Lake Inari in Lapland, Finland has long been a popular spot for cold weather enthusiasts eager for some outdoor winter fun. People flock to this arctic resort from all over the world especially during the Christmas season usually with kids in tow. Throughout the winter months, tour operators offer a “full on” experience with wood cabin lodging, saunas, reindeer, snow mobile rides, and of course the greatest prize of all, a chance to see the fabled northern lights in all their green luminescent splendour.
So, taken by striking web site pictures and keen to also try some snowmobiling, I set off in late February with a small crowd of photo enthusiasts looking for some Aurora Borealis magic. I took my Nikon D7200, a Sigma 18-35 Art lens, a sturdy tripod and boarded a Finnair flight to the arctic circle. Once landed in Ivalo, I found a world of ice, snow and temperatures well below zero to greet me. Border formalities were dealt with quickly and a local driver sombrely escorted my small party and I to our lodge.
The Nellim guest house was comfortable and cosy. The food served was good (especially breakfast) and the day activities for guests had something for everyone to enjoy in the snowy Lapland landscape. From dog sledging to ice fishing, to cross country skiing there was enough to keep all amused. The snow mobiles were easy to ride, albeit bumpy, and offered the same sort of thrills an off road motorbike would.
It was picture taking I had really come for though and a chance to take some snaps of the aurora. What set up did I use on my camera? What worked best? Here are the essentials.
1. It’s best to have a DSLR or equivalent with manual settings.
The flexibility manual settings offer allows for vibrant, detailed images, similar to the ones used to advertise the northern lights on brochures, websites etc. When set correctly a DSLR yields instant results that require little or easy post processing on a computer.
A smartphone will work as well but it can be argued that the detail and image quality will not match that of a DSLR, at least not quite yet, especially when shooting in the dark.
2. A “full frame” machine is preferable.
A 35mm “full frame” format camera has a greater surface area sensor, bigger than most consumer grade machines. More light is consequently captured by the sensor every time the shutter is released. This allows lower shorter exposure times, lower ISO settings and usually less noise in pictures.
3. Use the fastest wide angle lens available.
A fast lens has a bigger diaphragm aperture (maybe 2.8 or smaller still) and will allow shorter exposure times.
4. A tripod is a must!
It’s cold out there in the snow and ice and exposure times in the dark can be several seconds long. A tripod is the only way to avoid camera shake and blurry pictures regardless of whether you use a camera or a smartphone.
Set the lens to the widest angle available (18mm or even less). Aperture at two to three stops down from maximum. Focus needs to be on “infinity”. This can be achieved by pointing the lens in automatic mode to an object perhaps 30m to 40m away from where one is standing, a light source perhaps. Then, once the lens has set itself to infinity, flip it into manual focus mode and don’t touch the lens again.
Exposure times should be around ten seconds. Any longer than that will produce images with noticeably blurred stars in the sky (due to Earth’s rotation).
ISO settings depend on the combination of the camera’s sensor and lens. A compromise needs to be found (while shooting) for bright enough images and the exposure time mentioned above. I found that ISO 800 to ISO 1250 worked well for me without introducing too much noise or noise that could be removed in post.
6. Shoot raw.
Raw images allow greater post processing flexibility.
7. Have a spare battery!
The cold will run down batteries faster than expected. It’s best to have an extra ready to go. Keep it warm in a pocket until needed.
8. You need luck.
A combination of clear skies and solar activity is needed to see the aurora. It’s no good standing around with camera in hand on a cloudy night. Also, it’s good to be creative. The better pictures of the lights are all about telling a story and creating visual atmosphere. The lights should be a detail in the background and perhaps a camp fire with people, a glowing tent, or even a snowmobile can be good to “anchor” the image in the foreground.
