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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Thoughts from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop.

Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales
Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales

I cannot remember such a long period when the weather has been so discouraging for the outdoor photographer. Days….. weeks!….. on end of cloud, rain and gales – and today is no exception. I’m shocked to discover that I’ve barely taken a decent photograph since the beginning of October.

But I can’t just blame the weather for that. In my last post I wrote how my priority over the summer was to work on images for new postcards. How one needed to visit the popular locations and somehow come up with something new. I eventually realised I was just going through the motions. I really was re-visiting the same old places and taking the same old photographs.

So as much as the weather really has been disastrous it was a partly a conscious decision to lay the camera down and give myself a break. This happened to me big time about twenty years ago. I put down the break-up of a relationship partly or largely to the fact that I saw myself as a photographer first and a human being second. There certainly were other factors but being an outdoor photographer does involve leading a very unpredictable lifestyle. Whatever…..after a few self-imposed months of keeping the business running and no more – certainly no actual photography – I picked up the reins more or less where I had left them. In my experience one’s creative side continues to develop even if putting it into practice actually takes a back seat for a while. After a few months break from photography I’m sure – well, fairly sure -that I’ll return to it with a bunch of new ideas and attitudes.

I hope it does, because I’ve recently had a very positive discussion with a publisher and author about a new book. There’s still plenty to be finalised, particularly the financial side of things, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my sanity is now more important than my bank balance! So even if it doesn’t pay very well, I’ll still do it.

In a post earlier this year I wrote about how I missed an opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights. Since March I have gained a better understanding of why and how a faint aurora – even an invisible one – can actually produce decent photographs. The reason is this : there are two types of sensor in the eye – cones and rods. The cones are colour sensitive, but the rods, which are 1000 times more sensitive than the cones and far more numerous, do not pick up colour. So our eyes do not perceive colour at low light levels. The sensor in our camera is equally sensitive to colour at low or high intensities so it will record what the eye cannot see.

A couple of evenings ago I received an “Aurora Watch” amber alert. To my surprise yet another cloudy day actually improved to an evening of clear periods and showers. There was quite a powerful moon but the northern skyline looked a bit odd.  I couldn’t be sure whether it was a pale glow that I was seeing or some cloud hugging the horizon.  I eventually realised that I would have to take some photographs to be sure if the aurora was present or not.

I set the ISO at 3200 and the meter gave a reading of 8 seconds at f4. When viewed on the camera’s LCD screen the first image immediately showed that there were vertical bands of purple in the clear sky which were completely invisible to the naked eye. I took a few more images to confirm it and then called it a day. On viewing the images this afternoon on the PC monitor it became clear that amongst the cloud on the horizon there had also been a green glow. The very localised orange glow on the horizon is usually visible to the naked eye as pale and colourless but the camera’s sensor has picked up its colour;  it must be street lighting from a nearby village reflected off low-ish cloud. The image has of course been processed, but not to an excessive level – no more than I would expect on a typical landscape.  This had been the real thing and without the camera I would never known!

Technically and artistically it is rather poor. I should have taken more care with placing the tripod and weighing it down, and the telephone pole in the foreground is hardly an attractive feature. But I’m treating it as a learning experience and hopefully there will be an opportunity to do better in the future.

Seasons Greetings to all from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop!

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