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Finnish Military Winter Training (40 images!)
Lens: DA 18-135 WR Camera: Pentax K-5 IIs Photo Location: Lahti, Finland 
Posted By: Heie, 02-08-2014, 10:14 AM

For those that weren't aware, I had been out of town for the better part of the past two weeks thanks to a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend a training event hosted by the Finnish Army. The focus of the training was to teach and expose us to extreme cold, not just to suffer and risk hypothermia or frostbite, but rather to understand how to survive in those conditions as well as understand what effect those conditions have on not just your soldiers, but your equipment (i.e. rifles or vehicles) as well.

Before I get to the photos, I want to talk gear a little bit and explain why I chose what I chose. I brought the K-5 IIs, the DA 18-135 WR, and the DA* 55. Starting with the camera, I had the K-3 or the K-30 to also choose from. My rationale for the K-5 IIs was because I didn't want to risk damaging the brand new, much more expensive camera body. Assuming the worst would happen, the monetary loss of a K-5 IIs would be much easier to swallow than a K-3. And the K-30 wasn't brought because I felt the K-5 IIs' metal body would have held up a bit better not just to the extreme cold, but most importantly against any nicks and bangs that it might incur. Remember - I was not there to take pictures. I was there as a trainee learning a new skill set in an environment I'd never been in - I didn't know what to expect.

Regarding the lens choice, I knew that we would be above 62 degrees latitude, which everyone knows at this time of year sunlight would be fleeting. Thus the DA* 16-50 would have been the obvious choice for a low-light capable zoom. I decided against it because it's quite large, heavy, and it has a limited zoom range. I opted for the DA 18-135 WR, and for shooting in dim circumstances, the DA* 55. I will just say right now that the only lens I used was the 18-135 WR. Literally. After this trip I've come to realize that it is one of Pentax's true gems. It was absolutely perfect for this type of environment and the conditions with which I was moving (i.e. with a lot of crap!)

Which brings me to my next point - how to carry the camera/lens. For those that do not know, I am a big fan of the Op/Tech system, namely the Sling Strap (SS)and the Backpack/Reporter (B/R). Very cheap, yet very effective. But then I realized something - there was a massive impact spot on the rear LCD screen, something akin to this:

See here for more details on the LCD screen: Air Gapless Screen: Wolverine-esque Self-Regeneration?

I initially started with the (SS), however I changed over to a combination of the two where the camera was directly connected via the B/R. This was because at first, the SS was great and allowed full mobility with my hands while skiing - the first thing we did was practice learn how to Nordic (aka cross-country) ski. After having the camera bang around a bunch from the movement incurred from skiing in that manner, I went to the B/R, but then that too proved to bounce on my chest a lot. I realized I still had the SS on, so I tucked the lens under the strap, holding it down against my chest and no longer bouncing. This proved the best way to carry the camera/lens (K-5 IIs/18-135 WR) while skiing in this manner.

Now onto what you came here for - pictures

As stated earlier, every shot was taken with the K-5 IIs and the DA 18-135 WR. Also, all were shot in DNG RAW and processed in Adobe LR4.

1) A buddy poses while we wait for everyone else to catch up to us before the morning instruction begins. His first time ever on skis - he looks pretty natural, huh?

2) One of the Finnish instructors demonstrates the best way to use the ski poles, especially since using them by themselves isn't the end state: "We recommend wearing the loops like this on your wrist because it will make it much easier for you to fire your weapon and not lose your poles after letting go of the handles."

3) Candid pose of the same guy in #1. We were starting at sunrise, so I took full advantage of the golden glow.

4) And off onto the frozen lake!

5) After I got about 1 km from the shore, I turned around to get a picture of one of my soldiers - he was having a bit of a rough time figuring out how to move on skis

6) Single file to hide troop numbers. Reminds me of this:

Obi Wan on Tatooine

7) I call it "Solitude" and became one of my favorite shots from the entire trip, if not the favorite. I would argue it's the most iconic of the entire album, as well.

8) While on the lake we stopped for a bit to get some water and also listen to an impromptu class on how to be more efficient on skis.

9) Same guy as #1 and #3, but this is my favorite portrait of the trip. Love his pose, which was completely candid. The golden glow is still going strong despite being taken almost two hours later.

10) One of our Finnish instructors. I told him that the biggest thing I wanted to learn coming out of this course was how to grow a beard like that


12) Another impromptu class instruction on the lake.

13) One of my buddies. With the goggles and his pose, I couldn't help but think of Han Solo on Hoth (the frozen planet in The Empire Strikes Back)

14) Reeds trapped in the ice...

15) More single file...

