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Travel Tuesday Q&A with Photojournalist Kirsten Murphy

Kirsten Murphy is a self-taught photojournalist based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She travels around the north as a regular contributor for Up Here magazine and a sometime host and producer for CBC. A recent trip to Ivvavik National Park in the Yukon was featured in the Globe and Mail. Her work has also appeared in Maclean’s and the National Post, in Frommer’s guidebooks and on CBC.ca. She’s excited about working on a book about northern dogs and a photo essay about emerging chicken farms in Hay River, Northwest Territories.

What brought you to Yellowknife (from Vancouver) in the first place? Why have  you stayed?

I saw an ad for “Arctic journalists” back in 2000. The timing was perfect because I was scraping by as a freelancer in Vancouver. I planned to stay one year but the North gets into your blood. I quickly discovered this is the land of photographic opportunity. The extremes in weather, lighting, geography and culture are awesome.

How did you get started in travel photography?

I’m more of a traveling photojournalist than a travel photographer. Up here we rely on planes, especially small ones, to get into communities. The funny thing is you can drive into many of these same communities in the winter, when the ice roads and ice crossings are open. Even so, you don’t have to go far to find amazing subject matter. I’ll be taking out the garbage or walking my dog and there are the northern lights kicking up a lighting storm.

Ice cave outside of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, Nunavut © Kirsten Murphy

Tell us about some of the most memorable places you’ve visited in Canada and some of the most amazing photos you’ve captured.

The last two years have really taken off. In the summer of 2010 I photographed polar bears and icebergs from a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker sailing through the Northwest Passage. In June 2011, I was in Ivvavik National Park (Yukon) shooting caribou herds and mountains ranges in 24-hour daylight. One of my favourite places in the world is an abandoned whaling station on Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea. I look at those photos and think, “Whoa! That was a thriving community of two thousand American whalers and Inuvialuit hunters 120 years ago.” It’s a part of Canadian history few people have seen and it’s magical. And finally, I have a soft spot for Tuktoyaktuk’s underground community freezer. You descend a couple meters by ladder into darkness and hope your flashlight works when you get to the bottom. Spooky but very cool shots of layered permafrost.

What type of photo gear do you pack with you for a trip?

Depends on the time of year. In the summer, dust is an issue so my soft cloth is always close at hand. In the winter I carry lots of batteries and a battery charger because the cold drains power so quickly. I’m still shooting with a Nikon 2DX (I can hear the collective gasps) which offers adequate power and pixels but lacks a full-frame sensor. It’s a limitation I have to consider when framing images. Otherwise I risk cutting off trees tops or  heads. I also pack a Fuji Instmax 7s which shoots 2.5’’ x 2” Polaroid-like photos. Often photographers take photos without leaving anything behind. I like to leave people, especially elders, with a photo they  can stick on their fridge.

What gear would you recommend the amateur travel photographer invest in for taking great photos while on vacation?

Always pack an external hard drive to back up photos. Bring along a couple of extra memory cards. I prefer 8 GB to 16 GB because I shoot raw. Always take your user manual, in case you want to experiment with long exposures or multiple exposures. Learn to shoot in manual mode, or at least aperture priority mode. The more you understand your camera, the more you’ll be able to experiment with natural light and produce images that reflect your own unique style. Keep your camera clean. Sand and dust are a photographer’s arch enemy.

What are some of the challenges of your work?

Condensation and moisture are a concern when going from -40°C outdoors to 25°C indoors. I was taught to put my camera and lenses in a plastic ziplock bag while I’m still outside. That way once you’re inside the condensation forms on the outside of the bag, not on the inside of the camera or lenses. Also, snow presents white balance challenges. I take a reading from a pocket-sized grey card and shoot in custom white balance. White balance can always be tweaked in post production but that’s time consuming (depending on your software). There is debate about polarizing and neutral density filters. I don’t use them but many photographers do. With snow, I take a meter reading off a section of snow and then trick the camera by setting the exposure compensation dial by 1.5 to 2 stops.

An Ontario student helps to build an igloo in Baffin Island, Nunavut © Kirsten Murphy

Is there anything that surprises first-timers to the North? Anything that shocked you when you first arrived?

I remember arriving in Iqaluit (Nunavut) in March 2001 and people telling me how lucky I was because it was spring.  I thought, “Are you kidding? This is spring?” There was snow and sea ice everywhere. But I quickly discovered an Arctic spring is very different from a Vancouver spring. Now March is one of my favourites times of year because the days are finally getting longer, you’re out on the land shooting things like people ice fishing or watching students build igloos. When I first touched down in Yellowknife almost 11 years ago, I remember walking to work and feeling like I was on top of the world. I still feel that way.


Kirsten is too busy to tweet and admits she’s leery of Facebook but check out her website, and she welcomes your e-mails!

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