A Norwegian coastal cruise (Part 2) and some thoughts on photographing the Northern Lights.

The Aurora near Tromso; 1/8th sec, f4, 6400 ASA

Was there anything else? Oh, yes…….the northern lights! Unless conditions are absolutely perfect, a moving ship will be rocking backwards and forwards and from side to side, with engine vibration to add to the photographer’s misery.  There wasn’t any prospect of using a tripod for the long exposure that photographing the Aurora would require. I imagined that some sort of digital trickery would be available to solve the problem. I thought it should be possible to “stack” a burst (say 15) of shorter handheld exposures to simulate a single long exposure; similar to a technique used by astro-photographers to photograph the Milky Way, for example. The problem with this, I learned,  was that the subject was likely to be so badly under-exposed in a handheld “short” exposure that it would not be recognised by the sensor.  So, should the aurora be visible,  I was really left only one solution – bump the ISO (sensitivity) right up, hand-hold, hope for the best, and remove the noise in PP. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the Norwegian coast is renowned for its beauty, and that I probably wouldn’t be short of subject matter.

The M.S. Lofoten at Tromso

Weather conditions were ideal for the Aurora, and they were visible on four consecutive nights.  When geomagnetic activity is quiet (eg a Kp number of 2) the auroral oval lies across northern Norway and Tromso (its “capital”) is fast becoming a mecca for aurora hunters. At the end of the fourth day there was an extended stop in Tromso, and as dusk fell there was a definite air of anticipation and almost feverish activity around the quayside. Small vessels and coaches were loading up with people keen to see the aurora. I felt sure they would appear that night, and so they did. About 8.30 pm, as the ship cruised northwards, I noticed a waving, pale green ribbon high in the sky and before long there was a full-blown overhead display. I can’t say that it was overwhelming or breathtaking, though, and according to others on board it was quite a modest affair. It proved very difficult to photograph successfully, for the reasons explained above, and with crowds of other people all trying to do the same thing in a very limited space. I realised quite quickly it just wasn’t going to work. But I consider it a learning experience which will hopefully be useful at some stage in the future. One thing I definitely did learn was “Don’t try to photograph the Aurora from a moving platform”.

As far as processing the aurora images is concerned, it’s a bit a photographic dilemma (or to use current parlance  ‘issue’). Because of the way our eye works we do not see the aurora as vividly as the camera does. We have two types of sensor at the back of our eyes – rods, which are receptive to light only, and cones, which are colour-sensitive.  Rods are more sensitive generally than cones so we tend to perceive weak light sources like the aurora as a pale colourless glow rather than the overwhelming light-show that some photographs depict. What should our aim be in post-processing, then? The relatively subdued palette that we actually experience or the more colourful one which we know would have been there if only we could see it? I don’t actually have an answer but I was pleased that one of aurora images came out reasonably well. It is closer to visual reality than light-show, and whatever you do,  don’t examine it too closely……!

The Tough Guys in balmy waters near Bergen. Jerry two-hats in the red jacket. (photo: unknown, but thanks)

One final aspect of the cruise I must mention is the number of lovely, funny and interesting people I met on board. For the daily evening formal dinner you were allocated a seat for the trip with others speaking the same language, and that helps. Some of the passengers you have nothing in common with at all, of course;  some stayed indoors and read or played patience on their tablets, only emerging to go on deck for a smoke (you had to wonder what they were doing on the trip at all……). On the other hand some you met over and over again and struck up a real rapport with. In particular I had some real good times with Frank-Arild Spetland from the far south of Norway, celebrating his retirement; later joined by the bearded twosome, Richard and Ralf, from Stuttgart. All four of us tended to congregate on the upper deck aft where we watched the world go by in the lee of the ship’s superstructure. We ironically called ourselves “The Tough Guys”. Well, it was cold outside…..

So here’s to them in particular; and to Aude and Guillaume from Paris (both far less than half the average age of the rest of the passengers); and to John and Mary Ruston from Wallingford; and to everyone else who helped make the trip such a memorable experience.

Click here for Part One.

P.S. If you are reading this, Aude and Guillame, thanks for the card but I don’t seem to have your address……….

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A Norwegian coastal cruise (Part one)

Honningsvag, in the far north of Norway

In March I did the unthinkable….. went on a cruise.  You’ve probably seen the ‘Northern Lights Cruise’ adverts featuring a stunning photograph of the Aurora set in a spectacular Norwegian landscape. Closer inspection revealed that almost all these promotional images were taken from dry land, but whatever, I was hooked.  The company (Hurtigruten) guaranteed a free trip if the aurora didn’t make an appearance, and they offered a 5% discount to RSPB members AND a donation of 10%  to the RSPB.  It looked quite a good deal, really, for all concerned.  I discovered that the only Hurtigruten ship with a significant number of single cabins was the M.S. Lofoten, now more than 50 years old, so it was on her that I booked.

The unique feature of a Hurtigruten coastal cruise is that you are actually on board a daily service vessel carrying goods, passengers and mail up the west coast of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, and way north of the Arctic circle. The ship calls into a total of thirty-four ports on the journey in each direction, ranging from Trondheim, the second-largest city in Norway and once its capital, to tiny fishing ports in the far north like Honningsvag and Kjollefjord. Some visits last for three hours or more, allowing a short exploration,  while many are for only thirty minutes – just enough time to drop off and pick up a few passengers and some mail.

