„The beginning is the most important part of the work.“
In 2012, work life balance was a little more challenging for me than usual. To compensate, I decided to take an opportunity that came in a pretty harmless newsletter from Nikon – a photography tour going to northern Norway, specifically Tromsø, with Nikon Professional Services Switzerland participating as well. With the intention to do pictures of the Aurora Borealis. Back then, this subject was highly unusual, still I found the chance to see that natural phenomena quite fascinating. At that point in time, I had no idea how much that trip would change my life.
The newsletter pointed to a website that offered a couple of different dates. Without knowing a lot about the northern lights yet, I just decided for the trip with the longest duration and got the last available place. Taking a close look at my camera equipment, I also decided for getting some new glass. While working a bit too much, I also had not spent a lot of money, so the budget was sufficient for both the trip, a new D800 and the most famous trinity of Nikon lenses: 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm, all f2.8. After going to a very informative meeting where I learned I would need a proper tripod as well plus good clothing, I could pack my bags.
Although I have not used some of the equipment, overall my packing list was quite matching the requirements of what I encountered. Not all fit into the backpack, the Tripod went into my suitcase.
The trip up north was hilarious. We met at Zurich airport and did a group check in. Only later I learned that I was the lucky guy that was chosen to „own“ all 23 suitcases. When we switched planes in Copenhagen, I tried to pass security and after the screen flashed a few times, the computer the lady used to check everything simply crashed. She asked me why I brought so much luggage which kind of puzzled me a bit because I considered one suitcase really not that much. Quickly we learned that I suddenly had a little more luggage connected to my name and with a pretty big smile I announced to the group behind me that all their stuff now belongs to me obviously. But because I was quite relaxed and felt that any other move would have been risky, I decided to be very generous and shared my new belongings.
Up in Tromsø, I unpacked my stuff, changed clothing and met with the group and the guides downstairs. No getting acclimatized, there was a pretty tight program defined.
In Tromsø, parking might be a bit more expensive than you would expect, still it is a very comfortable and huge place, there are several tunnels beneath the city with hundreds of spots. It was snowing heavily on that day and I wondered how much we would be able to photograph.
Well, it turned out it was a lot. The fjords are beautiful even with bad weather. Not sure how much water the people living in that building have to endure in their living room, though.
Best of all, the weather was clearing up a bit with the clear sky being revealed here and there.
Overall, I was still quite surprised by the weather, it was less cold during the day than I expected. The gulf stream is heating up the area, unfortunately it typically brings moisture as well. Clouds we quite dominating our trip over the next few days.
Quite a nice beach, although putting a towel to the ground and sipping a cocktail might be a bit over the top.
The first night, the sky did not really clear up unfortunately. It was a good opportunity to learn the basics. How to set your lens to infinity, find all buttons in darkness. Our guide generally was strict about light, headlights were ok for walking to and from the site, but while cameras were clicking, every flashlight had to be carefully covered. With the conditions during this night, it was a bit less strict, later nights the instructions were given with more emphasis, meaning loud and clear.
During this night, I had no idea what was yet to come. I was just getting quite excited by the green streak of light that was visible behind the clouds.
Every once in a while, the sky was getting a bit more clear and the dramatic display of the Aurora Borealis could start working it’s magic. That night was where I was getting hooked. Only so slightly, but just a few nights later would change that drastically.
Still during this night, I really did not know yet.
With the moon illuminating the landscape, it was interesting to shoot pictures even without northern lights.
The place we used was directly next to a street. Luckily not much traffic, but my recommendation would be to get as much safety distance as possible. It is dark, road is extremely slippery and people with dark clothing can easily be overseen, especially if they try to avoid all light.
With the weather forecast on the coastline being pretty bad, our head guide made a bold decision. Point all four vehicles to the east and keep driving until the sky clears up. We drove several hours, then close to the Swedish border we started looking for a place to park the cars. Parking at the side of the street is totally out of the question, there are trucks passing though that would not be able to break in time.
We stopped a few times to check and finally found a very nice spot and the Aurora decided to show up as well. Still it was pretty close to the street.
Searching the area I found a path that was showing tracks from snowmobiles. Which was perfect because in the middle of the night that kind of traffic can be expected to be low, but the tracks were deep, so even if bad weather would come, the tracks could be safely followed back to the vans.
I assembled my gear and started shooting. Then moved a bit to find the best spot, as I wanted to avoid trees for an unobstructed view to the sky.
Getting better. And the Aurora was starting to dance as well.
For probably 15 or 20 minutes, I was alone. With nobody around I even took a selfie.
Then I started taking pictures. It was beautiful.
On that empty plain, everything was quite level apart from a few mountains in the background. Which was good because especially in the beginning, the light show was close to the horizon.
And naturally, one-by-one, the rest of the group arrived. Still orderly at the beginning of the night. If everybody just keeps in line, there is no problem. Naturally there is always a few people that move forward a bit and the rest has to follow. Because that keeps repeating, the group moved forward quite a bit during the night. I made hundreds of pictures including my first timelapse of the Aurora.
The next night was very different. The drive home during the night before left everybody a bit exhausted, so the tour went to a close fjord. Back then, there were no buildings and it was easy to get directly to the waterfront. Too easy actually, especially when the flood returned. Several people have been a bit too fascinated and suddenly found the feet of their tripods covered in water.
