In a season of surreal landscapes, one of the most surreal scenes takes place in a corner of the Canadian Rockies where intrepid photographers brave the harsh cold to capture fleeting images in the snow and ice. Here, where the winter scenery is the stuff of science fiction, one of the most fascinating phenomena to unfold is the methane bubbles which get trapped in lake ice as it forms. While many of the lakes develop the frozen bubbles, most of them quickly get covered with a blanket of snow, obscuring the frozen sights below. Abraham Lake, however, is so windy that the snow doesn’t stick to the ice making it a place where you can make remarkable winter landscape photographs.
I’ve been making photos here for many winters (you can see some of my photos @rachel_jones_ross and at astralisphotography.com) and with all the photographic opportunities Abraham Lake has to offer, I’ve learned that it can be quite difficult to photograph it in a way that really captures the beauty of this unique frozen landscape. For those who are inspired to make the journey (if you do go, here’s my location guide to Abraham Lake), here are some of the things that I have found helpful to create evocative imagery. Also, these 10 tips can apply to more than just the methane bubbles in the Canadian Rockies. Try them for other surreal winter scenes as well.
Photography Tips for Creative Compositions In A Surreal Winter Landscape
Simplify your composition. The bubbles can be overwhelming when there are thousands of them for as far as the eye can see. The best compositions tend to be the ones with leading lines, or distinct patterns in the bubbles that direct the viewer's gaze through each element of the frame.
Look for complementary elements. The bubbles are not the only interesting things to photograph at Abraham Lake. Cracks, jutting ice formations, and windows of ice make interesting foreground elements, or frames for the rugged landscape.
Exploit lens distortion. If you're shooting with a wide-angle lens (I’ve used the Sony 12-24mm f/4 G, or the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master), you can use the wide-angle lens distortion to help you tell your story. If you shoot vertically, and the bubbles are in the lower quarter of your frame, they will look longer and more prominent. Conversely, by placing the mountains in the top quarter of your frame, they will look taller.
Focus stack. Focus stacking is a digital imaging technique which combines multiple images taken at different focal distances (e.g., foreground, mid ground, background) to give a resulting combined image with a greater depth of field (DOF) than can be captured by any single source image. If focus stacking seems a bit too complicated, you will want to stop down to f/16 or even f/22 to capture as much DOF in your scene as possible. However, you will achieve the sharpest images from corner to corner by focus stacking and then blending those multiple images in Photoshop.
Getting low to the ground. You can really magnify those amazing cracks, bubbles and frost shapes in the ice by getting down low to the ground. Just remember, the closer you are to your foreground, the more likely it will be that you will have to focus stack to get full sharpness from corner to corner of your image.
Perspective blending. Sometimes the wide-angle lens distortion makes the bubbles in the foreground stand out, but leaves smaller, more distant mountains looking lost in your frame. Perspective blending uses a combination of focal lengths (e.g., 16 mm for the foreground, and 18 mm for the mountain) to capture what the eye sees but the lens distorts.
Put people in your shot. Including people in your images can help to give the viewer a sense of scale, and it can help the viewer to imagine themselves being in that place.
Shoot at night. Many of you know that the stars are a huge inspiration in my own photography. Darkness and starlight transform the already otherworldly landscape of Abraham Lake into the stuff of science fiction. If you are shooting at Preacher's Point, there is a soft glow of pinkish light pollution in the valley between the peaks facing South East, and Orion rises in that gap. If you are really lucky, you might even catch the shimmering green lights of the aurora dancing across the frozen sea of bubbles.
Image stabilization. I have found that image stabilization in camera (I use the in-body image stabilization in my Sony Alpha α7R III) and on the lens (in my Sony lenses it’s called Optical SteadyShot) can help during long exposures in low light and at night. Even if you can keep the tripod steady in the wind, the ice still shifts beneath you. Image stabilization can help to achieve longer exposures in difficult conditions.
Bring a pair of skates! Why not spend the afternoon skating over the frozen sea of methane bubbles while you wait for the light. It's a great way to experience a Canadian winter on an iconic Canadian Lake!
I hope you found these tips helpful for your visit to the Canadian Rockies. If you want to learn more about the techniques I have described here, I offer winter photography workshops which include photographing this iconic lake!