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Freezing Fingers for a Stunning Photo

The Days

Winter is coming, and for every day passing the days in the northern hemisphere get shorter and shorter. As December is closing in, the daylight above the Arctic circle slowly drifts into darkness. For some, the dark days and loss of daylight is depressing, but for others, this is the best time of year. Some of those thriving in the winter dark are northern lights photographers. Dedicated to their craft and lust for stunning images of one of the world’s most beautiful weather phenomena, these men and women spend hours, sometimes days out in the wilderness, waiting for the aurora.

The Journey I

We are in Nordreisa, a 250 kilometres drive north of Tromsø, at 69° north. Here it’s already dark at four in the afternoon, and negative degrees on the thermometer is not unusual in early November. Our batteries are charged, the memory cards formatted. We have coffee powder, water, sausages and equipment in our backpacks, and all our warmest clothes are either on our bodies or in the car. When we leave home, the northern lights are already dancing above the house, but this is no place to set up the camera. Here, light spill from the house and the international E-road passing by is too intense to capture the aurora. So we head out, on our way to a sweet spot far from light spill. After a half an hour drive we exit the main road and head up towards the mountain. We park at a small rest area where we unpack the car and head out into the wilderness.

The Northern Lights

Released from the sun’s outer layer, charged particles of plasma storms against our atmosphere. At impact, the particles’ electrons come in contact with oxygen and nitrogen around the northern and southern pole, releasing energy as lights dance over the Arctic sky. This process actually happens at all times of the day, all year. But because of the other Arctic weather phenomena; the midnight sun, we can’t see the aurora with the naked eye during the summer. 24 hours a day, seven days a week every summer, the sun is at an angle that lights up the Arctic. Anyways, now we’re here, in November, waiting for clear skies and waves of particles rushing against our atmosphere.

Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis over Norway.

The Journey II

We are completely alone here, with the sound of our shoes stepping on fresh snow as the soundtrack of our journey. We follow a trail probably made by some hikers earlier today. The sky is clear, and the moon shines down at us. We head towards the top. Between trees, around boulders, and over small brooks we wander. You can’t see them, but if you listen closely you hear them gurgling under a few layers of snow. The sky isn’t as green as when we left home, but we believe that it’s coming back. As we ascend a medium-sized hill, a few altimeters above the tree line, the clock strikes midnight. It is now -1° celsius in the air. Finally, we arrive at our destination, a spot where we could wait for the aurora in peace. I rig the tripod, while Peter sets up the campfire. Hobby photographer Peter has spent some nights waiting for the northern lights, and he knows the tricks to have a good time while waiting. You may think that the fire counts as light spill, and yes it does. But we place the fire a little lower than the camera, as well as pointing the camera into the sky, so we don’t see the ground. We should be good. The fire is up, the coffee pot is on, and the sausages are out. Now we wait.

When you’re photographing the northern lights it’s the Norwegian national cup in waiting. You wait and wait.

Peter Vang
It doesn’t hurt to have a fire and a pot of coffee while waiting for the aurora.

The Tales

The northern lights are a fantastic sight, but it hasn’t always been the beauty we see it as today. According to old Sámi myths and legends, the aurora was a beautiful sight you shouldn’t bother. Shouting, whistling, or singing to the green sky was not allowed because then the divine powers of the northern lights could come to get you. Other myths claimed that the northern lights were deceased virgins looking for children, leading to many people keeping their children inside when the aurora shined at its brightest.  Although some were afraid, many praised the aurora, and it was said that if you waved at it, it would wave back.

I remember that when we were young, someone tried to trick us by telling us that if we waved at the lights with a white mitten or scarf, the northern lights would capture us.

Peter vang
Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis over Norway.

The Journey III

We’ve been here for about an hour now, without much of a view yet. There were a few stripes of the aurora, but nothing amazing, yet. The chat goes on, and the temper is good. Even though we brought just one bag of wood, the fire is still going and there’s still coffee in the pot. We’ve checked the aurora apps, and they look promising, so we wait a little longer. As the hour hand on the watch face is closing in on two o’clock we see something. The sky becomes greener and greener. We put the coffee down and move towards the cameras. It’s showtime. The camera’s shutter speed is set to 15 seconds, meaning the camera’s sensor is exposed to light for 15 consecutive seconds, capturing the aurora’s movement in one image. The shutter opens and closes, again and again, as long as the sky is green. Then after seven minutes of stunning light, the northern lights are gone. It’s late and we have to work in the morning, so we call it a day. We had our shot and took it. We head home with a few photos ready to be processed. As we come home, the sky flares up, but it is too late now. We are going to bed. So we’ll see you around, aurora.

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