Aurora Borealis Tromsø
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Aurora Borealis Tromsø

The Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway.

Located 400km north of the Arctic Circle at 69˚N, we saw the Aurora Borealis dance the night away.

“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer.” ~ (Norwegian Proverb)

Velkommen! We’re back to the blog, we‘re back in Japan and ready to take on the year after a once-in-a-lifetime start which we’d love to share in all it’s beautiful light, learning and yes, often hilarious moments. We’re back from chasing the light in Norway following our Aurora Borealis Photography Workshop at the Top of the World. We went to chase dreams, work hard and find the light. And came away with so much more. (And my stress levels finally A LOT diminished.) Clichéd as it sounds…memories of a lifetime, wonderful, meaningful friendships, and utter awe and amazement at the power and breathtaking beauty of nature and the world beyond this little, spinning planet we call home.

This is an excerpt of a 2013 BOG POST. You can read the full story will millions of images here.

We remain spellbound by the stars, the universe and our experience together with just an incredible group of people. Endlessly positive, upbeat and full of life and a love of photography, sharing and risking it all. Some of them, yes really, in high heels in the Arctic Circle…

This was a remarkable workshop like none other. One which these two control freaks had no real control over. This was wholly dependent on A) The Weather and B) if the Northern Lights would even show up…Everyone understood this coming into the experience. Life has no guarantees and this was the perfect narrative. We had so many inquires for this trip but we had to be honest, upfront and make people aware of this very simple fact… We may not see the lights. But we will do whatever we can to find them. Be in the best possible place at the best possible time at the peak of this 11 year cycle. Learning always and sharing this love of photography. And never, ever giving up (even if it means driving to Finland…)

But there is an element of unpredictability we had to be prepared for. And impart. And this seemed to be a game changer for the type of people who came. Because for us that’s what life’s all about…taking the road less traveled, taking risks, failing much, waiting patiently, being brave when you feel the opposite, but always, always going for it and remaining positive whatever the outcome (with a Plan B in the back pocket…bit of green gel on our Ice Light…) And so on with the show, the many reflections and for one of us (…not mentioning any names…Trace) an adventure or two in the Norwegian emergency room and the loopy aftereffects. It was a journey of a lifetime and we just cannot wait for the next one. Presenting…Part 1 of 3 with the photo layout just a little bit larger than usual… Next stop…top of the world, Tromso, Norway.

After 3 long flights and getting away with as much hand luggage as possible we finally made it to Tromso. The Paris of the North. A glittering, modern city with a cozy village feel and an airport minutes from town. With a huge shopping mall!!! It’s easy access makes it a natural departure point for hunting the Northern Lights. It’s convenient, friendly and simply a great base. Why out of all the places did we choose Tromso? Especially when as one client put it “2 days in Norway cost about the same as 2 weeks in Finland”. Yes, Norway was one of the more pricey options to plan a Workshop in but access certainly played into it, as did experiencing a different culture and the higher possibility of seeing the lights.

And funnily enough…the very mild, yet changeable, weather. Even as close to the North Pole as we were, on one day it was 4C. And there was NO snow. We arrived a couple of days earlier to find our way around, connect with our local contacts, finalize all the plans and teaching, get organized and taste test lots of herring at breakfast…

The Polar Nights took a little getting used to. We would experience a few hours of pre-dawn light, then it would be dark again just after lunch. The Arctic Light is the stuff of dreams though and made it very, very difficult to leave especially on our last day when sunrise/sunset melted into one glorious spectacle of a hot pink sky that seemed to go on for hours. Here are some of our favorite blues from our few days before the group arrived…

2pm in Tromso. And a little candle-light demo to kicks things off…And a walk around town.

The iconic Arctic Cathedral in the distance. Scouting a few locations for the workshop.