16) This is a pseudo HDR created by really lifting the shadows. I wish I had a reflector to light their faces using the sunset behind them.

17) Another, same as above. The dynamic range that allowed for this is just incredible.

18) Another one of my favorites. Here the best skier in the group distances himself from the rest of us on the way back after the completion of the first day of skiing. I personally love the simplicity of this shot.

19) Almost done!

20) The next morning, we were on the ice before sunrise. Here it breaks after about 2 hours into our movement.

21) Found these summer cottages along the edge of one of the small islands we circled around.

22) This could have been an epic portrait if it was professionally lit. Even something as simple as a reflector would have sufficed. Not only do I not own one (it wasn't until this and the other two shots above that I realized how a reflector could effectively be implemented), but it just wouldn't have been practical to bring one with me.

23) Between a very, very small strait between two islands, we cut across some reeds.

24) Two of my soldiers pose together after taking a break. Just like in all other images - the camouflage they are wearing was provided to all of us by the Finnish as it's part of their Winter uniform set.

25) Backlit skier. I made one small correction to this image in PS Elements - the treeline directly under the sun had a pretty harsh flare spot, so it was cloned out using the adjacent trees. Looking at it again I realize I didn't do the best job where the base of the treeline meets the lake.

26) Yours truly, with my breath frozen to my balaclava.

27) Another one of my favorites. The soldier pictured below was also a huge fan of this image.



30) When we weren't skiing, we were learning other practical skills. I didn't have my camera for a lot of them (fire starting, indoor classroom instruction, pistol and shotgun shooting, improvised sled construction for evacuating a casualty, etc.), but I did have it with me for this one - we got in teams and practiced pulling a sled to mimic evacuating a wounded comrade. We learned that it is SO much easier than fireman carrying

31) We were given stoves and cookware by the Finnish as well, and every meal we were outside we had to cook this way.

32) We also did a high ropes obstacle course, and here one of my friends makes his way across the tightrope wire.

33) Yours truly suited up for a reconnaissance mission.

One of the longest nights of my entire life, a few short stories came out of that one.

First, based off the map we had been given (we we learned the next day was not to scale) I made the assumption that we'd be back in 2-3 hours MAXIMUM. And in the interest of speed and minimizing the things that could rattle/bang around, I didn't bring any canteens of water (I know....I know).

Second, I had a candy bar with me. Yes, just a sole candy bar. I took a bite and then put it in my pocket about an hour in. After another hour and a half I wanted another bite. Well, it was sticking to the wrapper and after trying to pop it out just a little, imagine my reaction to seeing it disappear in the snow beneath me. After about 2 minutes of shaving layer after layer of snow away with my skis, I found it, brushed off as much as I could (some of the snow had already froze to it), and had one of the most delicious treats ever

Third, it was pitch black. I mean, so dark and black that I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, even if I touched my nose. I've never in my life experienced darkness like I did that night. And yet we were walking through incredibly dense forest. I grabbed this image from google to emphasize the type of forest we were navigating through. Keep in mind it absolute darkness:

One thing I noticed was that your eyes apparently have "high ISO noise" as well. I couldn't see anything, but I clearly remember seeing exactly this:

That is 100% exactly what my eyes saw for quite a while, and only when I lifted the thermals to my eyes was I able to find my comrades. I was the only one with the thermal device, so how someone didn't get lost and left behind in that mess is beyond me. (Off topic, but I found the thermals FANTASTIC for finding wildlife in the extreme cold - including a hibernating brown bear!!)

Along the same as above, but less technical, was the redness. I am not sure what it was, but there was a lot of red that I was seeing. Not bright red, but a very faint, very dark tint of crimson mixing in with the black noise. Perhaps my eyes trying to compensate? Anyway, I was walking when I noticed the very very faint shadowy edges of the branches in front of me when it happened - a 'door' or 'curtain' of sorts dissolving to unveil a scene of demons (?) dancing in front of me. It wasn't the first time I've hallucinated like that when deprived of sleep, water, and food during military training (not joking...), but I remember it vividly. They closely resembled the demon dog, Zuul, from Ghostbusters:

Lastly, the one story that emphasizes all the above combined with how long that night was happened around 0430. I got off the lake as part of the first two-man team while another guy was taking forever. The fastest skier during the day (the guy in the picture above that was just a speck he was so far), he had accumulated a significant amount of ice and frozen clumps of snow on his skis, significantly slowing him down. While waiting for him, I planted my poles into the ground and leaned into them to support my weight while standing up. Next thing I know, I wake up laying on my side in the snow drift. And we still had about 5-6 km's of skiing left...

