Michelle Valberg: a love affair with the Arctic

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On my recent Adventure Canada Arctic cruise with Nikon Canada, I had the chance to meet one of Canada’s most renowned photographers, Michelle Valberg.  She was a familiar sight on the Ocean Endeavour’s decks, braving the Northern winds to photograph the amazing scenes around us. And when she wasn’t busy creating beautiful images, she was helping others on the ship create some of their own.

Michelle is a successful portrait and commercial photographer, with her own Ottawa business, Valberg Imaging. But her second home is the North, a place she’s visited 40 times over the past nine years. She returns from each trip with timeless images, which have been showcased in exhibits all across North America. As well, she is actively engaged in helping the children of Arctic Canada through her not-for-profit organization, Project North.

Michelle is also Canada’s only female Nikon Ambassador. And on this voyage, she spent countless hours teaching the passengers how to use their cameras to take those once-in-a-lifetime photos a trip like this provides. Nikon’s on-board loan program allowed many of them to try new cameras and new techniques, and Michelle’s teaching helped them get the most out of their photography.

I had a chance to talk to Michelle Valberg about her photography, and her work with Northern communities, on one of the last nights of the cruise. Here’s what she had to say.

How did your Northern travel get started?

michelle-valberg-in-nunavik-fjord-vert

Photo courtesy of Michelle Valberg

I started working with Adventure Canada eight years ago.  At the time I was working on a book about Canada, so I contacted David Reid at Pond Inlet. I told him wanted to photograph wildlife, the landscape and the people. He told me to contact Adventure Canada, and two weeks later I was going up to the floe edge and I was working for Adventure Canada. This is my 14th trip with them, and my 42nd trip to the Canadian Arctic.

How did Nikon come into the picture?

On the last trip I brought a couple of extra cameras, and they ended up being loaned out most of the time. People come and their lenses break, their cameras break, or they just plain want to learn about cameras and photography. So I thought Nikon would be an amazing addition to this program. I connected Nikon Canada with Adventure Canada and they took it from there.

My job here is to provide images for Adventure Canada’s marketing materials and social media outlets, and to provide instruction. So it’s a great complement with Nikon because of the instruction. And lending Nikon equipment during these trips is a win-win for everybody. Nikon provides an opportunity to people that is above and beyond anything anybody else has. When people go back and look at that amazing imagery, they’re not going to forget this.

What kind of help do you give passengers with their photography?

I find that people are buying their equipment just before they come, or they’re trying equipment that they want to learn about and they don’t have the time. My job is to help them with their cameras, and help them with instruction.

On this trip I gave a workshop on composition and followed up with one on working with the cameras, and aperture and ISO and shutter speed – using those three components to take more control of the camera.

What stops most people from taking better photos?

People are intimidated by cameras. They think [the cameras]are smarter than they are – and you can get some awesome results just by putting it on the green “auto” button and the camera will do all the work. But that’s not to say they don’t want to know more. They just haven’t had the time, or they haven’t used the camera enough.

When they come on trips like this, they have the most extraordinary landscapes in front of them, and they want to bring all the images home to show their family and their friends. So if one person can walk away from the instruction and they’re thinking about their image sensors and their ISOs and how light is affecting their results, then that’s awesome.

How do you get the message through to people?

arctic-flowers-closeup

Paul Marshman photograph

I use my imagery to show the techniques – you know when you’re photographing a flower and the background is out of focus, how do you accomplish that? How do you go out in a Zodiac and photograph polar bears in a moving boat with a long lens — what is your priority?

It’s all practice. They have to go home and they have to continue, so they know what to do when the situation comes up. Otherwise, a year later when they’re doing their next trip, they think, ‘what was that’? They were coining a phrase called WWMD – what would Michelle do?

What equipment are you using on this trip?

The Nikon D500 camera body with its 1.5 crop factor and 200-500-millimetre lens – for wildlife, it’s fantastic. I also carry the D5 body and the D810, with the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 80-400mm lenses. I had all three today [cruising through the ice on a Zodiac]and I used all of them.

What does the amateur photographer need for a trip like this?

As much variability as possible: a long zoom for wildlife, wide-angle for landscapes, and a medium zoom for people.

How do you get that without spending thousands of dollars?

The new Nikon P900 is a great alternative to a DSLR. The powerful zoom is nothing short of spectacular — it offers a 2000mm optical zoom.  It is light and easy to handle, and can offer amazing results. Everyone I know who has one, loves it!

The airlines are so sensitive about the weight you’re carrying these days. And everybody is getting older. The majority of the people I meet who are well travelled are well into their 60s and 70s and they say, “I just cannot carry the cameras any more.” People are trying to minimize, and compact cameras are a great option.

You’re actively involved with the Arctic communities we’re visiting. Tell us about that.

I’m president of a not-for-profit called Project North, which works to help improve the lives of children in Canada’s North. We’ve delivered over $750,000 of brand new hockey and soccer gear — mostly hockey — to 25 Inuit communities in three territories.

kimmirut-soccer-players

Paul Marshman photograph

We brought $15,000 worth of brand new soccer gear to Kimmirut [the first Canadian Arctic community we visited on the cruise]. It was a joint effort between Adventure Canada and First Air. Unfortunately, with our schedule, we got there a day after the delivery.

But it was kind of cool — I got off the ship and this young boy asked me if I wanted a ride on his 4X4. I jumped on and said, ‘Hey, did you get any soccer equipment?” He said, “Yeah, I got shoes and socks and shorts and a ball and a t-shirt.” It was great to be in the community and see who got it.

What other visits have you done?

We brought the Stanley Cup to eight communities – that had a huge impact. And last year we brought it to Kuujjuaq, Nunavik and Iqaluit, Nunavut. We were in a community centre and we had the Stanley Cup on a dog sled. People were lined up to see it. Grown men were crying. One man fell to his knees because he saw John LeClair and the Stanley Cup.

Both times we brought up hockey players, and they teach the young kids and coach the coaches. [Retired hockey stars] Lanny McDonald and Mark Napier skated with the kids on an outdoor rink. They were so honoured that we took the time to come there and spend some time with them and visit them.

Have you involved photography in any of these projects?

Yes — I brought 30 Nikon Coolpix cameras to Arctic Bay, which were given to the students graduating from high school, and also as an incentive to go to school and have good attendance. I’ve also given workshops up there. Nikon supports that too, which I think is fantastic.

I keep in touch with a couple of those people, and they send me their imagery, mostly by Facebook – it’s really cool. One of them sent me a picture of him with his diploma and his camera. He was so, so proud. He was one of the ones who was in my workshop.

You have a real love for the North. What do you love about it?

If you had asked what the Arctic was like before I came here nine years ago, I would have said, ‘flat, white and cold’. But what really surprised me was the diversity — the absolute grandeur of mountains and cliffs and icebergs and these little tiny flowers that have taken so much time to grow. There’s so much life here, everywhere you look.

It’s the peacefulness, the serenity, the connection to nature. Down south we’re so muffled by sound and noise, the internet and news and the media. Up here I don’t have a clue what’s happening in the world, and that’s fine. It’s wonderful to be so connected with the world you’re in.

Photo at top of this post courtesy of Michelle Valberg

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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