Norway, September 2017 (Part 3-Lofoten): Chasing the Northern Lights

Monday, September 11, 2017


The sailing ship Antigua was our comfortable platform for exploring Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle.

After 9 days aboard the Antigua exploring Svalbard, we were back in Longyearbyen, taking leave of our travel companions and transitioning to the final leg of our Norway sampler.  It had been a terrific introduction to the Arctic, but I wasn’t going to miss the episodic seasickness which washed over me every time we left the shelter of a fjord.  Steve, Greg and I were heading to Lofoten, to meet up with a small landscape photography workshop group, organized by Lofoten Tours.

We had a few hours to wander around Longyearbyen before heading to the airport.  I found the cold weather photography gloves for which I had been searching on line at Wildphoto Gallery, which also leads small group photography tours.  Our lunch at a pleasant coffee shop, Rabalder Café & Bakeri, was a vegan carrot and potato soup.  Sarah’s selection of an egg dish was to turn her flight to Tromso into a nightmare vomitorium.  Gerry reported she looked better when they saw her at the baggage claim in Oslo, where they were overnighting.

At Tromso, Greg, Steve and I passed most of our layover at an Irish Pub restaurant and then nearly missed our plane by not noticing the gate had been changed.  When Greg mentioned “we’re now officially late to board”, I rechecked the board to find a blinking “Boarding” notice and a new gate assignment.  As we sprinted down the terminal, I heard a “last call for boarding” announcement.  Our small propeller plane was not fully occupied.  Four bulkhead seats were still open.  Steve and I took the 2 forward facing seats, with my window seat giving me an excellent preview of the stunning mountain scenery in golden sunlight.

At the small Leknes airport, there was an iPad device on which we had to enter a cell phone number in order to order a taxi.  After a few false starts, we did manage to get a cab for the short ride into town.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

We had a pleasant lunch at a local coffee shop, Sans & Samling KaffeKort,  with an excellent homemade curried carrot, lentil and chicken soup, with free refills, before being picked up to start our trip.  Our leader on this leg is a charming young professional photographer, Christian Hoiberg. We also have a driver, Odd (Odd-Are Hansen).  Our group is rounded out by a lovely Russian couple living in New Jersey, Vera and Ilya.  Ilya was also just off a Svalbard voyage as well, with Wildphoto, the outfit whose amazing photos I had seen in Longyearbyen. Vera is the only sensible participant not laden with a bursting camera bag.  Our first stop was at a grocery store for provisions for the week.

We got off to a rough start, with Odd throwing open the back of the vehicle, piled high with suitcases and gear bags, in the grocery store parking lot. Three camera bags went to ground, including Steve’s drone bag and his camera backpack. His D800 did not survive. I also suspect a concussion from this incident likely had something to do with the untimely disappearance of his drone the following day-more about that later.

Our accommodation for this trip was Eliassen Rorbuer, a charming collection of rustic boxy, red and white fisherman’s cabins, complete with fish drying racks. This example of classic Lofoten architecture is the oldest in Norway. Eliassen Rorbuer is simple,  but comfortable, with robust Internet and updated IKEA kitchens and baths.

Location, location, location: our terribly picturesque Lofoten accommodations in these refurbished fishermen’s cottages at Eliassen Rorbuer

We did a local afternoon shoot, walking from the cabins, before returning to cook dinner in the cabin, roasted cauliflower and salmon, avocado and tomato toast. Just as we were finishing, a disembodied voice walking by the open window alerted us to the northern lights. We rushed outside, and a sinuous spiraling green ribbon could be clearly seen unfurled across the sky.

Our first night at Eliassen Rorbuer, with Northern Lights overhead!

We hustled into the van for our first night shoot, first from the nearby bridge and down the road, from a beach.  This was Christian’s call, saying “The lights can stop at any time.”  Indeed, the colors were much more intense over the cabins and were more subdued and diffused down the road at the beach.

By the time we made it to the beach, the Northern Lights were a smear of green in the sky.

It was surprising how much more the camera could see than the eye. The northern lights were actually stronger over the hills facing away from the beach.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Because we were up late with the Northern Lights, finishing in the early morning, we did not get up to shoot the sunrise. We did head out at 8 AM. Our first stop was just down the road, to an overlook with a panoramic view.

