During the polar nights when the sun never rises, it is just 4°C in the tumultuous, frigid Norwegian Sea. The city of Tromsø is further north than many people ever venture – 350km above the Arctic Circle. These are facts that don't deter Canon Ambassador Audun Rikardsen. In pursuit of photographs of Nordic wildlife as it has never been seen before, he uses his Canon bodies and trusted L-series lenses in punishing conditions: left for days, weeks and months in snow, sleet, hail and wind.
Audun is from a small fishing community in Northern Norway called Steigen, and now lives in a small village at the coast outside Tromsø, also known as the 'Gateway to the Arctic'. He's from a whaling family – a fact he says had the perhaps counterintuitive effect of teaching him to understand and respect natural life. Pairing a curious nature with a burning interest in wildlife, above and below sea level, he creates photographs that receive worldwide recognition for their creativity and technical acumen.
But first and foremost, Audun is a scientist, working as a professor in biology at the University of Tromsø. This is the driving force behind his photography – with a photograph, like no other medium, he can share his research with the world.
Some of his photographic success can be attributed to his advanced understanding of animal behaviour and scientist's access, while some is down to sheer grit; Audun thrives on making the impossible possible. "It's not luck," he says of his more remarkable work. Rather, his thirst for great photography is driven by constant dissatisfaction. Leaving his camera in mountain hides for months at a time to capture eagles at their resting places, submerging it in icy waters to photograph whales frolicking and placing it nose-to-lens with polar bears, he achieves captivating shots that educate the masses.
"Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a fish, looking up at a predator?" Audun asks. It's lines of inquiry such as this that have led to his more notable images. He often finds that the sights and perspectives he can't see with his own eyes, he can capture through a skilfully positioned lens.
Here, he talks about the challenges of working in the Arctic, his go-to tools of the trade, and the secrets behind his success.
How does photography help you as a scientist?
"I've realised that if I show my scientific results through a picture, it has a much bigger impact. In many situations, I also use my camera as a scientific tool. For example, I photograph whales to capture the fluke – the backside of the tail of the whale – which works as a fingerprint. Then we can compare that photograph with databases in other parts of the world, and in that way identify the migration of whales between those areas."
And how does being a scientist help you as a photographer?
"As a scientist, you're focused on your goal. You plan and you try to get final results, and I do the same with my photography. As a scientist, you need to have a good idea to get funding. But as a photographer, you also need to have a good idea to show something different. And if you have an idea for a project, you plan it like a scientist.
"People will say, 'Audun, you have so much luck.' Well I don't. I think that if you are passionate, if you plan your work and you really want to reach a goal, eventually the luck will come. You can plan the luck."
Your work often shows animals from a unique perspective. What are you trying to achieve?
"It's about showing moments in nature that you rarely see. I know a lot of people complain that [some photography has become] unnatural, because you can capture things you wouldn't normally see. But for me, that's what I want to show – that moment with that animal in that situation. I like my photography to show an animal's natural habitat and what it's doing at close range, creating the feeling that you are in the situation, sitting there with the animal."
Your pictures are so perfectly composed, sometimes it's hard to believe they're not composites.
"For me, when it comes to photography, the photo itself needs to be a single shot with no adjustment or additions – I want it to be totally natural. I plan photographs as a scientist. I often get an idea, write it down, and start thinking of the methods I can use to reach my goal to get that picture. I never stop. And if I fail, I try again – I get even more motivated to reach it. It's that moment when you understand what you have been looking for, for weeks or maybe years – that's the part that drives me both as a scientist and as a photographer."
When you're photographing eagles' resting places, or shooting in the water at night, surely access and low light can be an issue?
"For me, the most important thing with my equipment is that I can use it in low light, and in extreme conditions. That means I need to have cameras with a good dynamic range and high ISO values without too much noise. I use the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
"Most people use big tele lenses when photographing animals. I do as well – I often use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM – but I also enjoy going in the opposite direction. With a wide-angle (such as the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) or even with a Macro lens (such as the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM), if you get close enough, you can also see the environment where the animal lives, which gives the picture more of a story. It says more about the animal itself.
