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Hunting the Northern Lights

by Véronique and Mike

23 February 2015 • How to photograph the northern lights? That’s the theme of the voyage. When writing these lines I am sitting in my cabin 619 on Hurtigruten’s NORDNORGE after a lucky evening with a starry night and plenty of aurora borealis, while we are sailing to Kirkeness, the last Norwegian port before the Russian border.

Hurtigruten's NORDNORGE

In cooperation with Belgian travel organisation Nordic (specialised in Scandinavia) I am guiding of a group of 22 avid amateur photographers.

Some people come to Norway for wild salmon fishing. Not our group. We want to return home with a good catch of northern light pictures.

Mike & Vidar Lysvold

Before embarkation in Svolvaer we paid a visit to some places on the Lofoten, including Henningsvær. By coincidence I discovered a local professional photographer who is one of the specialists on northern lights. Vidar Lysvold  has a great gallery with stunning aurora landscapes. “I spent between 1000 and 2000 hours per year taking such pictures,” he said, confirming that he could easily deal with a bit more sleep.

I told my friend photographers to have their camera ready, with a wide-angle lens mounted, with the autofocus switched off and the focus set manually to infinity (∞).

The ISO should be put on 1600, and the F-value (diaphragm) as low as possible (2,8 or 4) in order to catch the weak light. Indeed, the aurora borealis is something very subtle. In order to see it, your eyes need to adapt to the darkness, and there should be no other lights around you. It’s very unlikely to notice the northern lights in a city.

Hunting the aurora is a bit easier on a Hurtigruten ship. Why? First there is a higher probability because you move. We embarked in Svolvaer, Lofoten en will disembark there again after 5 nights on board.

A ship is also better because you often sail in dark areas with no disturbing light.

Another advantage is that you travel in comfort. Your room, suitcase and restaurant is travelling with you. There is no need to stay outside the whole night. The captain or one of his officers will notify the passengers over the PA when there is something to be seen.

A disadvantage of a ship is its movement, and the restricted space to work on.

The phone in the cabins is equipped with a special “info” switch, which allows you to accept aurora borealis warnings even during the night. If you want to sleep, just switch it off. 

A good tripod is essential, because the exposure times will vary between 5 and 30 seconds (in “M” or manual modus), depending on the brightness. The shorter, the better. Why? Since the ship moves, stars will be depicted as funny signs rather than simple dots (look at my pics and you’ll see). The longer the exposure, the worse.

Do I need to stay that your battery should be fully charged? The freezing cold will rudely influence their capacity. If you have a spare set, keep it warm inside your coat.

That brings us to the next point: dress warmly. The first aurora warning came early in the evening, around 8pm. I think hundred passengers ventured to come out, which made the whole operation impossible for us, real photographers. A lot of them were poorly dressed (I even saw a guy with no coat at all). The crowd was taking pictures with all kind of unsuitable cameras (smartphones, compact cameras… with flash on… which dazzled all of us.) Someone even attempted to make a selfie with a smartphone extension stick.

The bitter cold on the bow of the ship helped us a lot: most of the people quickly left the scene in order to return to the warm inside.

What did I wear? Under my normal clothes I wear a set of long-legged, long-sleeved ODLO underwear, or ICEBREAKER  Merino. Then of course thin gloves (you need to be able to handle your camera) and a woolen windstopper hat. I also put some lip balm on, because the cold is drying your skin out like hell.

Then comes the photographic challenge: it’s not just about to have a picture of the northern light. It is about making nice compositions. It was nice to see my avid photographers everywhere on the ship, trying to find good subjects to put on the foreground. Not easy, I can tell you. But they all made great pictures. 

Another difficulty was the presence of lens flare light. Just the safety exit sign on Deck 7 aft was enough to spoil many pictures. We tried to cover it with a spare coat, which worked.

As I am writing these lines I can already consider us lucky, with two evenings of northern lights. Who knows, perhaps tonight one more?

Text & Photos: Mike

Editor: Véronique