In Search of the Northern Lights

It’s almost twelve years now, since I moved to live and work in Oslo, the capital city of Norway. It was probably on my way back from my first return home after the move, that I got chatting to one of the other passengers. I remember remarking that I’d like to see the Northern Lights, without really giving it too much thought. He of course said that it would have to be a winter trip, which had I thought about it, was pretty obvious really. Although I did see something while walking home from work late once in the early hours, I never really got the chance, as the contract had to end earlier than expected.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got my chance. I only arrived back on Monday, in the early hours, so the photos are only just ready, but I was able to spend six days in Tromsø, in the far north. Because it’s so far north of the arctic circle, the sun doesn’t rise for almost two months, giving a strange pale blue light (when it’s clear) during the day. At this time of year in early December, it lasts for around two hours.

Unfortunately however, we arrived to rain and strong winds, which pretty much lasted for the first four days. The chances of seeing the lights didn’t look too promising, but by the thursday, the day that had been booked, the forecast was for clearing skies. Just as we left though, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse again, with a heavy downpour. Not in the slightest bit perturbed though, our guide headed east, towards the Finnish border, where the weather should be clearer, due to the shelter of the mountains. We had booked our trip with Kjetil Skogli, the man who took out Joanna Lumley during a British television production a few years ago. When I mentioned in the Visit Tromsø information office who I’d booked with, the response was “He’s the expert, you’ll definitely see them”, which was encouraging. Our first stop was just over an hour away from Tromsø and the skies looked a lot clearer, with increasing glimpses of the moon. As we came off the main road near Seljelvenes, towards the northeast, the sky looked to be glowing. After waiting for some time, the glow came closer, eventually forming distinct bands of white, against the dark sky. Light pollution was non-existent, allowing the best views of the stars and the moon was behind us, well away from the aurora that was forming.

While the display wasn’t the best, as solar activity had been low since the beginning of October, it was certainly an experience. They didn’t quite look as I’d imagined though. You see all the photos and imagine that the aurorae will be a mass of greens and reds, perhaps mixed in with some purples and blues if you’re lucky, but they were essentially white. I could just about make out some red colouration, but the greens just weren’t visible with the naked eye. Of course, again, had I thought more about it, I would have remembered that the human eye is pretty poor at distinguishing colour in the dark. Some people have better colour perception in the dark than others and one of the others could make out a slight green tinge. Had the display been stronger, then there would have been a greater chance of seeing the colours, but I was able to get a couple of useable photographs. Judging by my settings and comparing them to other photos, I would estimate, that a strong display could have been as much as ten times brighter. It wasn’t long before the skies clouded over again though and each of the subsequent stops failed to reveal any better displays before the clouds caught up with us.

Mildly satisfied that I’d at least seen them, I now hoped for clearer skies during the day, so that I could photograph Tromsø in the best light possible. Friday was a complete washout though with heavy rain and more strong winds, which later turned to sleet with occasional snow flurries, resulting in a spattering of snow on Friday night. Saturday was another story however. The skies cleared, with much colder weather, resulting in some of the best light I’ve ever seen for photography. It’s difficult to describe, but the closest I can come, is by describing it as a turquise blue light, tinged with pinks and purples, as the invisible sun reflects off the few clouds. As dusk approaches in the afternoon, the colour darkens to give an even stranger, almost surreal light.

All in all, my trip to northern Norway was a success, but I know want to try seeing a stronger display and especially perfect my technique of photographing the Northern Lights, which left a bit to be desired.

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About avalonlightphotoart

I have been photographing with DSLRs since 2007, but have also used negative film many years ago and slide film more recently. Avalon Light Photoart specialises in nature photography from the southwest of England, particularly wildlife and landscapes from Somerset. A number of landscapes from Scotland and the Isle of Skye are also available. Prints and licences can be purchased from the main website.
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