But it was an AWESOME experience. Our mission was to collect intelligence on a certain location and then report back with how we would conduct at attack on that position. We chose to ski across the lake until a good access to a land route, drop the skis at a common rally point, continue on foot, conduct the recon, make it back to the rally point to collect the skis, ski 'home' across the lake. In total we covered about 18 km.

And from the water and candy bar stories above, I'll let you do the math on how long I went without replenishing - we started at around 1945 and didn't return until 0515 the next morning...

34) The final event - the hypothermia exercise! The Finns cut a hole in the lake we were skiing across in order for us to jump in and experience how f'ing miserable it was how cold water drops your core temperature very quickly. For me it was cold, but not as bad as I thought it would be. But running out there and back (we ran back into a sauna about 30 meters away from the hole after jumping in) barefoot on the ice/snow was AWFUL. Anyway, everyone loves naked men running

(Blame the poor IQ on the fogged up window I was shooting through for this one)

35) My buddy reacts to the water. After seeing this photo, "Dude! I look HUGE! Facebook profile pic here I come!" It has since turned out extremely popular for him

36) Another reaction...

37) Yours truly after surfacing after a complete submerging

38) The guy that was faster than any else on skis (and who I was waiting for after his skis froze over with ice), he was extremely calm and collected. I don't know how he did it, but a true badass.

39) Our entire group and the two Czechs that were with us as well. The two plaques were unit awards presented to us to bring back to our commanders.

40) And the guy that made it all possible for us. The 54th Engineer Battalion (my unit) is also nicknamed the "Dagger Battalion." As such, we presented him with the Battalion 'Dagger' as a token of our appreciation for his continued support of our Finnish-American partnership. As the partnership liaison officer for the battalion and the one who coordinated the training event, it was my honor to present it to him on behalf of my commander.

As you can see, the DA 18-135 WR filled my needs excellently. I was able to get wide angle shots and zoom in for isolation, and even get that 3-D 'pop' from shallow DOF when I needed. For all those that have been on the fence about whether to get that lens - it is imo the single best kit lens ever made. Plenty sharp, weather sealed, very compact, and very versatile. Also, not a single one of those images, including the ones with a clean horizon line across the entire frame, needed distortion correction above.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed!


Last edited by Heie; 02-08-2014 at 11:05 AM.
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02-08-2014, 10:39 AM   #2
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one of the best reportage

From the report we find out about the art of events.
02-08-2014, 11:46 AM   #3
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Great stories and photos.
Thanx for sharing.
02-08-2014, 11:49 AM   #4
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Great series, #14 is my favorite followed closely by #25. I don't like snow and cold very much so the sunset makes those pictures feel warmer for me.

02-08-2014, 12:22 PM   #5
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Winter - it's a great time for children's amusements.

And the cold is useful to adults also, because the body is better preserved.

02-08-2014, 12:56 PM   #6
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Excellent... Thanks very much for sharing your beatiful photos... Like the versatile of 18-135 WR!
02-08-2014, 01:26 PM   #7
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Great shots. Great story telling. And such an adventure. And I'm envious of your cold weather military expedition. My army time was spent in boring places like New Jersey and Hawaii. Early 70's.
02-08-2014, 02:10 PM   #8
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Love all of these - especially #4, #6, #7, #20, #21, and #29. Well done throughout - you really took my on your journey and all the different aspects of it. And I love the lens too

02-08-2014, 02:16 PM   #9
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That dunking has just gotta be unreal on the cold stakes.
02-08-2014, 02:47 PM   #10
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Nice set of images, Alex. You sure get to do some interesting stuff!
02-08-2014, 03:19 PM   #11
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Hope you enjoyed your hump on sticks! Looks like Swissgear is an official sponsor of your battalion...

Let me know if you (or that fast skier) ever want to go further north than that. I have a good friend who leads x-country ski trips to the north (geographic) pole. The floating ice moves you back as you sleep, so that's some workout!
02-08-2014, 03:50 PM   #12
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Wonderful set of photos - Man, you wouldn't catch me in that freezing water . Some really exceptional photos - I particularly like 4 and 7, but all are enjoyable.

Congrats on the course.

02-08-2014, 04:08 PM   #13
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Great stuff,thanx to finlandia
02-08-2014, 04:38 PM   #14
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Excellent post, Heie. Thanks!!!
02-08-2014, 05:03 PM   #15
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Fantastic account of a grueling training. The photographs are as impressive as the training must have been. Anyone looking at/reading about this gets a sense of it. The images are wonderful as such, and the entire account really amazing. Living this day to day is something else. That said, it is good to know that the Pentax gear did the job. Thanks!

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