I spent three hours on a lucky night on frozen lake Inari, at minus fifteen degrees with my nose pointing to the heavens. I admired one of the most captivating spectacles I have ever seen. The northern lights darted around me in the sky, twisting, coiling and turning, Sometimes they appeared suddenly as if by the flick of a switch, other times they would take shape slowly in a warm glow, dissolve in the same way and then reappear elsewhere above the horizon.
Colours varied from green to green-blu with occasional streaks of red. Sometimes the lights were sharp and bright, more often they were like a misty blur. There were shafts and beams of green that dropped from the heavens and seemed to get trapped by the clouds in a bright yellow glow just above the tree line. It was all a bit mystical.
I had two batteries with me for my shoot and used one up entirely in the space of just over an hour. I remember brushing off frost from my camera to change it out. I stopped shooting and made my way back to the guest house in the early hours of the morning when I could no longer bare the cold on my feet. I wished I’d had more time to experiment with composition and perhaps a change in location too.
All in all it was a great, worthwhile experience and lucky one as well. The best time of the year to see the lights is autumn and early spring. There are apps available that can accurately predict times and places for the best sightings that work very well. “My Aurora Forecast and Alerts” is one of the most popular.
“You need to watch your step, but everyone makes it across easily” my guide whispered to me in encouragement as I gazed a little perplexed at the hazel coloured water that stirred, foamed and crested in front of me. “Ok, it’s fine, I’ll do it”, I said.
Stripped down to my swimwear with action camera and selfie stick in hand, I felt vulnerable, exposed to the Sumatran sun and the rough forest around me. I told myself I was just getting ready for the far side of the river where there were hot spring water pools waiting to be enjoyed, the thought of which had brought me by the bank in the first place. I simply had to get across.
The sharp, angular pebbles pinched my bare feet and challenged my balance at every step as I hobbled to the water’s edge. “Everyone makes it across easily” I reminded myself as I held my breath and splashed into the fresh flow. Slowly I waded ahead into deeper, mirky cold running water and quickly I lost view of my feet. They were always in pain though, gripping to the edge of some slimy surface with all toes. The water got deeper and crept up to my chest, the current got stronger as well. “Good thing I can sling my action camera on my shoulder with the monopole strap. Yeah, and how cool that my action camera has water proof casing” I thought.
I must have looked pathetic as I attempted to thread my arm through the selfie stick strap. I could hardly stand on my own two feet let alone juggle camera equipment as well. Then the inevitable happened, I slipped and fell face forward into the flow. Like driftwood the current swept me away and rushed me downstream in its clench. I had no choice, I had to swim and powerfully too if I wished to reach the safety of the nearest bank and avoid painful knocks with rocks and debris. A few brisk strokes from my arms and I was in shallower water once more, out of trouble but to my dumbstruck dismay my precious Sony action camera and monopole stick were gone, nowhere to be seen, lost in the silty water along with two gigabyte of unsaved videos and pictures.
Losing camera equipment is always regrettably costly, but losing hard earned pictures and video footage as well is gut wrenching to say the least.
But what to do? After all, adventure cameras are meant for use in pretty wild environments where the risk of loss is always a real issue!
Here is a list of hints that might be handy for the GoPro enthusiast. I certainly wish I had known about these before that fateful afternoon in Sumatra. Maybe they are nothing new to the avid video maker but I am sure they’re worth remembering all the same.
A) Take the time to write your contact details on a piece of paper and stick this appropriately to the camera body or at least include it in the water tight casing of your camera. ALSO save a “READ ME file” containing the same contact details on the camera’s SD memory card. This way if your device is ever lost and found by someone conscientious enough, all the information needed to get in touch is available.
B) If using your camera next to water, always use a floatation accessory. It can be self adapted piece of sponge cut out and added to your selfie stick, or a specially purchased add on. There are several products available.
C) Hugely useful, but hard to come by, are floating monopoles. Keep in mind though that a wooden stick is definitely a cheaper option and can work just as well if not better!
