Pursuing and photographing the Northern Lights can be fun but it does have inherent hazards that can lead to serious injury to the photographer and expensive repair bills for their damaged equipment. For those of us visiting the polar regions and unaccustomed to the cold conditions, then the dangers may go unnoticed. Extreme cold dulls the senses and coordination of mind and body becomes retarded.
On a recent trip to Iceland, I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to venture outside on a cold and very windy day. Within minutes, the back of my jacket was coated with wind-driven snow giving me the appearance of half-man, half-snowman. Thirty minutes later, a brief lapse in concentration and a rather large wave led to me losing both my camera and lens to the sea. I learned a valuable lesson that day––think twice before executing each and every action.
Last night wasn’t that cold for a January in Finnmark. The thermometer indicated that it was around -12 C but the wind-chill meant it was more like -20 C. It was a severe shock to my senses each time I exited my nice warm car to set up my tripod for the dancing light-show. The aurora was spectacular but as always, brief and capricious. Each time I’d decided on a pleasing composition, the glowing plasma would move to another point in the night sky.
The solar wind and it’s earthly cousin were conspiring to make my life extremely difficult. Recent mild weather added my frustration as every flat piece of ground that wasn’t covered by snow had a veneer of sheet ice that was almost impossible to walk on and often, very difficult to see. Of course, I had had the foresight to bring some crampons for my winter boots but putting them on and taking them off at each location would have been time consuming, so I accepted the risk and left them in my suitcase at the guest-house.
Any photographer that has attempted to set up his or her tripod to take long exposures in windy conditions knows the frustrations of trying to achieve a stable platform. Carbon fibre tripods are a wonderful invention but their light weight makes them vulnerable in anything but a light breeze. Yes, I know that I could have attached a bag of rocks to the hook on the underside of my tripod in order to lower the centre of gravity but that solution may be satisfactory for a static location but entirely unsuitable for such a dynamic event in which the subject is constantly moving.
The hard ice was impervious to the spiked metal feet of my tripod and the frozen ground was just as impenetrable. At each position I had to search out a patch of suitable snow that was not too deep yet offered sufficient purchase. I understand that RRS makes a ‘rock-claw’ tripod foot that may have been more suitable but unfortunately, I had to manage with what I had with me.
The good news is that both my camera and more significantly, myself survived the experience and I returned to Alta with some wonderful images. However, without proper foresight and planning and awareness of the dangers, the outcome may have been very different. Finger’s crossed…I shall keep safe for the remainder of my trip to this beautiful region of Norway.