Behind the Lens: Photographer Reuben Krabbe on Getting the Once in a Lifetime Shot

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“There’s so much anticipation before it happens, that when the sun goes black and it’s inside out, it’s unbelievable. You understand that the sun is always in the sky, until it disappears and you lose your mind.”

The odds of pulling it all off were slim, at best. Traveling to the Arctic Circle to shoot a ski photo in front of what most would consider a once in a lifetime vista, a solar eclipse. Yet despite the ever present threat of polar bears and kill-at-will cold, not to mention the rarely present clear sky needed to pull this off, the planets aligned and photographer Reuben Krabbe did just that. We sat down with Reuben to find out how it all came together. 

 

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First off, congrats.
Thank you very much, and that’s on behalf of everyone involved. It takes more than just a silly idea to make a something like this happen.

That’s what I wanted to talk about, this silly idea. How did it come about?
Through a series of consecutive thoughts. There’s a single photo by Grant Gunderson from five or seven years ago. He did a star trail with a skier in the foreground. And that shot really stuck with me and was the inspiration for the Northern Lights photo. It’s this line of thinking where who can you make a ski photo more than just a ski photo, something elusive, something that’s sort of rare. Because there’s a million-and-one powder turn ski photos out there, so what can also work with that? So after shooting the Northern Lights photo, I thought the only thing really left to chase would be the solar eclipse.

“When I told them I was going to the Arctic Circle to chase this stupid photo, they’d look at me like, ‘Really? That sounds vitally stupid.'”

How rare is a solar eclipse?
Well, a lunar eclipse you can see from a lot of places; they are fairly frequent, you can see them from anywhere the moon is visible. For a solar eclipse, you need to be on this perfect path at an exact place on the earth where the shadow traces over the landscape. You can go online and find where these eclipses are going to occur, and that showed me that there are only a couple chances in a lifetime to put skiing and a solar eclipse together. It’s a pretty rare convergence.

 


So you decide you want to do this, what happened next?
Well, I decided to chase this thinking to Svalbard and circle around and see who liked the idea. Out of the people I talked to, Salomon was really stoked, and sort of stand alone in that, so kudos to them. Most others were like, “No, that seems a bit too weird.”

How long was the planning process from when the idea first hit you?
I have a note in my calendar from three years before the eclipse that has a list of all these different times and places I could do this. And I have another flag in my calendar a year later saying that if I want to chase one I should start shopping the idea to different companies. So I’ve been looking at it for a long time, but in a way never thought it would happen.

 

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What was the reaction from the others involved?
When I pitched it to Mike Douglas [Switchback Entertainment], he was receptive and interested because it sounded like a hook – something different. But he was also skeptical, as you should be, because it’s such a low chance of success. Even outside of the technical stuff, it’s just the weather. There’s a 60-70 percent chance it’s going to be cloudy that day. And there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s a ridiculous amount of risk.

What about the athletes (Cody Townsend, Brody Leven, Chris Rubens)?
I think most of them signed up for the trip mostly because it was a way to get to Svalbard. Otherwise, I don’t think Salomon was going to be sending a trip up there, even though it’s an amazing landscape. There are trips there all the time; at this point, one or two media crews probably go there a season. So differentiating it made Salomon come. The skiers, they were casually interested in it, but when the solar eclipse angle scouting and shooting kind of got in the way of the skiing, it added stress overall and that was sort of tough to manage. So having [director] Anthony Bonello sort of keep everyone in check was amazing. By the end of the trip, everyone got what they wanted, but at the beginning you have no idea how to spend your clear days. Should you spend it shooting? Should you spend it scouting? Should you spend it exploring? To be in the right place at the right time, we ended up having to burn a lot of clear days to find the right spot.

When you told your family this was your plan, they must have thought you were crazy.
Well, it depends on what family member you talk to. I mean, my mom doesn’t like all this stuff, as most mothers don’t. But I think they all understand that this type of thing is really important to me, and important for my happiness. I think they sort of look at it like, “Well, I think risk means something different to you now than it will to you later. We just hope you don’t gamble too much.”

 

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How many people knew this was happening?
We mentioned something on social media that we were going to Svalbard to watch the solar eclipse, but not many people knew it was a photographer-motivated journey. Other than my friends that I’d been chatting with asking, “What are you doing this week?” When I told them I was going to the Arctic Circle to chase this stupid photo, they’d look at me like, “Really? That sounds vitally stupid.”