At our next stop, despite a light breeze, Steve decided to launch the drone. There was a solitary cabin across the fjord, toward which he flew the drone. That was the last he saw it. It was never seen again. In retrospect, I suspect the prior day’s untimely crash, even within the padded backpack, may have had something to do with its disappearance.

The lovely scene of the sad disappearance of Steve’s drone, which flew across the lake and was never seen or heard from again.

Our final morning stop was a small, living roof covered, below grade museum, from which we walked a short ways towards expansive views.

Dramatic rocky landscape in Lofoten, Norway

Back in our Renault Trafic activity van (stenciled on the side was the slogan “Passion for Life”), Christian offered us a taste of his favorite candy from childhood: small, black, goldfish shaped salty licorice. We each took the bait, while Christian broke out laughing at our horrified expressions. As Greg later put it, its taste was only matched by how prolonged it lasted in the mouth, as the sticky candy lodged in your molars.

Lunch was back at the cabin, Steve’s cauliflower egg scramble, enlivened with smoked salmon.

In the afternoon, Christian did one on one sessions, introducing us to luminosity masks.

When we headed out again in the late afternoon, we drove a short distance down the road, this time pulling up and walking to a scenic stretch of river and waterfall surrounded by glowing golds of fall foliage. Steve forgot his tripod.

Fall color in Lofoten, Norway

Our sunset shoot was a bit of a bust. We were at the same spot as at the morning, with a beautiful view. There were heavy clouds. We hoped for a late peek of sun through an opening in the clouds, but alas, there was only a brief glimmer of pink, but not much else.

Lovely Lofoten scene with lenticular cloud at sunset.

Greg and I tried the local restaurant. Vera had told us it was closed and we had the impression it was closed for the season, as if it only opened for the summer. Odd suggested otherwise, so we walked down in the evening to check it out. We were the only patrons, but it was definitely open. There was a charming couple, Olivier from France as chef and Christina from Italy as server. We both had a delicious creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup to start. There were just a few items on the menu, with their specialty being fresh fish. Greg had the red wine cooked wolf fish, while I had the salmon with risotto, both delicious. Although it was fun cooking in the cabin, it actually was quite difficult, due to the low clearance below the overhead cabinets, the tiny cutting board (only a little bigger than a phone!), and limited supplies.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

started early, meeting by the van at 5:25 am for a sunrise shoot. Our first stop included a view of an iconic road. We had some  sunrise action, down the road, where we hopped the fence, wading through a spongy, grass covered field with pink lighting up the clouds.

A Lofoten sunrise

Lovely Lofoten panoramic landscape

We all collapsed as soon as we returned home, taking a pre-lunch recovery nap. For lunch, Greg reprised his now classic panfried English toast, topped with a thin layer of mustard, excellent Norwegian smoked salmon, perfectly ripe avocado, a slice of vine-ripened tomato, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil on top. Leftovers from our previous dinner were put to good use by Steve, who scrambled the leftover potatoes and vegetables with the two remaining eggs for an excellent hash.

After another afternoon session with Christian, learning more about luminosity masks, we headed out for the evening and night, to a couple of different beaches.

Per Christian, we were “going for it” this evening, staking out the aurora borealis, as the indicators were spiking and conditions auspicious.

We spent most of the evening at a boulder-studded beach, backed by a grassy picnic and raised camping area.

Our shooting platform for the Northern Lights: either a small, uneven boulder or water swirling around your feet and tripod legs.

Sunset at boulder beach, Lofoten

After shooting the sunset, we retired back in the van for a short rest and regroup, while the sky gradually darkened enough to see the Northern Lights.

When the sky started to go off, it was like nothing else!

Northern Lights in Lofoten Norway

Which way to turn?! The aurora borealis was everywhere overhead on this beach in Lofoten in September!

Dancing, bright green ribbons of light in every direction had us whirling around excitedly, hardly knowing which way to turn.

“Look behind you!”

Aurora borealis on a boulder beach in Lofoten, Norway

Although we were prepared in our rubber Svalbard boots, working in the tidal zone of a boulder-dotted beach does have its hazards. It was tricky setting up a tripod on the rounded boulders, but some were large and flat enough to set up a sometimes precarious purchase. Stepping down onto the sand on the wrong side could mean a boot full of water, as Greg quickly found out on one side, and Steve on both.

The Northern Lights was as magical as a genie streaming out of a bottle

As Vera, the non-shooting spouse of Ilya observed, and I had noticed as well, while the Northern Lights were dancing in the sky, we completely forgot about the cold.

