I grew up on a beach in Florida. As a child, the idea of the far north always fascinated me. I loved reindeer and Santa Claus. Snow was something from the movies, not real life. My birthday cake on my 6th birthday donned three trolls. My favorite part of Disney World was Epcot’s Norway.
So for me, the chance to spend a winter week in the arctic circle was like a childhood dream come true.
Tromsø, Norway, is a long way away. It takes all 24 hours to get there on a good day. On bad days - like our travel through New York, Paris and Oslo last week - it takes closer to 32 hours. You leave home in the dark, you arrive in the dark and wake in the dark. Sunshine is rare in the winter and snow is expected.
We were meeting friends up there. Leigh Birch, a Brit who now lives in California. Dionys Moser, a Swiss photographer and tour guide. Raymond Hoffman, a German photographer who lives in Sweden with his Icelandic wife. Pascal Richard a native of France who runs Professional Services for Nikon Switzerland. We were all there to see the Northern Lights.
Tromsø is considered one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis. But going to Tromsø doesn’t guarantee a northern light sighting. When we first arrived, our chances to see the lights appeared dismal. Clouds were predicted every night and the amount of solar activity was uncertain.
Instead of counting on the night to make our images, we took advantage of the day. Bill, Leigh and I got up early one morning to watch the sun rise over a fjord. Norway’s landscape is frequently hidden behind clouds and snow, but on a clear day it is breathtaking, almost unbelievable. We used a D800 with a 14-24mm f/2.8 along with a Lee Kit-SW150 Super Wide Filter Holder.
We drove down icy roads with the heat cranked in the car. We told stories and listened to American music on Norwegian radio.
We returned to Tromsø in time for a late breakfast and a nap. We woke to the phone ringing. Raymond was calling and he was excited. The weather had changed. The clouds would part.
We left the hotel at 5:30 p.m. so we would be out of the city lights by sundown. At 7 p.m., with our tripods set and the intervalometers running, Raymond pointed to a small streak in the sky. The light show was about to start.
The experience of seeing the northern lights is hard to explain. It’s something I had heard about and seen in pictures, but it is something I had to see to believe. Watching the green clouds move across the sky, change form and disappear as suddenly as they came, helped me understand why people in this part of the world believe in the supernatural. It is easy to imagine something you see every night.
We were lucky. We got to see the lights two nights in a row. Mostly, it gave us time to absorb what we were seeing. To fully appreciate the experience we were having.
You cannot easily capture the lights on video. As bright as they are, they are too dark for proper video capture. To fix this problem, we brought our Nikon’s - two D4s and one D800 - to photograph the lights, doing time lapses using intervalometers. We tried different exposures. Some time-lapses were captured at 6 second exposures, others at 10, still others at 30.
Bill and I move so quickly sometimes, especially with sports photography, that it is nice to slow down. This trip was short, but was also a nice change of pace. We went to have fun with friends, and we left with some amazing photos.
Next year, Bill and I are teaming up with Dionys and Raymond for a photo tour in Tromsø. I can’t guarantee we will see the lights, but I promise it will be spectacular.