Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Postcards from the Land of the Polar Night

Fjærvoll 18I wanted to go up north to photograph the Aurora Borealis. I figured I might as well go above the Arctic Circle, since I have never been that far north before. Of course I could do this in Canada, but it is fracking cold that far north in Canada. Here is a quick comparison: as I write this post, the Weather Channel is forecasting Inuvik to be between -20 and -40 over the next couple of days, but forecasts Sortland, Norway, to be between 0 and +7! That Gulf Stream sure does work wonders! Let me see, would I rather be outside, standing still for hours on end in -40 degree weather, or, in +7 degree weather?

So on my trip to Norway, up north I went. I stayed for three days at "Bridaro", a cabin located on the water in the small community of Fjærvoll. I rented a car so I could thoroughly explore the countryside and I have three posts from this excursion. This first post is about the visual impact of not seeing the sun in the sky at all during the day.

At 68.649 degrees north latitude, I was some 230 km north of the Arctic Circle. What was it like that far north in December? It was dark! There wasn't even an official sunrise time. Environment Canada listed sunrise and sunset times as "polar night", meaning the sun never came over the horizon.

That's not to say that it stayed pitch black all the time. From 10:30 am to noon, the sky looked like it was in a very slow sunrise. From noon until 1:30 pm, it looked like a very slow sunset. For a photographer, this stretched the traditional "golden hour" of magic light into almost 3 hours of mind-blowing reds, pinks, yellows, and blues, all bouncing around the sky and over the landscape.

I got my initial taste of what the colours would be like looking out the window on the flight from Oslo to Harstad/Narvik. The colours on the clouds were so compelling that I had to take the sterotypical "wing of airplane taken through the window" photo. However, I was able to goose this old staple not only with the incredible colours, but also with the full moon (and its small reflection off the wing) and the carrier's colours on the blended winglet!

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As we approached Harstad/Narvik airport, the pilot had to adjust our course in order to line up with the single runway. This meant dropping the port wing (my wing) just so, allowing me to frame a different composition. I really like this shot because I can see more of the golden sunlight, the different position of the moon and its reflection on the wing, and the contrast between the white of the lower clouds and the red of the higher level clouds.

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Fjærvoll is a 3 hour drive from the airport, so the only option to get there is to rent a car. I thought this would be fine, since it also allowed me to roam around the countryside and I expected there to be no difference between driving in Norway and driving in Canada. Boy, was I wrong! Even though the temperatures were relatively warm (-7 to -4 C), the highway crews did NOT use any salt. The reason the road in this photo looks pink is because the 2 cm of ice that was on it reflected back the red light of the sunrise/sunset!

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While the driving was a death-defying experience, I was overjoyed with the photographic opportunities the surroundings presented. Depending upon where I looked, the colours ranged from soft and light to hard and deep. I took this shot in the direction of the sun, which was hidden below the horizon. In it, you can see how the clouds, mountain, and sky conspired to present some very nice pastel colours.

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When I shot away from the sun, I captured much deeper colours, as in this image.

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Now compare the above shot to the image below, which has a wider composition. You can still see the pastels, especially the ones reflected in the water, but you now get a hint of even deeper colours in the top right side of the sky.

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This is the same mountain and lake, but framed for an even wider composition. Here you can see the full range of tones.

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The above photographs were captured at 11:40 am local time, so you can see it was not very light out at all! Twenty minutes later, as I was back in the car driving along, I noticed a jet traveling overhead that was leaving a contrail. The contrail showed up as bright pink and bright yellow, in sharp contrast to the darker tones closer to the ground.

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I found it very interesting to see how the human brain adjusts for the colour of the light. I also found it very frustrating, as I had to adapt how I made my images. While my brain kept seeing "white" snow, the camera kept recording snow that was pink or blue, depending upon where I pointed my camera. In this case, it was a purple-ish blue.

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With all of these sober tones, I can see why so many of the buildings are red (aside from the historical reason that, as in Newfoundland, red paint was so much cheaper than any other coloured paint). A touch of red really does brighten up the landscape and in the winter, compliments the pinks and blues quite nicely.

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All of the subtle blues and reds make it a challenge to shoot the sea. Here are some fishing boats out working. In it you can see how the pinks from the "setting sun" pushed the blues of the sea and sky into a purple hue.

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I was surprised at how high and rugged the mountains are in this part of Norway. Those in southern Norway are much shorter and more rounded. These ones reminded me more of the Canadian Rockies, except instead of seeing a broad expanse of prairie fields in front of them, I was seeing a broad expanse of water.

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I very much liked the effect the colours and the tones had when mixed in with a dramatic sky.

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It was quite dark as I pulled into Sortland just before 2:00 pm. I was surprised to see coloured Christmas lights, since most Norwegians use only white lights. Sortland has some link with "blue"; it promotes itself as the "Blue City by the Sea" and many of the buildings are painted blue, which probably accounts for these blue Christmas lights.

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When I arrived at Bridaro, it was pitch black outside. At least it was to my eye. But even in this darkness there are images to be made. Walking around Bridaro the next morning, I remarked on the way the warm light inside leaked out into the colder, bluer light. It was 9:10 and the sky was only just beginning to brighten in the south when I made this capture. It took a 15 second exposure just to get enough light to make this image.

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Later that day, I took a moonlit shot of Bridaro from the front. Since the moon reflects sunlight and the moon is overhead, the snow appears much more white than it does during the day. You can also see the effect of the 5 minute exposure on the stars, which leave a circular streak in the sky as the Earth rotates.

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Another moonlit shot, only this one was taken in the morning when the moon was behind my back. The shadows are now pointed behind Bridaro and are much softer due to the overhead cloud. This angle allowed the moon to better light the background mountains. Besides the star trails, the clouds are also leaving a trail as they move across the sky in this seven minute exposure.

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None of these shots have the Aurora Borealis lights that I went searching for, nor did I see a glimpse of them the entire time I was north.

Here is a quick index of my Postcard blog articles for this trip:

My post about some Accidental Abstracts I made during this trip is here.

My post about skiing in Oslo and some Postcards taken with my phone's camera is here.

My post about a side trip I made to Uppsala, Sweden and some early morning streetscapes I made is here.

My post about a fabulous stay I had at Brumma, a cabin above the tree line in Brummastølen, is here.

My post about the wonderful Norwegian Christmas Eve tradition of lighting a candle at the grave of family is here.

My post about my adventure in a hut up in the boreal forest canopy is here.

My post about a wonderful little church I discovered while up above the Arctic Circle is here.

My post about the commonality of fishing between Norway and Newfoundland is here.

My post about being above the Arctic Circle during the polar night is here.

My post about the Nobel Peace Prize fakkeltog is here.

1 comment:

ryken said...

Fabulous series Scott. One doesn't realize how special light is until you have very little of it. I like how you made use of it to capture these beautiful scenes.