Here is my double-page spread article printed in this month’s Photo Pro Magazine. Enjoy.
Oz Kharawala has just returned from a wedding shoot to remember which involved him making a trip to one of the world’s craziest locations, the famous Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland
The trend for finding unusual venues for weddings has accelerated in recent years, with many brides and grooms determined to find a place to tie the knot that will stick in the minds of guests for years to come. Alongside the more traditional churches and registry offices, wedding photographers have found themselves visiting castles, stately homes, football grounds and even theme parks on a fairly regular basis, but Uzair Kharawala, known universally as Oz, has just had an assignment that has probably topped the lot: a commission to photograph a wedding taking place in the amazing Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland.
“I had heard about this place but have never been there before,” says Oz, “and when I was contacted by a couple who were getting married there, who had come across me through the fact that I’m on the PSL ‘Preferred Supplier List’ for the Woburn Abbey Sculpture Gallery, I was excited by the chance of photographing a wedding there. I knew that there would be a few extra challenges thanks to the low light I would be encountering, the extreme temperatures and the fact that the ice walls of the hotel would reflect direct flash, but I was confident that I would be able to cope and I knew it would be an incredible experience.”
The booking for the shoot, which was due to take place in January, came through in October last year just at the time when the Nikon D3s was being unveiled, and Oz realised that the enhanced ISO capabilities of the new camera would make it an ideal companion for his assignment. “I figured that it would be well up to the light levels that I would be encountering, but was still a little worried about what effect the extremely low temperatures might have on battery performance.
“Before I set off I checked this with James Banfield, who provides Professional Support and Training for Nikon UK, and he assured me that it should be able to cope with anything that the Lapland environment might throw at it, and ultimately he was right. I just worked normally without any extra protection for the camera and achieved normal performance from it even though the temperatures were below freezing most of the time and up to -29C.”
The Ice Hotel itself, located in the little village of Jukkasjärvi some 200km north of the Arctic Circle, is spectacular and exists only from December to early spring. It has to be created from scratch each year using blocks of ice hewn from the adjacent Thorne River, and the translucent nature of the material is utilised to the full and highlighted from behind by constantly changing coloured lighting to create an amazing experience. The hotel is also home to a wide range of artworks that are produced afresh each winter by a team of artists using ice and snow as their raw materials.
Over 100 couples a year head to the hotel to get married in this unique venue’s Ice Chapel, subsequently toasting their nuptials with their guests in the Absolut Icebar. Following this they then move to a warm bar in the building and then to a reception held in a separate venue that enjoys all the facilities you would expect at a conventional wedding reception.
“The temperature outside the hotel is usually somewhere around minus 25 degrees,” says Oz, “but inside it’s a balmy minus five and actually feels quite comfortable if you’ve just walked in. However, the cold soon gets to you and as a result everything has to be done quite quickly. The wedding ceremony itself usually takes around half an hour and then you move on to the Icebar for a celebratory drink and then to the warm bar, which is more comfortable. The wedding party would probably spend no more than two hours in the Ice Hotel itself and everyone is warned to wear plenty of warm layers. Even so there were some of the couple’s 14 guests who got pretty cold during the event
“The fact that everything, by necessity, was on a tight schedule meant that I had to work fast and to be really organised. I had looked at pictures taken in the Ice Hotel before I went out there and what struck me was the fact that those that had been taken using direct on-camera flash ended up looking really flat and lifeless and I was determined that my shots would capture more of the atmosphere of the hotel. I decided I would shoot using a mixture of ambient light, utilising the D3s’ high ISO capabilities, and also with an off-camera Nikon SB900 flash, mounted inside an 80x80cm Lastolite Ezybox. When I used the flash I took care to underexpose the ambient light by a stop to enable me to get some detail in the floors and the walls, which obviously were reflecting the light much more than conventional materials would have.”
Most of the flash pictures were group formals that were set up in the chapel or around the hotel, while in the Icebar Oz decided to push up his ISO speed and to shoot in a more reportage style. “It would have just been uncomfortable for everyone had I tried to set things up,” he says. “I knew the light would be low and so I took some fast lenses with me, such as an 85mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/2, while I also packed a 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and the new 70-200mm f/2.8, and these allowed me to reach some usable shutter speeds. I was also confident that the new D3s I was using would be able to give me very good high ISO performance, and it certainly delivered. I was using an ISO of 5000 and the results are excellent, which is what I expected: in the UK I’ve covered weddings with the D3 with the ISO as high as 6400 with no quality issues, while the D3s is giving me files that have even less noise.”
The intense cold ensured that Oz needed to wrap up warm and he wore several layers along with a hat and gloves. “It was important that I kept warm but could still feel the controls of the camera,” he says, “and so I wore thin silk gloves and then fingerless gloves on top of those. This arrangement worked really well, although when I was shooting outside later on I needed to put on some proper snow gloves.”
Once he had completed his assignment Oz decided to make the most of his opportunity and to stay on for a few days to shoot some more pictures around the hotel for his own use and then to take an expedition to see and photograph the Northern Lights. He also decided to join the band of hardy souls who have actually stayed in one of the Ice Hotel’s rooms overnight, receiving a diploma in the morning to certify that he had survived the experience!
“It’s not as bad as you might think,” he says. “You’re not allowed to take anything in with you apart from the clothes you are sleeping in, because something like an alarm clock or a mobile phone would simply freeze solid. I slept in a heavy duty sleeping bag on an ice bed wearing three to four layers – which included a couple of layers on my head – and was woken in the morning at 7.30am by the hotel staff with a warm lingonbury drink. Although I trusted the weather resistant qualities of my D3s I didn’t risk it: this stayed in my conventional hotel room just down the road from the Ice Hotel!”
You might think that a wedding in a venue such as this would be the most unusual one Oz had ever done but, on reflection, he does think he can cap it. “I would say the strangest one I’ve ever done was at an indoor skydiving facility,” he says. “The couple getting married were fanatical about skydiving and instead of a first dance they decided to hire out this place where a giant propeller would blast air at them at high speed to create the feel of a genuine skydiving experience. My job was to get in there with them and to record the moment when they were suspended in mid air, and that was a shoot that I’ll never forget!”
Words by Terry Hope.
- Arctic Adventures with the Nikon D3s
- Arctic Adventures feature on Warehouse Express
- Better Photography Magazine, India
- My Presentations at Focus on Imaging
- FREE PHOTO SURGERY