What colour is ice?

The two biggest problems I have had processing images from our trip have been scale and colour. Let me start with an example.


I called this whale scale. Looking at this it is easy to overlook theย fact that centre mid-foreground are two cruising humpback whales. The iceberg right background is the size of a skyscraper. We took the zodiacs as close to this berg as we dare. Before I illustrate the size I come onto the captioned question. What colour is ice. We left the Vavilov as far as I recall around 5.30am. We were out for about three hours. Longer than that and the biting cold chills through your multiple clothing layers, primarily due to inactivity. Walking you stay warm. Sitting in a zodiac you chill. During those three hours my perception of the colour of the environment changed dramatically. When I process the images there is a balance to be chosen between authenticity and interpretation. Shooting RAW allows me to make the changes I want but they may not reflect the memories others have of those moments in time. And so my shot taken of the iceberg below was probably at the end of the trip as we cruised back to the boat whereas the shot above was taken early on as we negotiated the floe ice. One Ocean were always alert to the danger of the way the ice can shift with current and wind so we were always checking to see if we had a route, however indirect, back to safety.


Those dots on the lower left shelf are penguins. So compare the scale – whales, icebergs, penguins….. And the shades run from a washed out grey to a beautiful blue.

To demonstrate the consistency of my memory, here is another shot I took early in the cruise.


This is certainly substantially bluer than the first shot but lacks the glow of the later image.

I also tried processing these scenes in monochrome but sadly I could not find an effective tone. The ice looks either dirty grey or, if pushed, almost black. Completely unrealistic. Arguably they look good as an image but who thinks of icebergs as black? To me that was pushing beyond an interpretation and straying into converting for the sake of converting.

Once again you can see the huge iceberg against the coastline. Such distances are hard to judge but the ice made it too risky for us to attempt our planned landing. This was to have been I think our main target for Adelie penguins and hence the paucity of our sightings for the trip. The compensation was more Chinstraps on ice. And so to round off this post, here are two more chinnies for your enjoyment (and mine).

Welcome to Antarctica, says Chinny.


And then, when we don’t throw him any krill, he slopes off dejectedly.


So that’s it. Any suggestions how to deal with colour and scale would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Oh and thank you for making this my best month ever for stats – and in only half a month. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, penguins bring home the bacon.

22 thoughts on “What colour is ice?

  1. White balance is not one of my strong points, Andrew. I always just judge by eye and occasionally the numbers make sense. I will say that the berg appears similar to many of the images i have seen and Sandra’s confirmation where I have never experienced this ice or light makes me feel good about my feeling.
    My favorite image is your stuffed chinny. Who would have suspected?

  2. I really enjoyed the images, but even more your discussion of getting the colour and scale right. I am glad you use the word ‘interpretation’ . Photography is about reproducing nature (or other subject) but about interpreting it. I think you have done a fine job of giving some different interpretations of what you saw and, remembered and captured.
    I struggle all the time with just how much adjustment to make to create a balance about the impression the subject made on me and the accuracy of the image as it relates to the original object.

    I think the Impressionists were very helpful as guides to photographic interpretation.

    As for scale, how do we capture the hugeness of the natural scene? Particularly when there often isn’t something to give our minds a reference.

    Soon leaving for a time in Mexico, all these issues will surface, but there, it’s about how to capture the sense of light and vibrant colour. Your post has given me lots to think about.

  3. white balancing and scale. I guess, there is tons of material out there to teach and yet nature doesn’t care about any literature …
    From my perspective, you captures the ice nicely with all three shots. You could also ask, what color is sunshine, or what color is the water. The impression I get as a viewer is that you shot images throughout the day and that you captured different locations also with different coloring of the sky.
    As for the scaling, nature is cruel. Even for the human eye, distance or size is difficult to guess. Why should it be easier with a camera then? ๐Ÿ™‚ The second shot is brilliant because you have dots of reference. Must have been an amazing thing to see! From my point of view, the other ones work not so much for the height or size, but more like a cold, deserted landscape with freezing water and empty vast ice. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, quite contrary, I adore pictures like those!
    No further feedback about the penguins. They both are adorable, even more than kittens, I believe ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Andreas, thank you for your thoughtful comments and the encouragement. Penguins or kittens? Now that’s a tough call. Kittens on an iceberg worth trying perhaps?

  4. Sadly I am unable to offer any technical advice on colour except to say the blueness captures my memory of glacier ice in Canada. Today an old sailing pal, also a great student of matters polar, is, visiting so I look forward to sharing this with him.