"In those situations, you need to know and look at the behaviour of the animal – if you are chasing, you will scare them. If you behave in a certain way and you give them time, they will often adjust to you, and at some point they will get interested and come to you. That's when you get the interesting shots."
What are the most extreme things you put your equipment through?
"The type of photography I do is on the limits, in conditions that are quite harsh. The kit is splashed with salt water, it's taken out in freezing conditions and in the rain, and I sometimes drop it. Things happen so fast that I have to be able to throw my camera to the floor and grab another one at times, and I have to trust that the equipment can withstand it.
"When I'm at my hide, that's in an extreme place too – it's on the edge of a cliff next to the sea, so I need a camera that can sit up there in freezing conditions, and still work when I get there. Last night I placed my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens in my eagle hide in the rain overnight. Normally I add a filter to the front to protect it from the rain, but I had noticed that the filter leaked, so I decided to take the chance and leave the lens outside without any protection. It was raining so heavily that it sounded like drums on the roof in my house, so I was really worried, but when I went out this morning to check, it was in perfect condition. That’s what I love about Canon L-series lenses – they are so robust."
Why is that reliability so important?
"Sometimes you're looking for a certain situation, you're planning and you finally get there. You know that 'now is the time', it's happening, and then if your equipment doesn't work... that's harder to accept than if everything else worked and you messed it up yourself. Sometimes you won't get that chance again! That's why I use cameras that I know can cope with these conditions. The durability and reliability is very important to me."
Tell us about your self-built hide.
"Because I'm both a full-time scientist and a photographer, my challenge is time. And if I want to do photography, I need to combine it with science, and with my local interests. I've built a hide up in the mountains, about two kilometres from my home. When our daughter goes to bed, I go up there to arrange the hide, position the cameras, set up the sensors, and then the camera will take the picture for me.
"This hide was also intended as a kind of office where I can do both science and photography. And it's excellent because when I'm in my hide, I can focus on my work, with no distracting phone calls. And if an eagle comes, I can do photography as well. It took me three years to get the eagles to come, but now it seems like it's finally working."
What got you interested in ocean photography?
"I grew up in a coastal community close to nature, and I remember when I got my first diving mask from my parents. Above water, I could hear the sounds of the birds, the cars, people talking... And then I moved my head underwater and it was totally different. I could hear moving rocks, small voices, then total silence.
"The millimetres that divide those two worlds have always fascinated me. Birds dive down to catch fish, and whales come up from below to breathe. The lives of these creatures are connected by these millimetres of surface water."
Tell us about your split-level picture of the orca whale and fishing boat.
"Well, the reason I built my own dome housing in the first place was that I had that picture in my head. I even made a drawing that looks almost exactly like the final picture. I had been observing these killer whales being attracted to fishing boats – you can see it all happening from above the surface, and if you dive, you can see it from below the surface. I wanted to take a picture that tells both stories, but there was no equipment on the market that could do that in low-light conditions. That's why I came up with the idea of making something. When I eventually got the chance and captured that picture, it was a huge adrenaline rush."
Do you build your underwater housings by yourself?
"When I get these ideas of building things, I have friends helping me – engineers, usually. And I have some good friends at the University of Tromsø that help me in their spare time, building domes and creating the electronics that I need for remote controls, external batteries, and things like that. It's been critical for me, having friends with that expertise."
Do you think it's important to focus on a species or a place?
"Yes, I try to specialise in my local environment. I don't travel much, and most of my photography is taken locally, within a few kilometres. I think that's a possibility that a lot of people have, even if you live in the middle of London or in the Sahara. There is always something that is special for your area. If you focus on that, you have the chance of being there at the right moment, taking a picture that is different from most others."
What's your hit rate?
"The more you plan a photograph, the fewer photos you take, and the better they are. With good planning perhaps half the photographs are good. If it's less planned, you can take thousands of pictures, and there might be one that stands out if you're lucky."
What does the future hold for you?
"I have to admit, it's quite hard to combine my science job, my photography and at the same time being a father and a family member. So that's my challenge – time. And that's something I constantly try to do better at. So for the future, I would like to continue my photography, but I also need to be a father. I'm seeking ways to combine this in an efficient way. Hopefully, I can get my daughter into photography as well. That would help a lot!"