Shooting at Subzero: "The Images Are Fun, but the Experience Is the Real Thing"

A fisheye view of Grand Portage

A fisheye view of Grand Portage

When the winter months stretch out into a ceaseless terrain of dirty white, the locals start to get restless. That's when Jeff Henningsgaard jumps at the chance to use his camera.


The Coon Rapids photographer usually likes to stay warm and toasty in the winter. He's been shooting photos for about nine years, and he only recently began to venture out in the cold.

"When the winter hits, I'm cold and I can't warm up. It's like that old saying, 'Your blood thickens up,'" he says. "By January, I'm used to it. Then I'm itching to get out."

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Shooting at Subzero: "It Is Literally a Different World Out There in the Winter"

Behind Minnehaha Falls

Behind Minnehaha Falls

After Henningsgaard adjusts to the frigid temps, he reaches for his 15-millimeter fisheye, covers himself with warm items from head to crampon-covered foot, and heads out into the snow. He then takes a few shots with a fisheye lens, which distorts the camera's view, to get a whole new perspective.

"It's really goofy," he says, "but it makes you see things in a different way."

Once he's kicked back into gear, Henningsgaard is unstoppable.

He travels across the region to find unique subjects, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota, and river locks and dams in Iowa. He has watched frosty ships pull up to icy docks, climbed behind frozen waterfalls, and captured wildlife on the move. On one of his trips, he even watched as the temp on his Jeep dashboard dropped to 50 below.

"When your eyelashes start sticking together, and the batteries drain in 20 minutes, even though you're keeping the camera next to your body, then you know it's cold," he says. "It can be very dangerous, especially if you go out alone."

Last year, when subzero temperatures plagued the region for weeks on end, Henningsgaard made the trek to the ice-covered sea caves in Wisconsin. He ventured out to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on several occasions.


On one of winter's most unforgiving days, he teamed up with photographer Jamie Rabold to see the frozen caves for the first time.

"It's brutal cold. It's 35 or 45 mph winds. And then we see these weird lights on the ice," Henningsgaard says. "We're trying to get to the ice caves, but we've got to stop because Jamie's ear is packed from the driving snow."

Hauling their gear over miles of snow and ice, the photographers finally made it out to the site. They snapped vibrant photos of the ice caves as some of the attraction's earliest visitors. They set up light painting images behind the ice, and shot Lake Superior's frozen surface through openings in the cave walls. The lights on the ice, he discovered, were distant city lights from the other side of the shore.

"It's very weird," says Henningsgaard. "When the wind is blowing and the snow is kicking up, it starts to get disorienting."

On his return journey, he passed a sickly coyote or wolf that was trapped in the blustery conditions. And he vowed never to make the trip again.

But that changed the moment he saw the images. The photos juxtaposed vivid warm colors with cool ice to dramatic effect. It was just the kind of contrast Henningsgaard had hoped to create. He immediately resolved to go back, and he returned to the scene at least twice more.  

"The images are fun, but the experience is the real thing," he says.

The view from an ice cave

The view from an ice cave

Working with a winter that has so much to offer, photographers across the state have banded together to share their frozen finds. Rabold created a community, called Frozen Photographers, that is a Facebook group where area photographers can come together and delight in the drama of the season.