“The guide that was with Anthony and I trying to find the exact place to be to shoot this photo, he still has to remember to shake his head every few minutes and look around to make sure there are no polar bears bearing down on us.”

As a photographer, you seem to be going to great lengths to get that unique shot, why is that important to you?
To me, that’s the most gratifying aspect of photography, trying to move in different directions with it. I enjoy going out and doing the production style shoots where everything is more controlled and direct to creating a shot. I enjoy that. It’s a wonderful office to work in, and the camera is a wonderful tool. But this kind of thing, chasing something weird or outlandish and working creatively, there’s nothing that beats that.

 

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Aside from catching a sunny day and the polar bears, what other concerns were you dealing with?
Yeah, the polar bears. And the cold. Because we were there early in the year, the cold had the potential to get super gnarly. We had tough, cold temperatures, but we never had it so bad where we contemplated breaking camp to go hide back in town. But if it got to my 35-40 (Celsius) with high winds, it gets really dangerous really quickly. If you have any errors, it makes for a really terrible sequence of events at that point. And those things are constant companions. It’s not like you’re traveling for a little bit, and then you’re done with all that. It’s permanent. The guide that was with Anthony and I trying to find the exact place to be to shoot this photo, he still has to remember to shake his head every few minutes and look around to make sure there are no polar bears bearing down on us.

 

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I imagine there aren’t a lot of examples of this type of photography to draw from?
There are actually a lot of very specific notes on this type of thing, because there’s a whole bunch of astronomy photographers doing this. Most of the time they simply document it.

Yeah, but they don’t throw the variable of a skier in there.
There’s a couple that will shoot something scenic, and line it up with a tree or something. But I haven’t seen many that have mixed in any foreign objects. But there are some guidelines, and there are filters you can get for your camera so you don’t burn your sensor, or your eyes, out. When you’re shooting the totality part of the eclipse, it’s really pushing the camera to the full limit of what it can do. So when you do look at the photo, it’s noisy, it’s not clean, it’s a pretty ugly image as far as technical stuff. But I feel some of that can go out the window when you realize this crazy concept of having these things align.

 

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Reuben on Mt. Vsevidof in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.

 

Were there times when you thought, this just isn’t going happen? We came all this way and it’s not going to work?
For the two days before the eclipse, we hadn’t found a good location, but we new we had the possibility of a weather window. So I Thought I might just get to shoot scenic photos of it. Or a mediocre ski photo of it where there might not be any snow in the air if the slope was icy. But the last place we tried, the skiers hadn’t been up on that ridge yet, so we didn’t know if it would be all ice or blowing wind. But we went up, and it worked. It’s just another one of those things where we just got so lucky. Of all the ridgelines we skiid in Svalbard, none of them were holding snow but this one.

 

 

Watch the full movie here.

 

You’re probably getting this a lot, but the pressure must have been crazy.
I’d never dealt with anything so finite and so imminent, where you have only this two-hour window to do everything, and within that there’s only these short moments that will work for these photographs. And so there’s this clock literally ticking down. And then beyond that, managing all these group dynamics, and for something you didn’t practice for, and couldn’t practice for—everything comes together into this massive knot in your stomach. And two days before, we were obviously going to go through it because we’d come so far, but I was so frustrated and stressed from the situation that I was swearing and telling myself I would never do something so ridiculous again.

“I’d never dealt with anything so finite and so imminent, where you have only this two-hour window to do everything, and within that there’s only these short moments that will work for these photographs—everything comes together into this massive knot in your stomach.”

And it’s not like you can try it again another day. This is it.
Oh, yeah. This is it. And if you screw it up, no one else is going to trust you to go and do something this risky again.

Outside of getting the shot, what was your best memory of the trip?
If anything it was just witnessing the eclipse itself. I still look at that as a more amazing experience. It’s such a surreal thing and so far away from any other experience you could ever have. There’s so much anticipation before it happens, that when the sun goes black and it’s inside out, it’s unbelievable. You understand that the sun is always in the sky, until it disappears and you lose your mind. The skiers all skiid down during the first minute of the eclipse, so there were no more skiers to shoot, and we got to lose our mind and scream our heads off for the next minute and a half and then shoot some more photos of it. I was very aware that this was probably the only solar eclipse I’d ever see in my life, so I was going to watch it and really enjoy being there.

 

Check out more of Reuben’s photos here.

Find out more about Eclipse.

Watch the full movie here.

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