It was no April Fools. April 1st 2020 delivered a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Senja island that I will always remember.
It is 8 o’clock in the evening and I the weather forecast for Senja island is the best it has been in nearly a month. Not a cloud on the horizon, freezing cold temperatures and fresh snow on the ground.
I look at the aurora forecast for the evening and whereas an elevated wind speed stream was still hitting Earth, it wasn’t set to give too much. An inexperienced aurora chaser would have surely stayed home but when such an opportunity presents itself, you have to take the bull by the horns and go for it. It is especially true because everyone is more or less confined and banned from any gatherings here in Norway. However leaving your home to go into the wild, meet no one while taking all the good precautions is far from prohibited.
I immediately dust off and pack my cameras, batteries and tripods, which haven’t been used in forever. I also decided to pack food and dress warmly as April is far from being a warm month here in the Arctic. After driving about 15 minutes to the southeast of the island, I stop on the Skatvik peninsula and decide to settle there. I start taking a few long telephoto lens shots of the conjunction of Venus and the Pleiades.
It is an astronomical event that happens only every 8 years. Venus, which is very bright (-4.7 magnitude as of now) in the western skies at twilight, is passing through the constellation names the Pleiades (a.k.a the Seven Sisters), the open star cluster, from the 1st till the 4th of April. As the planet was just nearing the constellation by a degree on April first, I also wanted to take advantage of the clear skies and the 50% illuminated moon to take close up shots of this incredible event. Even if the moon was at first waxing quarter, you could still see the stars very well if you waited until about 10:30 pm. The Pleiades have a very distinct blue color (reflection nebula around them) whereas Venus has this faded yellow glow, which contrast very well with the former.
It took no longer than 5 minutes into installing my photography rig and the aurora appeared behind me out of nowhere. That’s very typical of such evenings when the activity is moderate and you get very spontaneous and sporadic bursts of auroras. Consequently I decided to set up my other tripod with my Canon 6D to record a time-lapse of what was happening. Unfortunately the aurora fizzled out and I re-oriented the camera in the North to timelapse most of the action in the North, right above the twilight crescent.
The aurora activity was powerful enough to color some of the frame with the typical green. Something quite stunning happened as a result. A bright aurora appeared in front of the Venus/Pleiades conjunction I was taking with the long lens. Thus it gave an unusual green background that is quite impressive to look at. It is quite hard to get aurora the more you zoom in since less and less light reach the sensor for the same amount of time. By stacking 5 frames on top of each other, you can get the following result:
After staying about one-and-a-half hour at the same spot, I decide to move closer to the shore at the tip of the peninsula. I can see that the aurora starts getting more intense so I start a simple landscape-oriented timelapse. I also casually start taking other portrait shots of the conjunction at 135mm as it is slowly setting on the horizon. Only a bit of aurora dancing makes for excellent shots in the moonlit fjords.
April 1st night aurora and reindeer show !
I was about to drive out again. I packed my gear down and as I was head for the car, a shape jump-scared me from the shadows. At first I thought it was a moose but I quickly realized it was a much cuter and friendlier figure. A reindeer! Two reindeers! And three… And a whole herd of them decided to pay me a visit on the snowy beach.
All reindeers are in semi-captivity and owned by Sami people here in Arctic Norway. However they are free to roam around for most of the year. In the summer they usually graze in the mountains away from humans. Every winter they come back down closer to the shore where the snow is shallower. Reindeers scratch the snow with their hooves to find vegetation to feed from. That’s why you will find them by the shore in their winter quarters where it is easier to find food.
As the animals were quite curious and approached me, I switched cameras and lowered my tripod to get a better angle. I started shooting the deers as they were passing in front of me to get the aurora, the stars and the fjords in the same frame. Even though the moon was illuminating them, it is always hard to capture pictures of wild animals at night. You will generally have to sacrifice picture quality by lowering your f-stop, increasing your ISO and decreasing your shutter speed. I kept the latter at 1, 6 seconds, ISO at 6400 and the aperture at f/2. Even then I had to wait until the animals were completely still, otherwise their movement would be registered during the 1.6 seconds and the result would be blurry. Let alone the fact that they were constantly passing back and forth along the coast at a safe distance from me! I had to refocus constantly as shooting wide open limits your depth of field. Out of the hundreds of photos I took, only a handful were sharp enough! Eventually it succeeded and I was able to capture absolutely once-in-a-lifetime shots.
The pictures have such an atmosphere that is hard to transcribe. After spending two weeks in confinement, it was such a refreshing experience! The moon, the mountains, the turquoise water, the deers, the aurora and the stars made for the perfect remedy for loneliness and isolation. To top it all off, the aurora eventually decided to show more of its usual colors and brightness and a huge explosion happened over the reindeers and myself around 1:20 in the morning. I decided to take one last portrait shot before heading home completely healed by nature. Keep looking up in these trying times, nature can help!
April 1st night aurora was amazing – More Useful links