  5. The blue in the second ice berg photo is indeed realistic, as well as the darker blue in the third is! But it is the way it is: the second one shows very old ice that is bluer due to the locked oxygen (sorry, don’t know the correct phrase in English ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ) that is not present in the third one. On the other hand, the blue of the third photo is typical for the “blue hour” for me so I don’t feel it is unrealistic either ๐Ÿ˜‰ We don’t know when it was taken and it doesn’t matter. It transports the mood of early morning or late evening and it is okay. We don’t have to know if it was taken in the middle of an overcast day. Photographer’s interpretation and creativity are free ๐Ÿ™‚

    Regarding scale: yes, it is very difficult to record scale with wide angle to normal focal lengths and the elements you have in the photos you show here. In cases like this, where I don’t have strong foreground interest, I try to work with tele focal lengths to concentrate on a strong part of the scene, to compress it and hence achieve more scale. Or try portrait mode. I could imagine that the third one looks stronger in a vertical format. Anyway, this is pure theory as it is difficult to find a composition and make a quick decision when cruising in a Zodiac ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The Chinnies are outstanding (though I would place the last one more towards the left border ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) – sure enough you attract a lot of penguin lovers with these sort of appealing photos ๐Ÿ™‚

    Just my thoughts…. Cheers, Sandra

    • Thanks Sandra – very constructive and helpful. One of the pleasures of blogging is the trouble people go to to provide feedback and advice – there are several excellent examples already in this thread. I played around with the placement of the second chinny to try and avoid plonking him in the middle but then the rest looked out of balance. Ho hum. Have to go back and try again.

  6. For your penguins I would use the breast of the penguin as the white point because we can be more certain that this is meant to be white. With the icebergs all the images i have seen have been white with a blueish tinge.
    When shooting snow you normal underexpose by one stop, if you did not do this then when you process the raw image lower the exposure slightly colour balance and then raise the brightness.

    Hope it helps.

    Colour balancing is so hard and you hit the nail on the head the difference between memory and reality.

    • Thanks Ben. I took a lot of advice before I left – from people who had done this trip before me. It is still hard to get it right in the field, in a zodiac with limited time to experiment. My normal approach is to expose for the right of the histogram or perhaps more accurately about 80% to the right unless there are deep shadows I want to pull out. The penguins generally came out out surprisingly well but the ice shots did leave me scratching my head a lot. I tried tweaking the colour balance sliders in LR but concluded the RAW files were pretty accurate in that respect. I have pushed the brightness a little in some shots. All advice gratefully received. Thank you again.

  7. I can’t offer any critique here Andrew. In my humble non-pro opinion it boils down to a matter of taste. My taste is that I like all of them. But you are the photographer so what ever you like should be A- okay. I say let your instinct govern your choice. Are you trying to decide on some pics for Flickr? And it is peculiar (to me) that people only visit a site for certain things. But maybe some of the penquin fans will return to look at other birds.

    • Hello Yvonne. I will pick some shots for Flickr soon but just have not had time to do that yet. We are approaching the lunar new year here so today we have been buying blossom to decorate the home, some orange bushes for the balcony and some colourful plants to brighten up the new year. I was supposed to be out with the camera today but have tweaked something in my neck so had to cry off. Maybe tomorrow ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Adndrew, I was not referring for you to get photos over to Flickr. I see many on the blog anyhow. I just thought that maybe you were aiming for the best possible pic for Flickr. I am so hesitant to post anything Flickr for there are many photographers with a super-duper camera with the prime lens. I can readily tell the difference in the what there cameras prodcuce in comparison to mine.

        Anyhow, I had not thought about Chinese celebration of the the lunar year. In fact I did not know about it. I vaguely remember reading that from my long ago past. I know that you and Mrs Ha will make your home look look a paradise with the blooms. Orange blossoms are wonderful and the plant will look great on the balconey.

        Do be careful about your neck. Maybe if there is too much pain you will need to have that area xrayed. If it’s only muscle strain a good chiropractor probabbly will fix you right up.

  8. Lovely images, Andrew. I agree with what you say about scale… I hadn’t even noticed the whales in your first image until I read the text and knowing how large these creatures are helps to give one a sense of perspective… Keep up the good work!!

  9. Chinny looks unreal on that first shot, sort of like a stuffed toy penguin ๐Ÿ˜€

    I took some pix of one of the glaciers in NZ when we were there back in the 90s, and scanned them into my everypic blog, they are mix of both dirty grey and that strange blue, but nothing like the blue on your iceberg. Must have been quite spooky travelling through all that ice and so close to the icebergs.

    • Oh no! Stuffed toys……..I’ve been rumbled. Took us a long time to find them. Ordered from Gamages catalogue.

      Icebergs can indeed be spooky. If large chunks fall off they can also create quite strong waves so they get a lot of respect. I do have some shots of an icefall somewhere in the 6000. I shall try to find them.

    • Rough Seas, you’ve rumbled me. The chinnies are indeed stuffed toys, bought from Gamages catalogue.

      I do have quite a good collection of penguins which friends have helped build over the years. I shall have to check whether I do indeed have some chinnies amongst them. I must seek out your icebergs toot sweet.

  10. Love the feel of the iceberg close up. It has a sense of scale, even without pointing out the little dots. The first shot, just doesn’t have something to put it into scale. This is often true of landscapes, especially ones where the viewer doesn’t bring their own scale from experience with them. As far as color, these are already pretty monochromatic (in blue). I love the color in the third shot, though that really has the scale problem due to the focus on the close in ice. You get a sense of the cold in that blue (in both the second and third shots).

    Love the first Chinny. I just love how you capture these without distractions in the background and really nice color. Very well done.

    • Thanks Daryl. It is a question of patience finding penguins without distractions. And then sometimes they are not in a clean area but one covered in guano. The temptation is to shoot every penguin you see but that wears off. If you find a ‘clean’ penguin you work it hard!

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