Walking On Water – winter photography on Lake Baikal
Updated: Apr 18
A winter tour to Lake Baikal in Siberia is a great photography experience. The frozen lake surrounding Olkhon island is full of unique and fascinating nature phenomena and offers endless photography opportunities. This is the story of an unforgettable week in February 2020.
5 1/2 hours flight from Moscow and 6 more hours by car. Minus 25ºc degrees and much less if you consider the wind factor. And yet, I wish I could go back there tomorrow - Lake Baikal. The frozen lake surrounding Olkhon island is full of unique and fascinating nature phenomena and offers endless photography opportunities. Impressive sea stacks, ice caves and beautiful ice formations to mention only few. Many of these only exist during winter, others are accessible only when the lake is frozen. One thing is sure – a winter tour to Lake Baikal is a great (and cold) photography experience. It is no less than a heaven for landscape photographers.
Although it might look like a shallow water beach, this is actually the deepest lake in the world. The first time you walk on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal is exciting. Even a little stressful. But it doesn’t takes too long that it becomes natural. After all, most of your outdoor time here is on the ice. WALKING ON WATER.
26mm | f/11 | 1/25 sec | iso 100
To get there you have to fly to the provincial capital Irkutsk (lovely food market, beautiful restored historic center, good hotels and restaurants). From there it takes about 5 to 6 hours to get to Olkhon island, including a short hovercraft drive to cross the narrow and a bumpy 30 minutes to Khuzhir, the main village of the island. The village itself offers modest accommodations, yet clean, warm, friendly and convenient - everything you need when your main goal is traveling (and taking photos…). Don’t expect fancy hotels and restaurants, nor shopping centers and luxury boutiques, but really, who needs it. Food is basic but satisfactory and comfort. Expect a lot of soup. And tea ☺. Most shooting locations are accessible by a 4x4 car and don’t poses any physical difficulty. Yet you do need a local driver who knows the lake, its routes and its safety regulation. If you are not a Russian speaker, and you don’t really know the area than this is one of the only places where a good guide is definitely required. Even for experienced independent travelers. Cellular network is available in most of the area.
DRIVING ON WATER. A local driver who knows the lake and its safety regulation is a must. An amphibious vehicle is obliged from 2020 (although not everyone is strict about it). This crazy Russian 6x6 Tricol is unstoppable (and also creates the right impression).
38mm | f/11 | 1/13 sec | iso 100
The Shaman Rock is a sacred place for the Buryat people and considered as the symbol of Lake Baikal. Usually it is a sunset location, but also at sunrise a spectacular view is obtained with the beautiful glow on the rock and the mountains beyond the frozen lake. Here in a chilly -28ºc morning.16mm | f/13 | 1/15 sec | iso 100
Baikal is a giant. It is the largest (by volume) and deepest (up to 1,600 m) fresh water lake in the world. It contains about one fifth (!) of the world's surface water. But beyond all, it is an amazing creation of nature which was justifiably declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Its location in southern Siberia means extremely cold winters with an average minimum temperature of -19ºc that can be easily dropped down to -30 and even to -40.
Every year at around the beginning of January the surface of this huge lake gets completely frozen and it stays so until late April. When the ice layer is thick enough it is safe to walk and even drive on it and explore some of the most stunning views that nature offers.
FROZEN DRAGON. Ogoy Island is another iconic locations of Baikal. It is also known as the "Dragon Island" due to its shape that from a certain direction reminds a dragon tail. This photo is a focus stack in order to deal with the depth of field.
14 mm | f/11 | 1/13 sec | iso 100
Night photography at minus 25 degrees can be a a bit challenging. And yet, most enjoyable and satisfying. This one is from the Dragon Island again, hence I call it THE SLEEPING DRAGON.
14 mm | f/3.5 | 30 sec | iso 4000
Fashion here has a somewhat different look. As been said, winter is extremely cold (!!!) so If you don’t want to suffer (and you don’t) you have to be dressed in accordance. Especially as a photographer who spends a long time out of the car, during sunrise and sunset. The layers system is the right way of doing it. Wear a good breathing base layer, a warm winter pants and shirt or micro fleece, a fleece and a heavy duty hooded down jacket and pants. I used the Feathered Friends Khumbu down Parka which was just perfect. You also need warm insulating snow boots (I have a pair of Kamic Nation Plus which has done a good job) and, of course, a face mask, a warm hat that can cover your ears and gloves (a thin pair for operating your camera and a warm insulating pair or mittens you can put above it). Remember this: comfortable feeling is a giant step for good pictures.
A red jacket is perfect for landscape photographers selfies. The cave adds a nice bluish complementary background to it ☺. RED JACKET IN A BLUE CAVE.
14mm | f/11 | 1/30 - 1/125 | iso 100
As for your camera gear, generally speaking nothing should be different then your regular landscape equipment. High end reliable stuff always has its advantages, and particularly in harsh conditions. A wide angel lens (14 or 16mm) is the most useful one if you want to enhance the cracks and ice pattern. As always, don’t (!) forget a spare battery (or batteries if you use a mirrorless camera) and a steady tripod that can be lowered down. Ice reflects light so a polarizer filter is definitely recommended. Be forgiving with your camera, even the best ones can sometimes respond a bit slowly at -30º. Due to condescension it's highly recommended not to open your camera bag for a couple of hours or so after returning to your room. On the other hand, do open all your tripod's legs sections for drying to prevent it from freezing the next time you are out.
Ice caves are are amongst the most amazing spots of the lake. They are created by powerful waves splashing into small caves in the cliffs in early winter. Some caves are so small that even one person can hardly get in. Others, as this one, are wide enough for few photographers to comfortably huddle inside.
The ice caves are perfect locations for clear days, lackcing of interesting sky. This photo is a blend of few exposures in order to overcome the high dynamic range. FROZEN RAYS.
17mm | f/22 | 1/20 - 3/4 sec | iso 100
Most photography workshops here (actually all I have checked) are 7 days long (+/- one day). That makes it 6 sunrises and 6 sunsets on photographers counting, which is quite satisfying and gives you enough time for most of the "must do" locations. It's even allows you the opportunity for improvements sessions in one or two of them.
As always, and particularly here, it is never enough. Next time I am here (and there will be a next time) I will try to come a day or two in advance to do some independent work in the surrounding of Khuzhir. With some advance planning I am sure it can pay off.
Another impressive sea stack rising up from the ice. This one was taken from a very low position in order to emphasize the crack. I used here a focus stack and an exposure blending technics to give it a better sharpness and dynamic range. Although the crack is only 2-3 cm deep I called this one MIND THE GAP (If it doesn’t help at least it doesn’t hurt ☺). 14mm | f/16 | 1/20 + 1/6 sec | iso 100
Some of the typical ice formations of Lake Baikal. Ice boards such as these are found in thousands in some areas on the frozen lake. Each should probably weight tens of kg.
* Special thanks to my friend - Vadim Gvon who was my guide in Lake Baikal. Vadim is the best guide I could find. A real professional who knows every corner of the lake and the ideal time to shoot it. If you consider a photography experience in Lake Baikal, don't hesitate to contact him.