I even had ample time to try a stitched panorama of the Northern Lights on this magical night in Lofoten; I wish now I had also taken video so I could relive it!

Our introduction to the Northern Lights from our arrival day had cued us into their variable appearance, from a subtle streak in the sky to a psychedelic, dancing show of streamers in the sky. Watching it, my best analogy was a genie coming out of a bottle. Magical, in a word.

We had near perfect conditions. Not too cold, not windy, not too many people on the beach. There were occasional annoyances, headlights glaring from the parking lot, and campers making liberal use of their headlamps. But overall, it was an amazing convergence of a beautiful location and an intense light display occurring relatively early in the evening. Before midnight, the lights had dimmed into a muddy, subdued version of the psychedelic streamers we had seen earlier in the evening.

We headed back to our first beach, which was empty. The northern lights were subdued and subtle and we were treated to the sight of a rising,  glowing golden crescent of moon, perfectly framed between two granite peaks and reflecting on the beach.

Friday, September 15, 2017

We slept in after crawling into bed after 2 am. At 11 am, we hopped in the van and headed to the nearby town of Reine, which we had photographed from an overlook previously. Our destination was a charming kaffebar, light and bright, friendly and inviting, with cakes and pies and cappuccinos, a surprise since Christian said we were heading to a “cafeteria”.

For our afternoon and sunset shooting, we headed back to the beach where we had gone to shoot the aurora borealis on our arrival night. It was sunny, with beautiful puffy clouds. We were bundled up against the wind.

Beautiful Lofoten beach and afternoon clouds

The weather turned on us later, becoming windy and cold. Steve’s coffee cup slipped out of his backpack on our shoot, but he recovered it. Back at the cabin, we had a late dinner, potatoes, fish cakes, and arugula and tomato salad.

Greg was just heading back to the cabin when we noticed the northern lights were visible, so we grabbed our gear and headed to the bridge, where it was rainy, windy, and generally difficult to shoot. The bars of the bridge make it difficult to place the tripod forward enough, so we improvised, using the tripod in a very unconventional, sometimes successful fashion. We were back at the cabin near midnight, and we were next due at the car at 5:10 AM.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

dawned with gray clouds, with an unpromising look for the sunrise. Nevertheless, we headed out early.

Lovely Lofoten landscape

For our grand finale noon feast, we cooked up everything we had gathered up over the week, resulting in an egg, tomato, onion and salmon scramble, pan fried and oven finished potatoes with blue cheese, bananas, cloudberries (jam and liquor) in the yogurt, and panfried toast.

Despite going back to bed after returning from the morning shoot, the prospect of packing and the heavy gray clouds and cold outside made staying in the cozy, warm cabin seem a more promising prospect.

As Vera and Ilya were scheduled to depart with our guides at 5 am the following morning, with a 4 hour drive to a distant airport ahead of them, I suggested it might be preferable to bag the unpromising evening shoot and planned late dinner in favor of an earlier group dinner at the restaurant. This plan was adopted. We stopped into Vera and Ilya’s cabin for hors d’oeurves and to view his polar bear images from Svalbard prior to heading to dinner. Greg held true to his promise of not further indulging in wolfish (wolfeel), opting for the cod with poached egg, horseradish, potatoes. I had the same while Steve opted for the salmon and risotto I had previously enjoyed. The date and toffee dessert was indeed the bomb, with fresh whipped cream.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The sky was a cold gray and it was continuing to rain when we awoke, validating our decision to sleep through the sunrise instead of shooting. Greg arrived just as I was finishing assembling my signature Lofoten hor d’oeurves, blue cheese and cloudberry preserves on a gluten free cracker. We finished off with a last round of avocado toast, while the final ripe banana and plums were mixed into the yogurt. We had a good laugh in our last half hour in the cabin #humblebragging on our culinary accomplishments. All too soon, it was time for our 9:45 am black cab pickup. Glancing out the window at the appointed time, I was surprised to see Greg in the back of a small vehicle, a Prius. Somehow all of us and our gear were wedged into the vehicle for the 2 hour ride to the Svolvear airport. It rained the entire way, with the mountains virtually obliterated from view, as we began the long day’s journey home with visions of magical dancing lights etched in our heads forever.


For more on logistics and photographic specifics on shooting the Northern Lights, here are links to my relevant Photo Focus articles:

Lovely Lofoten: A photographer’s dream destination (Part 1)

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