The evening started quiet, although everybody was still excited because of the night before. At this point in time we were clueless about what we would experience.
After some initial lights, the big show began with a very strong curtain, coming close to our position and then moving directly above us.
The sky went boom! My very first corona. Absolutely mind-blowing. It was strong and stayed directly above us for a little bit over 2 minutes (which is a lot).
Our guide was as excited as we were, the Aurora was fantastic. He shouted commands on how to set camera exposure times so that everybody would get a fair share of photographs. And I decided not to follow those instructions, I trusted my very new D800 to perform better in the cold. Assuming that sensor noise would be lower with the temperatures we had, I moved the ISO settings up and above the recommended maximum of 1000 to 1250, climbing up to 2000. And that brought exposure time down to 1.6 seconds.
The pictures captured the Aurora in an amazing level of detail. This one was my best of the night and still deeply moves me when I watch it, intensively remembering what happened.
Because of the very unusual setting the team including the NPS manager was taking a much closer look at the set the following day. And told me they would send the pictures over to Japan as really nobody expected the camera to perform that well.
The Aurora started to fade away. From the 5 corona pictures I show on the site, only the first and the third were very slightly post-processed. The other 3 remained as they are – RAW directly from the camera and only converted to sRGB and JPEG for display on the web. Claiming you need to „develop“ a RAW is just an excuse that tends to end up with over-saturated results and I want my pictures to resemble closely what I actually experienced. Nature is sufficiently overwhelming already if you start to take a closer look.
All this happened at midnight, but the show went on.
Very often, after a strong display the Aurora starts to get blurred, loosing contrast and definition. This night that did not happen. Throughout several hours, there were several displays of arcs and curtains.
Some high above…
…and some closer to the horizon, with great reflections in the cold waters of the fjord.
It was amazing how strong and colorful some of them were. It became clear to me that this display will influence the rest of my life. Because I actually wrote this travelogue 7 years after it happened, I can look back and say that from that moment, it became a very regular subject every returning season and I became an Aurora hunter. And even after all those years, those pictures and feelings I encountered during this night feel like they have been burned deeply into my brain.
And the night continued.
After some time, some wide arches appeared closer to the horizon, giving the opportunity of making pictures with the Aurora reflecting in the water.
Again, no post-processing.
At 2am we started experimenting with light painting and dodging. One possibility is to wave your hand in front of the lens in a regular motion from the top, giving the upper area of the picture less exposure. Very similar to using a gradient filter. A bit more difficult is to use a flashlight to briefly illuminate the lower part of the picture. Problem with that technique is that typically flashlights have a very inhomogeneous distribution of light usually with a set of concentric rings. It takes a bit of practice to smoothly move the cone of light through the intended areas of the picture exactly meeting exposure time.
It would have been nice to say we stayed up until sunrise. At 3am we at least got a moonrise. Shortly after, we packed our material, carefully wrapping up lenses and bodies in plastic bags to protect them from moisture forming in the hotel. I at least triple checked that the memory card was safely stored in one of my pockets so that I could make a backup immediately after returning to the hotel room. And absolutely to check all the pictures and whether they had turned out well. Yes, I believe they did.
The next day I went exploring Tromsø. It was a beautiful day with lots of sunshine, giving a promise of spring in northern Norway.
Plus plenty of ducks.
Although tourism was already fairly important for Tromsø, it was still pretty quiet compared to the years to come.
Being a university town, the public library was important and quite impressive.
Tromsø even offers a shopping street with a number of nice shops.
But obviously the main attraction still is the Aurora Borealis. After some sleep, the next night we traveled to the high plateau west of Tromsø, easy to reach via the 862. There are a number of parking lots that are kept accessible by the snowplows.
It is a pretty good area for photography, the mountains around shield nicely.
So third night in a row, we could do a lot of pictures.
Time to meet some other inhabitants of Noway – the reindeer. Our guide was clever and brought bread, so they came closer. Real close actually, this is not a zoom lens.
They don’t really like to be touched, but appreciated the bread.
Norway’s winter sun is mostly close to the horizon and gives fantastic light. Looks like a studio setting. Again, no post-processing.
As in most places even up in northern Norway, the coastline is more or less loosely populated, there is small settlements everywhere. Plus a lot of street lights.
Must be a nice place in summer as well, but I’m sure that there is tons of mosquitoes.
Most buildings are made from wood.
And despite the cold temperatures, the ocean is a natural part of Norwegian life.
Piece of wood. Not much more to say about it.
Pieces of ice. We learned some fun photography called levitating ice. Against the sun, you throw a piece of ice into the air and follow it with your camera set to high frames per second rate. Most of the pictures will turn out bad, but the ones that are both in focus and have the piece of ice fairly in the center look pretty nice.
It might be remote, but I think I get some of the reasons that people want to life up there, especially on those beautiful days.
One day, I want to go hiking to find more of those frozen waterfalls.
Follow this road? See where it ends up? Not this time. Not yet.
Still with everything that made this trip so remarkable, all the sights I witnessed… the best part of all was when I asked our head guide about the name of that one woman when she crossed the street. We became a couple quickly after this trip and from this point on, I had somebody that shared that burning desire to see the Aurora Borealis – again, again and again.