D) Make sure the your camera and/or stick have a robust enough tether. Reinforce the stock attachments with sturdy metal rings and good quality cord. Hold on tight!
So…..sunk to the bottom of the sea, dropped from paragliding heights, knocked from racing motorbikes or cars it would be good to hear of other action camera disasters experienced first hand. I know there are many. Occasionally some lost cameras are found on hiking trails, by the side of the road and by scuba divers too. All hope need not be lost…..at least for those who have taken some precautions?
There is an unspoken truth that most newcomers to travel photography ignore. It’s an uncomfortable secret that camera stores avoid exposing when new photo enthusiasts are set on the purchase of their first “capable machine”.
Blinded by the promise of amazing dynamic range, lengthy exposure times, high ISO settings, amazing pixel count, battery life, focussing speed and more, budding photographers often walk away from camera stores with new entry to mid range DSLRs confident that they should be considered seriously amongst their peers with a branded, enviable and wisely chosen machine dangling from neck or shoulder.
Extended travel however, has the ability of making us come to terms with a minimalist and low key existence. For example, it forces us to accept and deal with the limited space of back pack, a suitcase or a pair of motorcycle saddle bags (panniers). What space is available needs to be managed wisely with an eye on maximising convenience and comfort above all.
The learning curve here can be harsh. Throwing away grandmas hand knitted socks while on the road is no fun and neither is trashing costly “good to have” but never used camping gear. There’s no room for extras in rug sack and that includes souvenirs, books and 13” laptops.
Light, small, packable, robust, versatile are the most sought after adjectives that experienced travellers focuse on when selecting and packing travel gear. From clothes and footwear to sleeping bags and tents the mantra does not change.
It makes sense then to abide by the same rules when selecting camera equipment for adventures around the globe. Light, small, functional does the job and it’s here that the flaws of the capable but cumbersome DSLR camera become apparent.
The DSLR is cumbrous, to say the least, especially with any lens greater than 50mm. DSLRs are also fragile and loathe knocks, drops, dust, sand, water and moisture. They’re sometimes heavy, especially when extra glass (lenses) are added to the kit to carry. DSLRs are also conspicuous and perceived as expensive bits of hardware that can draw the wrong kind of attention, especially in poorer developing nations.
So, as the new enthusiast carries his new capable photo camera around the world, the untold secret from the camera store sunravels. The DSLR and its accessories are a burden. In fact, the DSLR can become such a burden that on many occasions it is wilfully left in a hotel room, or tucked away in a carrier bag or in the trunk of a car rather than carried around like a ball on a chain.
But, technology comes to the rescue. Over the last seven or eight years the photo industry has shifted in trend and delivered new sexy smaller photo cameras to the public known as CSCs (Compact System Cameras) or simply “mirrorless” cameras.
The advent of mirrorless cameras has brought a sighe of relief within the world of travel photography. With picture quality intact (CSC cameras use the same sensors as DSLRs of comparable level), many mirrorless devices offer the advantage of notable reduction in size, weight, increased portability and versatility compared to their DSLR counterparts.
Is it all good? No, in reality, as with all things newish, there is a certain amount of inertia to be won. Skepticism and perhaps limitations on the availability of lenses, have hindered the appeal of CSC systems at large as of 2017. As a result, many new DSLR devices are still sold to unknowing novices and will be for a while yet.
It’s not my intention to discuss the merits or demerits of brands or models. I simply want to reach out to first time buyers of a “decent” camera and encourage them to think carefully, to look beyond the advertised selling points of a any picture taking contraption. Size when traveling is parampunt and small, packable cameras trump bigger and bulky ones even at the price of slightly lower image quality. It’s a fact that the most reputable of glossy magazines such as National Geographic require pictures to be a minimum of no more than six mega pixels in size to be published, way below the standard pixel count of low level cameras on the market today.
In the end, when you’re “out there” with all things being acceptably equal, the most important feature of your camera will be whether or not you can comfortably carry it all day.