For artists such as Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and many, many more, the French Riviera was a kind of paradise, drawn out of gloomy Paris to set up their easel on the Côte d'Azur, lured by its vivid colors and radiant light. Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi believed that Mediterranean light, at a latitude of 45 degrees north, was the most beautiful and most harmonious, offering "the most perfect vision of objects and their most exquisite nuances."
So what about light at 90 degrees?
For the Arctic and Antarctica, where the Polar Night can last for up to nearly 12 weeks, light is an even more precious commodity. But however dark it might get in winter, the poles more than make up for it in summer, with almost 80 days of Midnight Sun, during which the sun never, or only ever briefly, sets. Like no other place on Earth, light at the poles is a capricious phenomenon, and all the more beautiful for it. The very air is different, and in the Antarctic, the cold, dry air contains a different mix and ratio of molecules and atoms for light to bounce off. From the unique colors of the Northern and Southern Lights to light halos, snow sparkle, afterglow, and noctilucent clouds, the Antarctic has a host of brilliant light displays to illuminate its southern skies.
The Summer Solstice
While in the Northern Hemisphere, we might be celebrating the winter solstice on December 21st with Blue Christmas and other illuminating festivals around this time, Antarctica is celebrating its longest day of the year. And depending how close to the South Pole you are, the sun will barely dip below the horizon. Whether in the Arctic in June or the Antarctic in December, the Midnight Sun makes for a spectacular light show, especially if you're close to water to see the play of light reflected in the surface of the ocean. Like a stunning sunset in slow-motion, the Midnight Sun conjures up vivid reds, oranges, pinks, and yellows, and requires no special photographic settings, other than you would ordinarily use to shoot a sunrise or sunset – a low ISO, a quick shutter speed, and a wide aperture. For photographers, it’s a paradise. For with endless light, come endless photographic opportunities.
From reflections on the surface of the water to year-round snow and ice, Antarctica is positively bursting with bright, reflective surfaces. And even on a normal day – if such a thing exists at the Antarctic! – you might notice a unique light phenomenon called "snow sparkle." Caused by light reflected from ice crystals that have settled on top of snow, snow sparkle is even more common in dry climates, making the arid snow deserts of Antarctica the perfect place to see it.
A glittering reflection of light, snow sparkle requires a polarizing filter to counteract the glare caused by the snow and ice's high albedo, or reflectiveness, to bring out the landscape's colors and avoid the dreaded gray snow effect. Polarizing filters will darken your shots by one or two f-stops, but will help you find the contrast between the various shades of white in your photographs without having to worry about aperture or shutter speed. Cameras often struggle to read bright snow and ice, and it can be tricky to get the right exposure for your photographs in Antarctica. So, it's worth bracketing your exposures at a setting of three or five brackets and an interval of one to two stops or experimenting with your white balance to make sure your snow is bright and white.
Have you ever wondered why glaciers and icebergs appear blue? After all, water is colorless, and ice is just frozen water, right? It's a phenomenon really only visible in glaciers and icebergs at the Arctic and Antarctic, because it requires ice to be compacted over thousands of years. Well, when water first turns to ice, it is filled with air bubbles. As the ice compacts, the bubbles become smaller and the ice becomes more dense. The absence of air bubbles allows light to penetrate the ice more deeply. The ice absorbs longer red and yellow rays of light from the sun, leaving only shorter blue wavelengths to be transmitted and scattered, making the iceberg or glacier appear blue. By contrast, snow appears to be bright white, because it’s full of air bubbles.
Halos and Sun Dogs
While in the Antarctic summer, it's daylight nearly all day, at other times of the year there are other solar illuminations to behold. It's rare, but you might be lucky enough to catch a sun halo, when tiny ice crystals are suspended in the atmosphere in clouds hundreds of meters above the surface of the earth. If the air is humid, these ice crystals will become increasingly saturated and finally fall as snow. But if it's dry, these crystals can cling to the land like fog or seem to fall like diamond dust. As light is cast through the hexagonal prisms of the ice crystals, they create a 22-degree halo around the sun, creating a circle of light around the sun. What's more, the halo is accompanied by “sun dogs,” flares of light to the left and right of the sun. They can be colored, and can even appear at night around the moon. Much like photographing the sun, you'll want to experiment with different apertures and filters.
The Antarctic's dry air also leaves it susceptible to other light phenomena. Recently, following a volcanic eruption on Tonga, the Antarctic night sky appeared at nautical twilight, the time of day when the horizon is most illuminated during Antarctica's Polar Night, aglow with fiery shades of pink and purple. This dazzling afterglow effect is caused by a spike in aerosols being sent into the stratosphere, bending light as the sun dips and hovers around the horizon.
A similar phenomenon are noctilucent clouds; clouds at very high altitudes that appear to glow at night. They show up in Antarctica every late November or early December for a splendid light show, and although they were first spotted in 1885 a few years after a massive volcanic eruption on Krakatoa, they aren't, in fact, caused by volcanic activity like afterglow, but rather by a fine debris left behind by disintegrating meteors. These high-altitude clouds, which reflect the sunlight, causing them to glow white from Earth and a spectacular blue from space, only occur in the mesosphere and are incredibly dry and cold, making the Antarctic a fantastic place to see them.
If you're ready to get onboard your Antarctic cruise and spot sun dogs and snow sparkle from the deck of your ship or just soak up the Midnight Sun, there couldn't be a better time than Antarctica's bright and balmy summer solstice. Take a look at our available Antarctic cruises here.