Harbin Ice Festival - Night Photography Adventure

A magical and somewhat kitsch castle, made of ice and illuminated at night, at IceWorld in Harbin, China.

There's no denying it, ice is what you'll see at the Harbin Ice Festival just outside the city of Harbin in far northeastern China.

It’s a visual treat and an absolute hoot photographing the huge variety of near life like ice structures on display.

I spent a fun 4 hours at the Harbin Ice Festival and managed to photograph most of the fantastic ice sculptures on display.

Huge structures, some resembling important or significant buildings from around the world, artificially lit in all manner of colors make this a fantastic place for photography.

I wasn't bothered by the low temperatures, having dressed appropriately, except when my face was exposed to the bitting cold.

I had bought a balaclava the day before which, while it scared a local girl when I approached her for a photograph, did allow me to work the entire evening outdoors in relative comfort.

Despite what appeared to be an abundance of artificial light a relatively high ISO (e.g., ISO 800) was required for photographing handheld without a tripod.

Despite the crowds there was sufficient space for me to move around and photograph unencumbered.

Where I had the opportunity to do so I was able to employ my tripod for added stability at my preferred ISO 100 setting.

Protecting Camera Batteries In Cold Weather

Actually photographing at the Harbin Ice Festival is a pretty surreal experience. And, of course, it’s very cold.

As the Harbin Ice Festival is on the outskirts of town it's said to be several degrees colder than what you'd experience within the city of Harbin.

So, at around -30 Degrees Celsius you'd want to make sure you have the following:

  • A fully charged battery in your camera

  • One or more spare batteries, kept as warm as possible, in a pocket between your fleece and (goose feather) down jacket.

Harbin is remote. Situated in the far northeast of China, Harbin is quite close to the borders of Siberia and North Korea.

Though it’s a very large city, with a population of around 8 million people, Harbin is a long way to come only to have your camera run out of battery power.

My then Canon camera and lens coped well with the conditions, although I had to wipe off the ice, which formed on the back of the camera, about every 10 minutes.

To help prolong battery life I kept the camera warm by wrapping the bottom and right hand side of it in a fleece beanie, only removing it to make photos.

I was able to use the camera pretty much unhindered and got through the whole 4-hour photography session without having to change the battery.

Of course your own experience will vary in line with the following criteria:

  • The condition and size of your own camera battery

  • How warm you’re able to keep your camera batteries

  • How many images you make

  • Whether you do a lot of long exposure or video or use live view for prolonged periods of time

The Witch King’s Lair

The above image features one of the less grand structures at the Harbin Ice Festival.

The castle had a fairytale-like appearance but required patience to photograph due to the crowds that would walk right in front of me while I was trying to make a picture.

In the end I waited until there was a single person in front of the castle. As well as adding a sense of scale to the scene I feel the human form, in silhouette, adds a sense of mystery and narrative to the image.

Is our lone traveler entering a fairytale castle or, Minas Morgul, the Witch King’s lair? Now there's a question worth pondering.

Where Darkness Dwells

I’ve processed the photo a little dark so as to enhance the brooding mood I felt in this quite isolated area of the Harbin Ice Festival outdoor complex.

Everywhere else it was a much happier, upbeat place. But, on the edge of light lies darkness waiting to creep down, like a thief in the night.

The Magic Of Photography

This interplay between fact and truth is, to my mind, where the magic of photography exists.

You can make great, straight documentary photos of the world around you. But you can also take those same facts and re-mould them to build your very own, unique truth.

And, of course, the more ambiguous your photos the more they’re likely to be reinterpreted by your audience, based upon their own background, knowledge, mood and past experiences.

I think that’s the direction this photo’s going.

My approach is to create beautiful photos, send them out into the world and see what happens. But of course, it all starts with the act of creation, which is what artists do.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru