The icy patience of an Arctic photographer

The polar bear was just a faraway speck in a frozen white expanse. A film crew began to follow at a distance, gradually getting closer. Suddenly the bear picked up a scent and changed direction – the crew followed, hoping it would lead to footage of a kill. The bear came to a rest at a seal hole in the ice and started to wait. So did the crew.

For 12 hours they sat, waiting for the bear to make a move. For 12 hours the bear lay half asleep, half awake at the edge of the hole. It was too long; the crew had been awake working for 22 hours straight on the sea ice and needed to get back to camp. Cold and exhausted, they admitted defeat. Hours of waiting for little reward is not uncommon. “It’s the price we pay to get unique images,” recounts award-winning French photographer and filmmaker Florian Ledoux.

This is the reality of wildlife photography – it is always on nature’s terms. But that’s the challenge and attraction of it, too. “Every shot we get in the Arctic is a battle,” he says. “We push our limits; we feel alive by doing it.”

He has spent the last two winters on the Arctic sea ice, filming iconic scenes for the BBC’s nature documentary series “Frozen Planet” and the Disney film “Polar Bear” among others. Driven by a passion to preserve nature, his extraordinary aerial photography has earned him awards such as the 2018 Siena International Photo Awards drone photographer of the year and Nature TTL’s photographer of the year in 2020. Now he’s planning for his 2023 winter expedition, which will see him setting off from Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement, to spend days and nights on the sea ice.

“If we start at the end of February, we have a bit of light. The sun passes above the horizon around 11am or 12pm and then it’s dark at 2pm or 3pm,” he explains. From then on, the hours of light rapidly increase. “At the beginning of April, you can’t see the stars anymore, and by mid-April you have the midnight sun,” he adds.

The months when the sun just starts to poke through create the perfect palette for a photographer, Ledoux says. Every pastel shade of blue shines through and as the sun disappears, a pink belt shimmers on the horizon.

But capturing this Arctic twilight comes at a cost. Ledoux describes how the obliterating winter conditions take their physical toll – overwhelming darkness and low vitamin D levels affect your mood, the lack of routine messes up your body clock, and you are forever fighting the bitter cold, with temperatures on some days plummeting to minus 40 degrees Celsius. On those days, everything you touch with bare hands sticks to your skin and every time you exhale the moisture freezes on your face, he says. Despite wearing several layers of clothes, huge down mittens and a neoprene face mask and ski goggles, the cold bites through.

Yet these are the days Ledoux lives for. There was a time last winter, when the air was crisp, the sun was low, and an intense silence enveloped the sea ice. He spotted steam rising from behind an iceberg and, following it with his drone, discovered a large male polar bear asleep on the ice: “His body was warm and as he was breathing, smoke came out of his mouth like a dragon.”

Starring roles

Despite being out in the wilderness beyond most human contact, Ledoux is often at the mercy of a producer’s shot list. Disney, Netflix or the likes will request a specific shot of a polar bear, such as a successful hunt or a mating scene. Ticking these off can take days or months, but the key is not to rush it.

After finding a bear, the crew will position itself ahead of the bear and wait for it to gradually come closer. “We want to make sure the bear likes us,” says Ledoux, adding that to capture candid and unique behavior the bear needs to feel comfortable in their presence. If a bear is skittish or reacts badly to them being there, they will stop pursuing it. “That’s just the way it is – if it doesn’t want to be the star, you can’t force it.”

Over time, Ledoux believes you begin to recognize individual bears. Some look different, with the shape of their face or physical markings giving them away. Others have distinct characters; some are shy and some are curious and playful.

One of his blockbuster shots, which took pride of place in Disney’s “Polar Bear”, shows two bears joyfully ice skating together. Ledoux had never witnessed two bears having such fun: “It was pure magic. We were so high after that we forgot to eat all day or night.”

The feeling of being close to a polar bear is addictive, he says. The first time he saw one he had goosebumps, and despite hundreds of encounters since, that reaction hasn’t died down. “They are so majestic and beautiful … It brings (up) a lot of emotions,” he adds. His goal is to convey these emotions through his images.

Melting ice

One of Ledoux’s photos, which landed the cover of Oceanographic Magazine and Wildlife Photographic, shows a polar bear leaping precariously between broken bits of ice. It sends a message of fragility and reflects the threat of shrinking ice sheets. The Arctic is heating up nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, causing ice to melt and threatening the whole ecosystem that depends on it.

Even in the few years Ledoux has explored the Arctic, he has witnessed these changes. It has rained for days in the winter months and the terrain they can work on is diminishing as sea ice becomes less stable.

“It’s important to document,” he says, comparing his role to that of a war photographer, albeit at a slower pace and less imminently dangerous. There is an urgency, and he feels a duty to record what is happening.

“Would I fly the drone just for flying the drone? No,” he says. “The drone is a tool that allows me to capture some unique beauty and perspective of nature, to give a voice to the one that cannot speak.”

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