man sitting in an icy cave

Deep Freeze

Tolis Fragoudis

“You don’t talk, you don’t want to be loud anymore, you just become calmer. It’s a kind of silent respect and admiration for the beauty of nature,” says Tolis Fragoudis, of the hidden ice caves created by Switzerland’s Roseg glacier – something he’s been researching and photographing for the past few years.

man stands above an icy cave with the sun behind him

© Tolis Fragoudis | Sony α7R II + FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/320s @ f/10, ISO 64

The trek to the ice caves took Tolis three hours across deep snow and over a frozen lake, while temperatures plunged to -25ºC at the glacial end of the valley, “so it’s a lot of effort to get there,” he laughs. “Snow shoeing our way there, we also had a sled with us for equipment, because I’m not just going with one camera and one lens when I do something like this!”

With a plan to shoot stills and video, Tolis took three cameras: the Alpha 7S II, Alpha 7R III and Alpha 7R II, along with the 12-24mm f/4 G, 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lenses, a gimbal, a drone, and on top of that safety equipment, ropes and provisions.

inside a blue ice cave

© Tolis Fragoudis | Sony α7R III + FE 12-24mm f/4 G | 1/320s @ f/4.5, ISO 100

Thankfully the smaller size and lighter weight of Sony Alpha bodies means photographers like Tolis have the choice to either travel lighter, or take more kit without overloading.

“If you compare these cameras with DSLRs, they are really light,” Tolis tells us, “and at the end of the day, because I’m someone who likes to have lots of kit with me, it means I can take even more! I’m definitely a hybrid shooter of stills and video, so mixing the Alpha S and R bodies makes total sense for me.” He continues, “there are other benefits of taking those cameras, too. For instance, I got to make the most of the Alpha 7R III’s high resolution and dynamic range with long exposures in the caves, and also shoot handheld in the darkest places, with the Alpha 7S II’s amazing high ISO noise performance.”

Looking up at the sky from inside a blue ice cave

© Tolis Fragoudis | Sony α7R II + FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/5000s @ f/4.0, ISO 80

The challenging conditions didn’t hold his cameras back at all, says Tolis, and in fact it’s always the human end of the relationship that freezes up first. “We have a saying here in Switzerland,” he laughs, “and it goes, ‘there’s no such thing as being cold – there’s only bad clothes.’ Minus 20ºC is normal up there, but if you’re prepared, it’s fine. Batteries run down faster at these temperatures, but you can always bring more. The cameras function perfectly. The real problem is your fingers!”

Once you’ve managed to reach these amazing places, capturing their otherworldly beauty and the vibrant colours of the ice simply comes down to fundamentals like good composition and exposure, Tolis says.

Sure, it’s a strange environment,” he explains, “but like any landscape, you’re still making the most of the light and the lines in the scene. You have to remember that this is water you’re dealing with, too, just like in the mountain lakes, so it responds to light differently depending on your angle to it and the time of day. If you were to sit there and observe the ice all day, you’d see totally different colours appearing right in front of your eyes, turning from blue to green.”
looking out from an ice cave with a sunstar visible

© Tolis Fragoudis | Sony α7R II + FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/800s @ f/8.0, ISO 50

Making the most of this colour within the darker caves, Tolis uses longer exposures, relying on the scarce light that’s filtering through the ice or reflecting from the cave’s mouth. “I shoot only manually,” he explains, “and I’ll also often use neutral density filters to increase the exposure time, along with shooting in Raw. A longer exposure means the photo contains a lot more data. As you can see in this image, it’s richer and deeper, and it allows you to pull these amazing colours and tones out in post-production. When I’m shooting, my thoughts are already there, working out how I can make the most of these intense scenes.”

inside a blue ice cave with a patterned ceiling

© Tolis Fragoudis | Sony α7R II + FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/5s @ f/4.0, ISO 320

“The beauty of these places,” finishes Tolis, “is really addictive. Because of the glacial movement, and the thawing and refreezing, every time you go back, the formations are completely different. It’s just amazing.”

“But just like the glacier itself, the chances of seeing these caves are receding all the time,” he shrugs sadly, “I tried to go back recently, but avalanches made it too dangerous. Of course, avalanches are natural in the Alps, but they’re getting more frequent due to Global Warming. In a few years, the glacier, the bridges and the caves beneath, may be gone and we’ll be among the last to have witnessed them, but I’ll always be thankful I did.”

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Tolis Fragoudis

Tolis Fragoudis | Switzerland

"My only goal is to live my life in my fullest potential"

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