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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About Jeremy Moore

Recently described as "Wales' leading environmental photographer"; based near Aberystwyth, and specialising in Welsh landscape and wildlife. He has published the Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt range of postcards since 1987. His most recent book was "Wales at Waters Edge" (with Jon Gower) published in May 2012. The National Library of Wales has a large number of his prints in its Collection. His exhibition "Bird/land" was shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from June until August 2016. It originally received support from the Arts Council of Wales. He is also working on a new book about Wales with the author Jon Gower, due for publication in autumn 2018.
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