Friday 6 March 2020

Ten Below Zero

At about the same time as we came to Bavaria, two of our friends moved to southern Norway. Over the years we've kept in touch and every few years visited each other. With the children out of the nest, we decided to use the opportunity to head north this winter for a week's cross country skiing with them up at their cabin in the hills above Lillehammer. The temperature maximum for the whole week was - 9°C, a fleeting moment on Tuesday lunchtime if memory serves, and with a perceived wind chill of a further -10°C, so it didn't really count anyway. 

The Hills at Fagerhoy || F8, 1/640 s, ISO 200

Shooting in snow and in minus temperatures is challenging. Because of the inherent brightness of the conditions we need to shoot even further to the right than normal to avoid muddying things and without losing any details to the highlights. Unless I'm deliberately shooting high key, where it doesn't matter if parts of the photo are washed out, I like to be able to see at least a breath of detail in even the brightest parts of a photo, otherwise it disturbs me as much as a wonky horizon. So, shoot as far to the right as possible. 
The next problem is the cold, whether out during the day or during the two astro sessions at night. Either the battery didn't like it or the lens frosted over. When I'm hiking or cross country skiing I like to have the camera attached to my rucksack strap with a Peak Design capture plate; I'm more a runner and gunner rather than a tripod shooter. At -15°C the battery only lasts so long strapped to the shoulder and the padded holster tends to interfere either with the arms if attached to the hip or certain parts of the male anatomy if it's further round to the front. On the coldest days there was no other option if I wanted to take photos though. 

Blue Shining Through || F7.1, 1/320 s, ISO 200
The challenge the first few days was more a question of abundance of light and lack of familiarity with the landscape. Bright blue skies on snow make very high contrast images, turning almost everything else in the frame black, whether trees or people. And although we'd been to this location once before, it had been at the end of summer rather than the middle of winter. There was no reverting to my standard approach of focusing on the foreground or foliage - there simply wasn't any, and the landscape is significantly different to my normal alpine stamping grounds, the skies are much more wide open than I'm used to. 

Intimate details

Whilst trying to get the lie of the land, my eye was caught by some easier intimate shots, my safety fallback. I know some photographers struggle to see these mini landscapes, but my eye seems to be tuned to these more compact pictures somehow. In the snowy landscape it was the folds in the hills where streams run in summer, the collections of bushes on a hillside or an isolated farmstead, abandoned for the winter. The subtle shots. 

The Folds || F6.3, 1/1000 s, ISO 200
Sometimes you don't have to look for the compositions, they veritably jump out at you such as here with the frost covered birch trees. There are essentially two types of trees on the hillsides around Skeikampen, either the dark firs or the stunted coppery birch, both of which simply appear to be black against the blinding white snow. The last two nights in the cabin there was enough mist at night that it formed hoarfrost on the wind-stunted birch, adding a third shade to the otherwise stark black/white contrast. This alone was enough to grab all of our interests, the grey tones adding a significant point of interest to the scene. 

The Folds || F6.3, 1/1000 s, ISO 200
Fjell Farmsted || F8, 1/400 s, ISO 200

Norwegian hyttekultur 

The Norwegians love their mountain cabins, their home from homes in the wilds (and less than wilds). In fact it's not unknown for them to invest more in their weekend houses than their town dwellings; a small flat in Oslo and a comfortable cabin in the hills. My research tells me that in 2008, every second Norwegian had access to a second home of some kind. The hills around Skeikampen are littered with these cabins in a range of sizes and styles, anything from the simple wooden structures to low-lying dwellings made from the local stone, sometimes with grass roofs. In fact some of them blend in so well that you don't appreciate how many there are dotted around the countryside until dusk, when they all light up. 

The Folds || F4, 1/3 s, ISO 1600


Morning mist on the last morning gave us the double bonus of a touch of hoar frost together with some sweet layers. The time windows were quite narrow though, even with temperatures below - 10°C, as soon as the mist lifted the late February sun warmed the branches of the trees and the frost quickly disappeared. The transformation from magical to mundane was very stark. 

