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Shooting at Subzero: Intrepid Photographers Brave Frigid Weather for Their Art

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In Minnesota, we know our way around the cold. But when the mercury drops below zero, many of us run for cover. That's not true for winter photographers, who risk dicey conditions in pursuit of a great shot.

Meet Christian Dalbec. The photographer from Two Harbors, Minnesota, has been flirting with frigid photography for about three years now. He loves the work so much that he's turned photography into a full-time job. Work is even better for him in the winter. The cold brings quiet, fewer people, and a dramatic change on Lake Superior.

When temperatures across the state took a dive during the first week of January, Dalbec went out on the lake with his camera in -15 F, with wind speeds around 20 mph.

"It's not really living if you're going to hide inside your house," says Dalbec. "We should be out experiencing nature."

In the winter, he shoots at sunrise and sunset nearly every day. To survive the cold, he layers on long underwear, wool clothes, and heavy-duty ice-fisherman bibs, not to mention gloves, multiple hoods and hats, and ice cleats. When Dalbec sets his camera up on the ice, he often meets up with another intrepid photographer, John Gregor.

"It's not easy to get out of a warm bed when you know it feels like 30 below," says Gregor, who owns Coldsnap Photography. "That camaraderie, and that commitment to each other and what you make together, really helps me get out."

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When the photographers arrive at their destination, they never know what they'll find.

"The ice changes on the shore every day," says Dalbec. "I love it. The light is good this time of year, because the sun is so low in the sky for us."

Both men have photographed just about everything along the lake: lighthouses, parks, bridges, ships, and ice. Lots of ice. Icicles. Ice shards. Surface ice. One year, they even photographed an ice stack that piled 20 to 30 feet high as it washed in from Lake Superior.

"You're going out into this alien world, and the air is so cold it burns your nostrils," says Gregor. "Everything is different. The sounds are different. The light is different. The color just kind of hangs in the air."

It's not easy to shoot at subzero. In fact, that's part of the appeal.

"It's the challenge," says Dalbec. "You're out there doing something that a lot of people wouldn't want to do, except for a few."

The weather was especially unforgiving when the photographers met up on December 30.

"It was about zero," says Gregor. "And the winds off the lake were gusting 30 to 40 miles an hour. We were getting these huge gales, and they were wispy."

A warning had been issued for "freezing spray." The minute the waves from Lake Superior hit the shore, the water turned to ice.

"I was standing with my back to the wind, and it felt like needles were going into the back of my legs through my clothes," says Gregor. "After 30 minutes, the camera started to malfunction. By the time we were done shooting, we were literally covered in ice."

The photos from that day were incredible, though. They captured unique shots of "pancake ice" and other formations.

Ask either photographer, and they'll tell you they'd rather be out shooting on those harsh winter days.

"If I don't embrace the winter, I'm fighting it," says Gregor. But he adds a stern note of caution when it comes to shooting along Lake Superior. "You have to respect the lake. No photo is worth risking your life over."