The attractive town of Alesund

The first full day of the cruise was clear, cold and sunny, conditions which were to be repeated on seven of the ten days that the journey took, with sub-zero temperatures night and day. There was, however, no more than a light breeze at any time, unlike back home in Wales, where the Beast From The East was howling across the country. For the most part the ship takes a route between the Norwegian mainland and its many offshore islands,  so the voyage is more sheltered than you might imagine, even in windy conditions. There are a few stretches of open water, the longest of which is around the North Cape and across to Kirkenes at the edge of the Barents Sea. Indeed it was here that we encountered the only rough conditions of the trip – a swell which threw one diner out of his chair and caused much discomfort to some passengers. I think my stomach must be made of steel!

Dawn at the Arctic circle

Otherwise the weather was ideal for a safe and comfortable sea journey, but not really for the landscape (seascape?) photographer. I hate to admit it, but it became a little monotonous at times, and I got a bit tired of seeing snow covered cliffs soaring out of the sea into a clear blue sky. If only there was some cloud around! Only on one day were conditions really ‘interesting’:  around the North Cape where heavy snow showers fell from large threatening clouds (see the top pic).

Birdwise it was pretty quiet, which is not surprising bearing in mind the time of year. Great black-backed gulls, shags and cormorants were common everywhere, and kittiwakes became more frequent the further north we went. Waterfowl included eider,  long-tailed duck, and the ubiquitous mallard; there were a few spectacularly-plumaged male king eiders, and the occasional “whatever was that?” that flew past the ship. White-tailed eagles were probably the highlight: single birds or pairs could sometimes be seen perched on the flat tops of tiny skerries, quite likely to be their nest sites later in the spring.  At one time nine were in the air together.  One night I went on to the deck in the dark just as ship’s spotlights picked out a flock of what appeared to be waders on the water; could they actually have been little auks? At one point in the far north it was announced over the ship’s intercom that a group of orcas had been seen; the ship pulled up and turned round just in time for passengers to see a tight group of tall, vertical fins heading off at a rate of knots.

Part Two follows. For more pictures from the trip click here to go to the relevant gallery

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An inscrutable visitor from the Arctic

Snowy Owl, St Davids Head.

This snowy owl was first reported from St. Davids Head on the Pembrokeshire bird blog on Good Friday, and then again on April 3rd. It seemed to be elusive, to say the least. But the forecast for April 5th was good, and I overcame my usual inertia and decided to go for it.  It wouldn’t be the first snowy owl I have ever seen. The first was on Fetlar (Shetland) in 1985, one of the last birds from the breeding pair present there for a number of years. The second was on moorland in North Uist a few summers ago which may actually have been a plastic sack full of peat turves, so white was it and so little did it move! But a snowy owl in Wales! And (almost) on my home patch……

I arrived at Whitesands about 8.45 am and began the walk across to St Davids Head. After about half a mile I met a birder coming the other way. It was Mike Young-Powell, a local man whose patch I knew St Davids Head was. Obviously excited, he borrowed my phone to get the news out. He had seen the bird on a rocky outcrop just a few minutes previously. I headed back with him to relocate it, and it suddenly took flight from maybe twenty yards away from us. For such a large white creature it could be surprisingly inconspicuous.

It settled amongst tussocks in the valley bottom, with only its top half showing, unfortunately. We watched it from a distance while Mike waited for his wife and friends to arrive, and then he gave me the go-ahead to get closer. I apologised in advance in case I disturbed it……

I soon got to a point on the other side of the valley where the light was better and began to creep closer, stage by stage. The owl clearly knew I was there but didn’t seem at all anxious. At each point I watched her for a few minutes and took a few pictures. I peeped over a clump of brambles and bracken, and just watched. It was quite an intimate moment, and I felt truly honoured to be in her presence.  She seemed quite relaxed, blinking in the sunshine and looking around from time to time. When closed her eyes looked like little smiley black slits in a round white face. Talk about inscrutable! There was something about a sumo wrestler about it. Much too soon, however, my presence became too much and she flew off.

I expected some flack from the other birders when I returned to the path but they were fine.  Continuing up valley I rounded a corner and the owl exploded away from her perch on the ground about twenty yards away. She flew some distance and landed on a rock, where she was harrased angrily by a raven and chased back towards us. She landed on the hillside opposite, about half way up Carn Llidi, much too far away for a binocular user like myself. From this distance and with only 10×40’s, she appeared grey all over with a white face. I settled down and waited for her to make a move. Seven hours later she was still there.

During that time she shifted around a bit, and those with a scope would have found the minor details of her resting period fascinating, I’m sure. For me the most interesting thing was the behaviour of two ravens. One made a sudden right angle turn and flew over to the owl, landing briefly on a rock about ten yards away. Another inspected the owl carefully from above. Neither of them could ever have seen a snowy owl before, and probably didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps the owl was too near to the nest of the angry bird mentioned earlier.

Eventually I got too cold to wait around any longer and drove home. I downloaded the pictures into Lightroom yesterday and found to my relief that one of the closest pics was sharp. I cloned out two grass stems which fell across the birds face, and cropped the image fairly drastically for the above portrait. The quality at 100% is still pretty impressive! It is noticeable how brown the barring is on its upper breast compared to that on its crown. The afternoon had been pretty frustrating, but what a morning! This has to be one of the most amazing birds I have ever seen.

PS : Many thanks to Alastair and Jill Proud for the sandwich and Welsh cakes…..

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