Photographing the aurora – Alta, Norway
It’s almost a month now since I returned from a wonderful trip to Alta in Norway. I travelled there alone with the sole intention of photographing the Northern Lights. In hindsight, I was extremely lucky. The conditions during my short stay were almost ideal with clear, star-studded skies almost every night during my ten day stay. I don’t believe that the weather over there has been quite as good since returning to the U.K. I guess those ancient Norse Gods must have been smiling down on me.
Perhaps some of you are wondering why on earth I chose Alta in Norway to spend two weeks of my well-earned, annual vacation? I suspect that privately, even some of my friends think I’m border-line certifiable. Well, there is sound (sort of) logic behind my decision. Let me explain…
Last year, I travelled to Iceland with my Squiver friends and enjoyed the experience. Even though we only got to see the northern lights on one evening, it was spectacular. Far better than the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen and without the smoke and the crowds! Perched precariously on steep and loose glacial moraine and watching the light-show unfold was an amazing experience but one I admit, for which I was totally unprepared. I fumbled with my camera controls in the inky blackness and failed to get a sharp focus on the stars. I struggled getting an adequate exposure and had no time to explore alternative compositions. I was so very envious of my Canadian friends to whom this was second nature and who effortlessly snapped away and produced some absolutely stunning images. I was angry with myself but at the same time, I was hooked!
So, during the past twelve months, I’ve been surfing the web, searching for a location that would be both accessible and scenic and with a stable climate, clear nights and with good prospects of an auroral display. The small city of Alta in the arctic circle appeared to fit all of the above criteria. It was further north than the popular Norwegian city of Tromso and and more importantly to me, it attracted far fewer tourists. Personally, I hate being distracted by large numbers of other photographers all getting in each others way and spoiling my images with the light from their head-torches.
I stayed at the wonderful Baarstua Guesthouse, some fifteen minutes from the centre of Alta. The owner Bente lives in a beautiful family home right opposite the guesthouse and was extremely helpful throughout my stay, giving me plenty of advice and organising taxis and car rental. There is no doubt that Norway is expensive but staying at this guesthouse, equipped with its own small kitchen, enabled me to survive within my budget. I even hired my car from the local franchise of ‘Rent-A- Wreck’.
I pre-booked a couple of evening ‘aurora hunts’ through a local adventure company Glød, before I visited Norway. This turned out to be a wise move. The local knowledge and experience of the two guides Anton and Katrina, proved invaluable and gave me the confidence to hire a car and explore the landscape by myself for the remainder of my trip.
Winter in northern Norway is cold. I experienced a range of temperatures from an almost tropical -10 C down to -35 C near Suolovuopmi! You need to dress for the conditions. A down-jacket, insulated boots and thermal underwear are essential. Handling your camera in such temperatures can be difficult. I have never yet found an ideal pair of gloves that would give me the necessary tactility and insulation. At temperatures below -20 C, your skin will begin to freeze in minutes. I thought I’d escaped without injury until small blisters appeared on the pads of each of my finger-tips when I got home. Camera batteries are much less efficient in really cold temperatures. I kept a spare battery in my inside pocket each night, just in case.
Witnessing the aurora for the first time is an almost spiritual experience. Yes, scientists have researched the phenomena and can fully explain the physics behind the spectacle. Nevertheless, the feeling of wonder and awe still remains. I admire both its beauty, rarity and its ephemeralness. To me, photography is all about capturing that unique moment in time; so very different from other media such as film or video.
Visiting Alta has also given me the opportunity of experiencing the polar winter with its unique ‘blue-light’; albeit at the tail-end of the season. Winters back home have become boring. Snowy conditions and minus temperatures are rare and are considered a nuisance rather than an event to be embraced and enjoyed. I like the cold and the ice. Everything appears so much cleaner and brighter. Here’s an excerpt from my daily diary that may give you a flavour of my nocturnal adventures…
Last night’s aurora was a doozie! For a few minutes, I swear I could have read a newspaper from its bright, green light. It was fantastic to see the winter landscape lit by an alien green glow and see its reflections on the surface of the sea. For a short spell, there was so much activity that I didn’t know which way to point my lens. I even wished that I had a fish-eye lens so I could capture the whole sky! It was stunning.
I set off about 8:00 pm, heading south along the E6 to a previously researched location on the shore of a fjord: one of Slartibartfast’s* award winning designs. I set up my camera in the middle of a snowy field and waited patiently in the deep powder snow. I guess it was below -15 C as my nose hairs tingled with each intake of breath.
After about fifteen minutes, I heard a man approaching me from the local farmhouse. He was curious to know the reason I was stood in the dark in the middle of his field. Satisfied that I was a genuine English eccentric, we chatted about the Aurora and the local wildlife, mostly foxes and otters.
Suddenly, I saw a luminous green light out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the stunning arc of an auroral rainbow spanning the whole sky. I reached for my camera and began to photograph this cosmic spectacle. The farmer tried to continue our conversation but eventually retreated to the warmth of his house when he realised I was totally engaged with my photography.
I stayed and photographed the aurora for about an hour, trying many different compositions and camera settings whilst the aurora continued to wave and shimmer across the moon-lit sky. Eventually, I returned to my car, fingers frozen; as was the grin across my face. I drove back towards Alta, stopping at several previously researched locations; each time the aurora continued to oblige. I even managed to photograph the auroral lights above the recently completed suspension bridge over the fjord at Kåfjorden—perhaps a first?
* A character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy/science fiction series created by Douglas Adams.
The whole trip was a wonderful experience. My camera equipment (Nikon D4 and D800) operated flawlessly despite the sub-zero temperatures. As I sit here at my desk, listening to the wind blown rain battering against my window, I really wish I was back in Finnmark, Norway.