In September, my husband (Steve Eilenberg, also an author here at Photo Focus) and I finally realized a long-time dream: seeing and shooting the Northern Lights (of course, for photographers, seeing and shooting are synonymous). We were in Norway, in an especially scenic area north of the Arctic Circle, Lofoten. This area at 68 degrees of longitude is so picturesque, with so much to offer landscape photographers, that it would have been wonderful even without the aurora borealis, but the display we saw made the trip unforgettable.
This being our first time seeing and shooting the celestial display, we had a lot to learn, in a hurry. Thankfully, we had local expertise on which to lean. We were in a small group of 5 (our friend Greg and a nice couple from New Jersey, Vera and Ilya), led by professional photographer Christian Hoiberg, as well as a driver, Odd (Odd-Are Hansen). Our photography tour/workshop was organized by Lofoten Tours (http://lofotentours.com/).
Getting to Norway (from the US)
A few words about logistics…Norway’s capital, Oslo, is the gateway to all Norway has on offer and was surprisingly easy to access. Norwegian Air Shuttle offers non-stop flights from the West coast (10 hours from LAX) and the East coast (8 hours from JFK), for VERY competitive prices. Since this was a special trip to celebrate a biggish birthday of Steve’s, we splurged on Premium tickets for this trip, which were well priced. Although not as luxurious as a true business class, it was considerably less expensive (priced like a premium economy ticket) and reasonably comfortable, although the seats are not fully reclining. These tickets also came with some perks of business class, namely lounge privileges, and a real meal. The coach price was SO competitive, it was tempting. Bottom line, we would fly Norwegian again.
We spent several days in Oslo, which offers much to the traveling photographer. I’ll do an eventual post on Oslo and its photographic highlights.
Getting to Lofoten
From Oslo to Lofoten, there are a few choices for domestic flights, Norwegian, SAS, and Wideroe. Most of the SAS flights involve a stop at Bodo (BOO). For me, time is money, so we utilized Wideroe for our internal flights since at present, they offer the only non-stops between Oslo and Leknes.
Lofoten is a group of 7 major islands connected by an impressive network of modern roads and sculptural bridges, with a choice of airports: Leknes (LKN), Rost (RET), Harstad/Narvik Evenes airport (EVE) and Svolvear (SVJ). We flew into Leknes and out of Svolvear.
We overnighted in Leknes before being picked up by Lofoten Tours in a comfortable Renault Trafic activity van. We had just come off 10 days on a wildlife and landscape viewing and photography expedition cruise in Svalbard, another bucket list destination. I’ll cover the attractions of Svalbard for traveling photographers in future posts!
Even without the Northern lights, Lofoten is a spectacular destination for the traveling photographer. It is traditionally and even now a center of the Norwegian fishing industry. Iconic fisherman’s cabins cluster at the foot of dramatic granite peaks, which plunge straight down to the water. Seemingly around every curve in the road is a fjord or beach which beckons.
When to go?
We were there in September, which Lofoten Tours indicates is one of the best times for photography the Northern Lights, the season in Norway being late August to early April. We also had fall color, but September is too early for snow or ice, which I imagine would make this already dramatic scenery just that much more spectacular!
Of note, although we were much further north on the Svalbard segment of our trip (81 degrees longitude), in September it was never dark enough to see aurora activity, which presumably was present.
Which brings me to the first of many thoughts regarding seeing the Northern Lights:
- What are they? The interaction of solar wind with the earth’s magnetosphere. The solar wind is emitted by the sun, a hot gaseous plasma of free electrons and positive ions. The magnetosphere is that region of space in which charged particles are controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field. Essentially, it is the collision of charged particles which lose energy and precipitate in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The resulting interaction leads to light emission, which can vary in color.
- Where are they? You need to be near a polar region. We tend to think in terms of Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, and Scandinavia, but the southern hemisphere has its own version of the aurora.
- When are they? September to March, with some variation possible on either end.
- What conditions are necessary to see them? It must be clear and dark. Being away from the light pollution of cities will increase your viewing possibilities.
- Have a realistic mindset. Every location where the Northern Lights can be seen is a fantastic destination for photography, even if the aurora doesn’t show. It’s best to consider the Northern Lights a special bonus and addition to your trip, the “icing” than to focus too narrowly on the aurora to the exclusion of the other delights these special destinations offer. It’s nature, always changing, with no guarantees!
- I’ve said before, there is no substitute for local knowledge. In our case, we had 2 nights of aurora activity, one a tantalizing introduction and the other off the charts. The first was the night of our arrival. We were just settling into our rustic fishing cabin accommodations when we heard excited shouts erupting outside our windows. Rushing outside, giant green ribbons were unfurling overhead, which hung in the sky for a surprisingly prolonged interval. We all rushed back inside for our camera bags. Christian surprised us by saying we would stop and shoot from the bridge (a 30-second drive away) and not from the beach (30 minutes away) because the show could stop at any moment. And right he was-the colors were intense from the bridge but had become much more muted by the time we reached the darker beach.
- There are aurora apps which can alert you when conditions might be fortuitous.
- Scout it out in advance. Our off the charts night with the Northern Lights was a much more controlled experience than our introductory night. We headed out mid-afternoon to a boulder-strewn beach, where we shot the sunset. This gave us a good chance to get acquainted with the topography, set our focus and pick out potential foregrounds. When the sunset was done, we warmed up in the vehicle and refueled with snacks and drinks we had brought along in anticipation of our stakeout. We got lucky…around 10 pm, the sky began to heat up. For the next 2 hours, the colors and patterns in the sky had us whirling around like overexcited children. Just when we set up facing one direction, we’d hear “Look behind you!” The water swirling on the sand resulted in several boot overflows, but somehow, no ankles were sprained in the dark and no one even felt the cold.
It was a miraculous, truly unforgettable night!
Next in this series-specifics on photographic parameters and techniques, we employed for shooting the Northern Lights. Part 2 of this article can be accessed here:
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