Layers in the Forest || F8, 1/1250 s, ISO 200

Frosty Forest || F8, 1/1000 s, ISO 200


There were two new bits of gear that I took with me that I was itching to try out; my Benro Geared Head and a new Haida Clear Night astro filter. Added to that I had some ideas about how to shoot some star trails using the Olympus Live Composite mode; essentially this in-camera setting allows you to take a single starting exposure and then press the shutter a second time and the camera starts a series of shots that only record additional light - it's useful for lightning storms for example, allowing you essentially to take a long exposure without danger of overexposing the base image. Other cameras require you to take a series of images and then stack them additively in post. Live Comp allows you to do it in a single image. The disadvantage is that a single complication can ruin the whole 30 min shot (a car driving past, for example, or somebody knocking the tripod by accident), the advantage that you can do the whole thing in one take without stacking. 
After a couple of test images taking multiple 30" exposures over about 5 min I tried a first 30 min image on the first night out. A couple of nights later I'd scouted out a much better location pointing north towards the pole star overlooking the local village. I deliberately placed the pole star* off centre as I felt that having it dead centre would have been boring. The final shot is a composite of three images; one for the sky, one for the brightly lit village and one for the snowy forest. Assembling and masking the layers in ON1 was tricky, particularly the border between the night sky and the fir trees, but I'm quite happy with the end result. 

Pole Star over Skeikampen || F2.8, 40 min, ISO 1600, 30 s ISO 200 and 30 s ISO 6400
*The pole (north) star can be found by drawing an imaginary line connecting the two stars at the back of The Plough (Big Dipper, The Wagon or Ursa Major) and following it about 5 repeats upwards until you get to the next bright star. 

One thing that I was quite eager to see while we were so far north (for us at least) was the northern lights and I loaded the Aurora app on my phone before we left. I rather naively thought that we'd be seeing them every other night and so was quite disappointed when the KP forecast was only 2/8, rising to a maximum of 4/8 in the middle of the week. Imagine my surprise (and excitement) then when looking at my first test shot looking north to see a green fringe on the horizon! There was absolutely nothing visible to the naked eye, but a 25" exposure revealed a clear trace of the northern lights. 
The winter Milky Way isn't all that much to look at, but here's my final take on Cygnus and the Northern Lights. Single shot edited in ON1 Photo RAW 2020.
Northern Lights at Skeikampen || F2.8, 60 s, ISO ISO 6400
Regarding the new gear, the Benro certainly makes precise alignments a whole lot easier, making focusing much simpler too, using the camera focus zoom to centre in on a bright star. Whether or not the star filter brings a lot to the table remains to be seen. There isn't a whole lot of light pollution in central Norway and I didn't have the presence of mind to do any with/without comparisons, so they're all 'with'. 
One error that I'm consistently making with my astro shots is foreground exposure. Because it's dark, the images on the back screen of the camera appear comparatively bright, but take the image indoors and it's a very different picture. 


I have a love-hate relationship with panoramas. It's something that I'd love to be able to do well, but feel that it's a discipline that I haven't yet mastered. I'm comfortable with the 16:9 format, but anything longer than that is challenging. I don't know whether it's simply a question of size - that I can't envisage how the picture would look printed big, or whether it's something more fundamental. Whatever it is, it's going to require significant work to consistently arrive at images I'm happy with (with the exception of this one). Be sure to let me know if you have a suggestion concerning how to improve my panoramic game. 
Over the Fjells || F8, 1/1000 s, ISO 200
So, those are my 10 'below zero' shots. What adventures have you got coming up, and what preparations are you making for the photography? 


  1. I just love your pictures and also what you write! Even the technical bits that I do not understand at all, because I do not know the last bit about photography...I still enjoy reading what you suggest and explain how the different shots came to be. Your pictures show the magic of the snow and the cold in Gudbrandsdalen :) The picture "The Folds" is my favorite! I can see the sleeping icebear... Next time you´re in our "neighbourhood" I hope you have the time to stop by us!! This time you just made it home before the corona got crazy...... Lots of love to you and Sharon from Tordny and Ole-Petter

  2. Thanks Tordny, your comments warm my heart! We'll definitely stop by next time (and there WILL be a next time - can't get enough of Norway). I also like Folds, though the Fagerhoy photo comes a very close second for me.