I have been silent for some weeks, busy as we have been for some weeks at the other side of the Arctic Circle with mountains, auroras, moss and rain. Slowly, even slower than we normally do, we toured in a camper van the Lofoten islands, Senja, and the coast between Bodo and Finnsness, doing hikes in the areas, picking berries and standing by the ocean looking at the waves lapping (or crashing) the weathered granite coast. We also made some photographs :)
They say bad weather is good weather for the landscape photographer, and that proved to be specially true during this trip. A big high pressure stayed in central Europe for weeks, pushing all fronts coming from the Atlantic towards the North, straight up to us. What might seem bad news was indeed great. Even if rain fell almost every day, we also had our dose of magic light almost daily. There is nothing better than fronts coming and going, since it is exactly at those transition moments that light and emotion in the air is at its best. And then, there is the mood. Under sunny skies Lofoten granite monsters looked more like Capri to us, sticking out from azure almost-mediterranean waters. In a word, good for Norwegian families having a picnic, but not what I expected from the Arctic and wanted for my photographs. So we were “lucky”, and fronts came. And along with the, nice textured clouds giving mood and “blueness” to the land and sea, light put to the service of reinforcing the message of the photograph, days filled with soft light making sing the incredible autumn hues of the forests, bogs and coastal vegetation, and water saturating the colours and making glint the granite of the mountains.
That being said, we had some starry skies throughout the phototrip, and we accomplished one of our goals: photographing the Aurora. Starting normally to be visible in September-October, we felt that the high activity being displayed lately by the Sun might multiply our chances of seeing them and that was indeed one of our reasons for putting this trip together. And they came. For 5 nights scattered along three weeks, we saw them dancing in the sky, peaking up during two nights when the display got particularly strong and had me crying alone in the darkness like a small kid.
I am one of those photographers who put a very strong accent on composition. Light, subject, technical expertise and vision alone is useless, if there is a lack or misuse of the art of the visual design. And that is why I was really eager to photograph the northern lights so that they were not the only subject of the photograph, but the complement to a bigger one: the arctic night of coastal Norway. Snow was missing, so exposing detail enough in the landscape was going to pose a problem. I could have gone (and in fact went in some occasions) for the aurora over water and silhouette of the land kind of image, but during two nights I could use another trick: moonlight and (quite reflective) sand in a beach.
In this photograph that I have quickly processed after the trip this is what happened. The sea and sand reflected not only the aurora light but also the strong frontal light coming from the moon, balancing the photograph and filling with some detail the land and sea. In terms of composition three things were paramount here: using the beach to create a strong diagonal leading to the distant mountains, the moon standing aligned over the first pyramidal peak axis, and the auroras creating such a diagonal curve to mimic the beach line and converge also over the mountains. From a technical point of view, I used the Nikon-aurora-lens, that is, the 14-24 2.8. This lens performs great wide open at f2.8, and that was the aperture I used, ensuring the amount of light captured by the sensor was as high as it could. I stood high over some rocky outcrops to make sure the whole landscape was at infinity and so could get into the reduced depth of the field given by that aperture. I focused on the moon (infinity), set ISO 640 and went for 30 seconds. That exposure maintained a good level of detail in the dancing aurora, not blurring too much, not freezing too much its forms. It also made possible recording the stars as dots, and not small streaks of light. Some noise came, but a quick noise reduction filter made wonders getting rid of the noise while maintaining the soft textures of sand, water and the stars.
Some people have asked already whether this image is a combination of exposures. The answer is NO. Just one. With that light level and by using a wide aperture and slightly high ISO, stars, moon, aurora and even the lingering low light from the distant sun (not visible to the naked eye, but to the camera) created this. By the way, if you do not believe cameras can see during the night, go and get the wonderful free ebook from Alister Benn about night photography!
We left the North a couple of days ago with the first snow and the last of the leaves falling and winter knocking at the door. We arrived in Switzerland and the autumn colours are starting to show themselves. It is great to have two autumns in a row, and now it is the turn of shooting here those larches and decidous trees against dusted alpine peaks.
I wish you a great autumn photographic feast…and remember, it is not the killer shot which counts, but the experience of being out there…Enjoy! ;-)
P.S: Click on the image to see it bigger!