We mentioned there was no snow. But there was certainly ice. We pretty much ice-skated around Tromso, defying broken bones until we found crampons at the local sports store. Then we were all set and just had to wait for the group to arrive. With some special excess goodie baggage waiting just for them…

Monday came and of course, so did the SNOW finally. Buckets and buckets of it. As Tokyo was experiencing a huge snowfall so were we. In our wish for dramatic weather we may have gotten a little too carried away. So it was somewhat of a shock that when I arrived at Tromso airport to greet the first group and I found the entire airport shut down due to the bad weather and the flight had been diverted to another airport. They would be bused in later. What a beginning…not at all worried this may be a sign of things to come…

But finally the buses rolled in and Jesley and Daniela arrived and among big hugs and much excitement…it was official…this was really happening. A run back to the hotel, check in, lunch and then back to the airport (it had finally opened again with the snow stopping) to meet Nay & Art. More hugs. So happy to finally meet after months of emails and preparation. We were all in town. Look out Norway. We had a quick welcome dinner and briefing to go over the week as exhaustion took hold. Time to get rested, for the very next day the chase would be ON with some long, long days and nights ahead.

To say I have been completely obsessed with everything single Aurora forecast I can find would be the understatement of late 2012 and so far ALL of 2013. And more than a running joke with everyone…Because if this were just a Trace and Dee trip and we didn’t see anything I could completely deal with it. It’s life. And us. And we’d roll with it.

But having the responsibility of everyone’s expectations, hopes and dreams too can be somewhat overwhelming…And this was work, beautifully so, but still work. So there’s that too. Of course even after we were lucky enough to see the lights (SPOILER!!!), had arrived back in Japan and went back to normal life I am still checking daily and receiving notifications (lots of Aurora activity last night…we will share some graphs of our experiences below…).

If anyone would like to know the current Northern Lights situation just hit me up…I can let you know the kp level anywhere, anytime…Just still can’t quite explain them but the film at the Polaria helped. Something about flares on the sun that explode and stuff goes in the air and it looks like a big green rubber band and likes to hang out with magnets. Thank goodness this was a photography workshop…

After a good rest & sleep in dreamy beads and doonas our Day 2 together took us first on a Photo Walk around Tromso. From the quaint cobbled and icy steps of the Storgata, to the modern lines of City Hall & the Bibliotek, then down to the picturesque port, we explored the little town in photos with mini-teaches along the way, in composition, technique and all sorts of things Trace had planned. We found our slippery way (again some in heels…) to an old jetty and had a freezing good time with sunset (at 12pm!!!) while playing with the light.

And then just as the sun is almost gone, Trace does a little teach with on-camera filters. Love the Singh-Ray gold and blue polarizer.

We then headed to the fabulous & renowned Aunegarden (for its cakes & local cuisine – a lot of research & planning went into this portion of the workshop, by moi). Lunch in our little private alcove was Norwegian inspired and the first of many bowls of delicious fish soup. Don’t get us started on how obsessed we all are with the bread on the side. Because then came the cake, the hot chocolates, the stuff of legends. We will be back.

Full and excited already with our images from the morning we went back to the port for the twilight blues 2pm in Tromso brings. We had a ball and managed not to fall into the Norwegian Sea. A good chat with the captain of a large cruise ship docked next to us, specializing in viewing the Northern Lights, prepared us again for perhaps not seeing them. But he told us (in his T-SHIRT it was only -5C after all!!!) to remain positive and not to check any of the forecasts because they are totally unreliable and he never checks them.

Around this point I could have let him know that actually January 15th was looking Level 1 QUIET with a Kp reading of about 0.33. So his platform of paying no attention whatsoever to the forecasts was very, very welcome indeed.

I should mention at this point that over our working lunch Trace had gone through very carefully on how to prepare for photographing the Northern Lights. We would be fully briefed again by Vidar on how he does it the coming evening but Trace really wanted to impart how necessary it was to remain CALM, focused, prepare, remain CALM (she reiterated this more than ONCE) and think the settings through if we were lucky enough to see them.

Trace taught us her way, again we were to remain calm at all costs (see a pattern?). We will for sure heed such sage advice. You have taught us well. So it was then went back to the hotel to charge up the batteries, don the layers & thermals and make our way to meet our amazing support and guides for the chase the fabulous Vidar & Silvia of Creative Vacations. Night 1 of the chase was ON!!!

