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 missed opportunity

Every now and again an image appears in my mind’s eye which never got converted into pixels. It is often a perfect line of a dozen black-necked grebes bobbing up and down in choppy waters close to the edge of the Etang de Vaccares, in the Camargue. I spotted them from the car as I passed by last May, pulled over, identified them and drove on, impatient to get somewhere else. How I wish I had spent just a few minutes photographing these fabulous birds.

On Tuesday last week I finished my final postcard selling circuit and was feeling, well, a little elated. During the day I had received an “Aurorawatch” amber text alert, signifying that the Northern Lights might be visible that night. As darkness fell a cloudless sky revealed itself. No moon was visible and conditions seemed perfect; I was unusually confident about seeing the aurora. About eight o’clock I went outside and looked northwards. There was an distinctive white-ish glow right across the northern horizon and – yes – some faint “pillars” or searchlight beams apparently extending upwards from it. I called Jane, then grabbed my mobile phone to call a few friends who I thought might be interested. By about 8.30 pm the glow was still there but the “pillars” had disappeared.

Our house faces due south/north and there is virtually no light pollution; it is perfect for seeing the aurora. Many nights since moving here I have looked northwards in the hope of seeing something but with no success. Occasionally I have woken in the morning to hear reports that the aurora had been visible the previous evening while I had been watching some garbage on television. But over the years I have at least become very familiar with the northern night sky. I know there is a faint glow to the north-east on a clear night which may emanate from Machynlleth, and another to the north-west. So I was certain that the glow we were seeing was out of the ordinary.

About 11 pm I was in our north-facing bathroom and had a last quick peek out of the window. The glow was still there, but there was now a dark gap between it and the horizon. I grabbed a coat and rushed outside again. This time there was no possible confusion – the dark gap was the normal night sky and the glow was the aurora which had moved southwards. Faint pillars moved across the sky. This was the real thing!

But did I get my camera out? No, I did not. In comparison with the aurora images that are widely available the display was so faint that I doubted it would even register on the sensor. I was happy to enjoy seeing it. I just didn’t appreciate how much more prominent and more colourful the aurora always is in photographs than in real life. Images I saw on television and on the internet the next day showed me what an opportunity I had missed. One photographer from northern England had been able to see nothing with the naked eye but went out to a dark place, pointed the camera northwards and pressed the shutter. Hey presto……. an aurora.

So now there is another image in my mental gallery of untaken photographs. I suppose most people have a gallery like this. Do you?

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