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By Susan E. L. Lake ©2019

1. Norway is dark and cold in the winter. While summer months are “advertised” as the Land of the Midnight Sun, the winter months must declare Norway as the Land of No Sun. The two or three hours a day of “sun” are actually just a lightening of the sky. No sun is visible. And by midafternoon, it is pitch black dark. This makes daytime excursions quite interesting since it feels like 3:30 pm is the middle of the night and the body keeps saying “why aren’t you asleep?”.

2. Photographing in a land with no sun makes for an interesting low light challenge. My images are reflective of our experience, but they aren’t sharp. Often I’m shooting while moving (as in a bus) and the camera is hard pressed to manage an image under these circumstances. I came to expect and accept very “soft” photographs without the sharp edges that I might usually anticipate. As a result, the canvas I had printed as a reminder of our visit is not what I usually hang.

3. The northern lights (AKA aurora borealis) are generally visible well after 10 pm. That means after one is tucked away in bed, the announcement will come over the television that a sighting has been made. You learn to leave your toasty warm clothes sitting out ready for you to redress quickly as you attempt to catch the sight. You’d think if it’s midnight dark at 4 pm that the lights could cooperate by being visible during non-sleep hours. Nope.

4. We’ve all seen those extraordinary photographs of green and blue swaths of light across the sky. While someone far from ambient light perched on a lonely hilltop might see this, the human eye isn’t really good at it. Since the places most people go have lots of light, what you see is just a pale shadow of the expected glory – more like a light greenish vapor trail. I have to admit that if we hadn’t had folks to instruct us in what to look for I might not have seen it. Gene was better than I at spotting them and as a result he got the best images. What is most surprising is that the camera sees what you don’t. So while this image is full of color, this is NOT what our eyes saw until we looked at the photograph.

5. Taking photographs of the aurora borealis is a challenge. First it’s a low light environment, second the lights are moving, and third they are hard to see. Those folks who brought big cameras with tripods sometimes got nice shots, and I wished for a camera that would give me better control than my point and shoot. Ironically, there’s an app for the phone (called not surprisingly northern lights photo taker – 99¢) that is designed to help you use your camera phone to capture them. It turned out to be our best choice. You won’t get frameable prints from the images, but you at least can prove your bragging rights of having seen them.

6. One of the outcomes of the trip was that I learned so much about the movement and measurement of the lights. That alone was worth the trip. Once again, there’s a phone app (we bought My Aurora Forecast Pro for $1.99) that tracks the lights and notifies you when they are in your vicinity. It’s particularly nice because it also works on my Apple watch. It was fascinating to discover how the results of the magnetic storms that produce the lights move from one part of the world to another each day. I will need to spend some serious time learning more about this, but now I have great points of reference.

We learned to pay attention to the Kp index which measures the aurora strength. It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

We learned to look at the aurora map to see where the green or orange swath was. That gave us a good idea of our chances. Of course, that map didn’t include barriers everyone faces such as ambient light, clouds, and a full moon. I’m still getting alerts on my phone telling me that a viewing is possible within the hour in Tromsø, Norway that I haven’t had the heart to turn off.

7. Would I do it again? Yes, but I wouldn’t go to Norway. I would instead schedule a late winter (February-March) trip to Fairbanks (perhaps going to Coldfoot) during a date when the moon is least full. I’d figure on a week’s stay and take my “big” camera and tripod. I still probably wouldn’t get extraordinary photographs, but I’d have a better chance than on a cruise ship which is moving. Until that happens, however, I CAN say I’ve seen the northern lights in the dead of winter in Norway. And it was a trip to remember.

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cameras and photography as is apparent if you’ve read any of my recent postings. I so wanted to be able to leave my heavy, awkward DSLR camera behind. I wanted to switch to my easy to transport iPhone. I wanted to love this switch and to feel good about the images I shot. (more…)

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Cameras and photography have changed a lot in the last 25 years. The first big change came when digital cameras first appeared on the market. These cameras were laughable to those using even point and shoots of the time. And for those using SLRs with their interchangeable lenses that could produce razor sharp images, a digital camera wasn’t even “on the radar.”

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