Before we get too carried away and explain what is to come…here’s a little bit of background on how we got to the point below…

The first portion of the evening was spent in Vidar and Silvia’s studio with a brief workshop on how to photograph the lights and some tips & pointers. It was also around this time that Silvia bought out some very impressive thermal jumpsuits and made Nay, Art & Jesley wear them. Perhaps hesitant at first they were soon the most requested item for the subsequent evenings. So warm and toasty. A thermal sleeping bag with legs. And then we were off to chase the lights. And this is how it went down.

The sky was not clear, the forecast not really on our side but within 15 minutes of driving Vidar pulls over and says “Ladies & Gentlemen, I give to you…the Northern Lights…”And this is what we saw after our eyes adjusted to the dark. But before this photo was taken this is what really happened…straight from Trace’s Facebook/Twitter feed…

“Omg omg omg. AURORA! Can’t find my glasses. Don’t know if its sharp. Manual focus in dark. Dee crying with joy. Jesley's fallen over. Daniela’s camera taking photos on its own. Vidar telling us stories of walrus heads, Art & Nay maybe still jet lagged. Sylvia making everyone put more clothes on. It’s chaotically 37 Frames. But we’re all feeling so overwhelmed by what we’re seeing. Magic.”

Yes. Oh so calm. That’s pretty much how it went down. Nothing calm or focused at all about our reaction. Even after all that preparation and that very impressive pep talk. It’s actually amazing we even got these shots. I fell over too, and was one rock shy of completely obliterating a $2000 lens. Thank goodness for the lens hood and seaweed. Daniela’s cable release was locked which was why her camera was taking photos on it’s own and we all just kept looking at each other and asking ‘did we really just see that?’

Because after 5 minutes this show was gone. In hindsight we spent so much time in awe just looking at the lights, streaking through the sky. An invaluable lesson learned. They could be gone again before you know it. And what the eye sees and what the camera captures can be two very different and incredible sights…Here’s how we saw it in the midst of all that chaos…the stuff of dreams and steep learning curves…

For a moment there, the sky turned completely green…

Headlamps! Light pollution! Actually it was SO dark, it’s difficult to explain how completely weird it feels. So a headlamp popping on every now and then was almost a relief and somewhat frightening too when you didn’t realize someone was actually standing right next to you…

It was then back to the bus and the chase was on again… And some very epic car sickness if we’re being honest. Thank goodness for Jesley and her mints. We wouldn’t know it then but 8 hours later what we saw in the first 15 minutes, was it. The Northern Lights might come out for 5 minutes, 5 hours or not at all. So we were thrilled beyond belief, while still a bit queasy. We stopped again later in the evening and we saw the lights very faint in the sky (the below photos show the comparison, our first show and the last from a different location, barely there but there all the same).

And then that was it for Day 1. We wearily arrived back in Tromso after driving for hours about 2am. An amazing experience. Still 2 more nights to go!!!

Following breakfast Day 3 began with our morning workshop, with the most glorious Arctic Lightshow happening outside while the debrief went on inside. We went over the previous evening, working on processing images and sharing our workflow and post techniques, swapping stories and experiences. It was a valuable and neccesary componet of each day and the results were so impressive. Even amid all the chaos of seeing the lights everyone came away with some stellar, once-in-a-life-time images (and stories…).

After lunch we got all bundled up and took a freezing walk over the Tromso bridge to photograph the last rays of light, work on some long exposures and the beautiful Arctic Cathedral. We ice-skated our way down the bridge. And took the bus back (you know, for the local experience…). A few frames from the top…

A hot meal and lots of laughter as we all went over the game plan for Night 2 of the chase!!! At 5:30pm we were off again!!!

On this night the sky was again cloudy, overcast. Vidar drove and drove, way out of Tromso. We have no idea where. And to say we were all very cozy and snuggly warm in the van when he stopped was an understatement. We rolled out of the van somewhat reluctantly because it was COLD out there, and got our gear together. We bumbled our way down to an icy beach. A new spot for Vidar. And I think Daniela summed it up best when she looked at me and said (the catchphrase of the trip…) “I see no potential”.

