Every two years we run a very special trip through the winter landscape of Arctic Norway. It’s never the same twice and it’s always an incredible experience as we immerse ourselves in sub-sero temperatures and gaze with awe on the Northern Lights at night. This year was even more remarkable than any of us could have predicted. The weather, the aurora and the companions on this trip were simply “off the dial”.
Eat and Run
One of the things that makes our Norway adventures so wonderful is or private chef, Shellie Froidevaux. Shellie and I arrive about a week early for these trips and meet up with a few local friends, and get a bunch of shopping sorted. We stock up on smoked reindeer, fresh cod and a wide variety of local fish. Shellie changes up the menu with a few Asian treats along the way, and every dinner she prepares comes with a sweet treat at the end to help keep us warm when we’re out shooting the northern lights late into the evening.
On this trip the lights would arrive pretty early, often at the end of main course and necessitating a delay to desert. Such nights are very civilised and offer a chance to get a good nights sleep and feel refreshed for chasing the daylight in the morning.
One evening we planned a trip out to visit a quiet beach, so Shellie packed her Blood Orange Aurora Cake for the road and we enjoyed it with hot chocolate while watching a faint outline of Aurora over the fjords. As we headed home for the night that faint glow turned vivid, so we doubled-back quickly and spent the next hour shooting one of the most magnificent Nordlys I’ve had the privilege to experience.
Embarrassment of Riches
Normally on these tours we get plenty of time to work slow shutter photography on a cloudy day, and plenty of time to talk about processing techniques back at the cabin. This area we fell short on for this trip. We kept waiting for those moody days with heavy clouds, and they never came. The upside is we have bucket loads of amazing photos in the winter light. The downside is that we have full hard drives and we didn’t spend nearly as much time going through techniques.
Ian ran a couple of very informative sessions on Photoshop techniques, and I did my RAW Workflow walkthrough as well. About half of our group came and grabbed us for one-on-one time to deep-dive on specific processing skills. We didn’t ignore them, but we always wish we could have done more.
At the start of the tour the day length was a little shorter and the Nordlys were arriving early in the evening. By the end of the tour the days were much longer and our aurora chasing much later. The result was a lack of sleep for everyone, including the tour leaders. We had a handful of simply incredible aurora showings along the way, any one of which would have made the journey worth while. The addition of a major aurora storm right at the beginning of the trip took it up another level.
We plan these itineraries around the moon phases so that instead of shooting in pitch dark we get to mix in a little moonlight and capture rich landscape scenes along with the Aurora. Moonlight is a big bonus for aurora photography, so long as the activity is strong enough. Mild auroras can get lost in the brighter night sky. But it’s the big ones we’re aiming for anyway.
On one evening we found ourselves shooting the northern lights before the glow of sunset had fully faded. It was my first ‘sunset aurora’ shoot ever. The faint glow of light over the horizon was met with a powerful show of aurora activity high in the sky. The combination was thrilling.
At the very end of our trip, in the increasingly chaotic Lofoten Islands, we ran across lots of other tour groups who had flown in to chase the Northern Lights but were only seeing that tiny little part of Arctic Norway. They would stay in the same cabin for a week and had to arrange their own meals and snacks. Nothing was provided. We felt really sorry for them, having to spend time shopping or trapped in a restaurant when they could be out shooting the night sky or reviewing their images from the day instead.
It was a bit of a shock to see so many tripods at the end of our journey. We’d enjoyed two weeks with solitude and unencumbered views along the way, and suddenly you have dozens and dozens of photographers trying to jostle for the same shot on a bridge or a beach. Luckily we know plenty of alternative places to photograph in the Lofoten region and made sure we gave our companions a chance to get away from the obvious locations.
Our next itinerary to Norway will take into account the gold rush happening right now at the Reine end of Lofoten and we’ll focus even more on the wide open spaces away from the crowds.
Drone of Death
This year we had a couple of drones in the vans and experienced a completely different perspective on Arctic Norway. This was my first drone outing and I was learning how to fly it. Badly. My little Spark struggled to hold GPS in the Arctic conditions, and kept going rogue and flying off into the wilderness. One time it simply didn’t come back. One of our companions had a much more capable Mavic Pro and was frankly over-qualified to fly it. His faired much better and delivered some amazing footage and stills. We got the best group shot ever at a frozen beach in Lofoten, chased a few fishing boats across a beautiful fjord, and of course got the classic scene of bridges leading between islands around Sakrisoy.
We only got up our drones for short runs, as we were concentrating on the conventional photography. Mostly I wanted a few scenes of what it’s like to be out in the Arctic and what a joy it is to photograph such scenes. A couple of places in Lofoten have become hot spots for drones, causing some traffic jams in the air as well as on the ground. The locals tell me that they’re really getting sick of waking up to find a drone peering over their house or even hovering outside a bedroom window.
If you do plan to drone in Lofoten, please show a little respect and keep them well away from people and cars.
From the very beginning of the tour we knew it would special. Having arrived a week early we enjoyed wonderful Nordlys at night and crisp clear sunshine in the days. We figured we’d used up all our luck before the group had even landed for the tour, but we were wrong. Over the course of 3 weeks we photographed the Northern Lights almost every single night. One night in Leknes brought snow and the final night in Reine was obscured by low cloud, thin enough that we could still make out the green glow dancing higher in the atmosphere.
We started a hashtag for our group called #norwayoffthedial and it proved prophetic. Day after day of sunshine, amazing clear weather and plenty of lovely snow. In past years I’ve seen more snow of course, there is a price to pay for sunshine, but I’ve seen much less snow also. When you know the landscape well enough you know that some areas get it heavier than others and you head for the better locations. Around Tromso and Senja in particular it felt just like old times, with enough of the lovely white stuff to make our photos wintery.
There were a few things we didn't achieve on this journey. As mentioned earlier, the stunning degree of sunlight, day after day, for this journey resulted on much less down-time and less chance to teach processing skills. It also meant very little slow shutter photography other than auroras. I feel this was a great shame, and while everyone enjoyed the vibrant colours and light of this journey I know some people were really looking forward to exploring the more subtle and patient art of coastal Norway on a cloudy day.
And then there's Tony, the paramedic and fire-chief from Grov. One night I found myself trudging through snow up to my thighs as Tony tried to show me a little hiking cabin high in the mountains. The cabin was gorgeous and would be a wonderful location for watching the Nordlys. Tony said it was a short hike but he’s in much better shape than I am! We decided not to drag the entire group through that path without snow-shoes, or snowmobiles. Maybe we can try that another year.
Come Join Us
We’ve already dates set for the Norway trip in 2020. If you’re interested please get in touch and make plans to book early. We arrange everyone to fly in and out of the Arctic on the same flights via Oslo. We advise everyone plan a few nights in Oslo before they hit the Arctic so they can shop for some quality winter clothing and get into the local time zone. Once you land in Tromso we take care of absolutely everything, including the gorgeous meals and local produce.
More details here:
See the full photo essay here: