of AlaskaOne television (2012). He has traveled to more than 50 remote Alaska villages by a two-seat, light aircraft and a snowmobile for scientific research. He loves traveling, backpacking and cross-country skiing with a medium format film camera and always responds to the beauty of nature.