Cloudy skies, cold, no stars, no lights. All I could kind of do was agree with her (while stressing like a manic inside) and say something like “Ok, but let’s be positive”. But if we’re keeping it real…I was feeling it to. No potential. No potential. No potential. At this point we had set-up cameras, we were manually focusing in the dark, sharing lenses, running off a few shots and Daniela wandered off. Muttering something to the effect that she’ll “just collect rocks…” Both Trace and I wanted this sooooo badly for everyone.

Sure, we had seen it the night before and were satisfied…but still. I heard Trace laughing hysterically down the beach at the rock collecting going on. And while all this was happening nobody was paying any attention to what was happening skyward…But they were certainly about to. And this is how it started…

And then the streaks began. Nay was screaming from somewhere nearby (we couldn’t see her…) to “look UP”! Faint and lovely. Sprays of light in the night sky.

Trace started making a timelapse in-camera of the faint dancing lights… until the light explosion. Haha! Let’s just say that we have a LONG way to go in the genre of time lapse and leave it at that. But when that boom of light happened she just GRABBED the camera switched it off time lapse and started taking photographs! Wow!

And then it all simply took off!! And we were spellbound, truly, forever. Magic, magic, magic exists. It just didn’t stop. Dancing across the whole sky. Trails and trails of silver, translating into Aurora green. It was stunning and beyond our dreams. We had POTENTIAL, PEOPLE!!! PO-TEN-TI-AL!!! There was so much screaming for joy, oohing and ahhing and dancing going on, that all I remember was me shouting above everyone…. ARE YOU TAKING PHOTOS??? We were. Working hard to get them sharp, in focus, the right exposure. And here are some highlights… Not entirely without some of the chaos of the first chase (no fun without it!!!) but certainly with more of a degree of calmness colliding of course with sheer euphoria. The graph went NUTS!

And in true 37 Frames style we have tried and failed hopelessly to edit the faves…

So we decided with this simply spectacular show going on all around us…we just had to remember that we were actually there seeing it, experiencing it, living it. It wasn’t a dream. So we thought we’d set-up THE group shot. We were all getting anxious that we were missing the lights and wanted to get back to our cameras. So Trace set it up all very quickly, we were ready to go, lights set, self-timer on. Then she got ready to take her place in the line. She backed away from the camera. And as she did her foot got stuck in a rock and she just rolled backwards. Absolutely in slow motion. A monumental backwards dive. Daniela ran to the rescue just as the sky above completely exploded into huge Auroral activity. Trace had pressed the timer before the fall and Daniela was gifted with a massive flash in the face. This one and the one below it are keepers for sure…LOVE US…

And then the sky was truly unbelievable (totally matching our vests…). Even now, looking back, remembering it all we remain speechless. Ribbons and ribbons of light. Dancing seemingly forever above us. In swirls, rainbows, showers of glittering energized particles colliding with atoms. “It’s really, really, really the Northern Lights!!!” REALLY. As it if wasn’t before, but now it was without a doubt. We had seen her. She had showed up to the party. Our cameras mirroring back the stunning green glow, with hints of rarer red lights. Colliding, ducking and swaying to it’s very own rhythm…A cosmic, mystic dance across the polar sky. Again please self-edit…We’ve tried to cull and then we got carried away finding images within the images. An inkblot Aurora play.

And then they quietly slid back into the night sky.

It could have been an hour, more or less of this phenomenon. We’ve all lost track. Lost in time and space. Somewhere else. I often wonder what the rest of the world was doing on that Wednesday night. For we were somewhere else lost in dreams realized, thermal sleeping bags with legs, color and the eternal, endless chase for light. The lights did subside eventually. A collective sigh breathed in and out. The show over for now. The night sky back to it’s starry self. The universe must have been exhausted. We all were. And just as equally, undoubtedly more so elated. This Norwegian proverb summing it all up…“Shared joy is double joy.”

And so the chase continues. With more to come, including reindeer encounters, Palmer (a rogue husky), an ice bride, the Finnish border, iconic landscapes, ongoing hot chocolate obsessions and an ice-bar planking. Any potential for us? We’ll see. Med kjærlighet, Trace & Dee x x

Location: Tromsø, Norway.

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