Frontier life: Paolo Verzone on documenting the people of the Arctic

A man in an orange boiler suit stands in a room with a wooden-panelled wall, two towels hanging from pegs.
Günter Stoof, a technician at the Alfred Wegener Institute – a German polar and marine research organisation – in the Russian/German base on Samoylov Island. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Paolo Verzone

When Canon Ambassador Paolo Verzone visited the Arctic for the first time three years ago, he knew he would be back. Five trips later, the Italian photographer is midway through a personal project documenting Arctic communities. Here, he describes what it takes to shoot in one of the world's most challenging environments.

Paolo is no stranger to long-term photography projects and his latest undertaking is one of his most ambitious. Provisionally titled Arctic Zero, the ongoing project sees the award-winning Italian photojournalist travel across the Arctic, from Svalbard in Norway to Siberia and Greenland, to tell the stories of the scientists and communities who call these inhospitable places home.

A man stands on top of a snow-covered cliff overlooking the sea. He is dwarfed by the enormous landscape and exposed rocks of the cliff face.
Local pastor and author, Leif Magne Helgesen, in Svalbard. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Paolo Verzone
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It all began with a web documentary about climate change and global warming commissioned by Le Monde. In May 2015, Paolo travelled with a journalist to the research base Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. For 10 days, Paolo and his companion endured freezing temperatures and challenging weather to document the scientists at work, and to capture the breathtaking landscapes all around.

Working on the documentary sparked the idea for a personal project that would take Paolo to various research bases in the Arctic Circle, including Samoylov Island – a station for Russian-German permafrost research in Siberia.

"I'm working not only at the bases, but also on this idea of the last frontier," Paolo explains. "Scientific bases are often in territories with unique peculiarities and inhabitants. For example, in Svalbard there are no citizens who were born there – all the residents come from abroad and know that one day they will leave. Communities there are like new frontier explorers, and the whole society is affected by this attitude. I’m interested in this modern mix of science, raw nature, and innovative communities that are developing around the Arctic Circle."

In a snowy landscape, a person is lifted from the ground by a large orange balloon.
The weather balloon, nicknamed Miss Piggy, is flown above the Ny Alesund Arctic station. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Paolo Verzone

During his travels, Paolo carried two camera bodies with him: a Canon EOS 5DS R and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. The former was perfect for portraits, especially on the move, and "the capability of this camera to keep the whites readable was always fantastic," he says. A standout feature was its ability to capture everything, especially in images where there was a lot of contrast. "A little bit of sun on the snow or reflected on the water and you know the camera will get it." 

Paolo used the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to capture action and low-light scenes. The camera's dynamic range, even at higher ISOs of 3200 or 6400, impressed him. On one occasion, it was the middle of the night and Paolo was on a boat waiting for another smaller boat to take him to Samoylov Island. "It was a strange and magical atmosphere," he recounts. "The 5D Mark IV was fantastic. I wouldn't have been able to get the night time image of the boat otherwise. That was the moment I understood the real value of this camera."

A boat sails into port in the dark, lighting up the water in front of it with a tiny lamp.
A boat brings the scientists back to Samoylov Island. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Paolo Verzone
A man in a red coat with a fur hood stands in an icy landscape at dawn.

Paolo Verzone on shooting an Arctic ad

How the Canon Ambassador fought through a snowstorm, walked on ice and used three DSLRs to meet a demanding brief.

A love of shooting with natural light and a preference to avoid the use of flash where possible means Paolo often turns to fast aperture prime lenses. During his Arctic adventures, his kitbag included a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM, a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, a lens that "has a very delicate range of contrast and colours. You can use it for everything – for landscapes and for certain portraits. I use it a lot."

For portraits, Paolo frequently used the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, not least because of its wide aperture, which is "perfect for when the light is going. It's invaluable, not only for capturing details, but also the mood." Another big plus of this lens is its "capability of getting the colours how you saw them."

The challenges of shooting in endless snow

Inevitably, Paolo was at the mercy of the elements. "In the studio you can control everything, but outside you have no control. You have to understand what is the best situation, place and angle of light to take your picture, so it's your way of seeing the environment that makes the picture."

While the Arctic is defined by mile after mile of ice and snow, that didn't make for a boring shoot. Although Paolo had an idea of the shots he wanted to take, it was necessary to adapt to changing conditions. Indeed, the key word was always 'adapt', he says. "This is what I was doing every day because the light was changing – direct sun, clouds – and the snow was changing colour. You'd be thinking of doing a portrait a certain way and then discover it's a different picture..."

A man in a black wetsuit stands in icy waters.
A diver from the German Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor (IPEV) works by the Ny Alesund Arctic station AWIPEV Base. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Paolo Verzone

Everywhere you looked there was ice and snow, says Paolo, but focusing on subjects in a world of endless white was never a problem. "Perhaps, in the past, focusing in the snow was a little problematic. But now, with the Canon EOS 5DS R and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, [the images] have sharp edges," he says. The cameras even performed in a snowstorm. "On one occasion there was wind and the snow was coming across horizontally, but the cameras did manage," Paolo adds.

And what about getting a good exposure in snowy environments? Paolo advises not to compensate or underexpose. "Do one or two tests and check the screen to make sure that the exposure is ok – that it isn't too bright or underexposed," he says. "The capabilities of the Canon cameras mean it's possible to capture almost everything."

Sometimes, Paolo would be out for long periods of time, but the batteries never let him down. "I never had a problem, even at -15°C or -20°C. You just keep your camera warm inside your backpack or underneath your jacket when you're walking and take it out when you want to shoot."

A person in white overalls and black boots carries a large white box in the snow.
Glaciologist Jean Charles Gallet takes some snow samples to determine the amount of black carbon in the snow. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R. © Paolo Verzone

One of the biggest pitfalls of shooting in the Arctic is the temptation to focus only on the beauty of the landscape, says Paolo. You have to practise restraint in order to go beyond clichéd, picturesque images. Once Paolo understood how to work with the white that was all around, he could start to take a variety of shots.

"When you arrive, everything is incredible," he says. "For you, it's the moon. Then, the next day, you realise everything is still there. Instead of taking pictures in all situations you try to understand and interact with the situations. 

"That's why it's key to go to places many times," he adds. "The more you travel, the more you say, 'let's wait', and then you get the pictures." It's a case of slowing down and shooting in "a meaningful way."

Next, Paolo hopes to visit Alaska, but he plans to take his time. "The Arctic Circle is very big so there are many other parts to visit and photograph. But I'm not in a hurry."

Autor Gemma Padley

Paolo Verzone's kitbag

Canon kit that excels in extreme conditions

Two Canon DSLRs, four lenses, four filters, lights, hard drives, a walkie-talkie and other pieces of kit sit on a grey table top.


Canon EOS 5DS R

This DSLR's ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality, plus "the capability of this camera to keep the whites readable was always fantastic," says Paolo.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Paolo found that in low light, "The 5D Mark IV was fantastic... That was the moment I understood the real value of this camera."


Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

A versatile, compact pancake lens with a fast maximum aperture that enables low-light shooting and depth-of-field control. This lens "has a very delicate range of contrast and colours. You can use it for everything," says Paolo.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its f/1.2 maximum aperture and ultrasonic autofocus, this super-fast lens is a consummate low-light performer. Paolo loved its "capability of getting the colours how you saw them."

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