Sunday 13 March 2022

Ten More Below Zero

I think we're going to have to stop going to Norway in the winter. Last time a pandemic broke out. This time a war. This isn't a good track record. Nevertheless, we had a great week of langrenn - the Norwegian for cross-country skiing - chalking up over 150 km in seven days, not bad for my sorry, nearly 54-year-old carcass. Where the skiing conditions were (mostly) great, I found the photography quite challenging. Even in the mountains, everything's somehow a lot lower to the horizon in southern Norway, making big open panoramas a challenge. I've found this before, but previously we've had some fantastic skies to make up for it. This time we had largely blue skies - the landscape photographer's nemesis. But this did mean we had some good evening and night conditions. And it wasn't as perishingly cold as our 2020 trip either; then our maximum temperature during the whole week had been -9°C one lunchtime, this time the day-time temperatures pushed above freezing once or twice, there was a lot less snow and we didn't get nearly as much hoarfrost as last time. I had looked forward to having the same conditions that we'd had on our last half-day skiing through the forest in the mist with frost on the trees. But what we did find more than made up for it. 

Even though this photo is actually from the very last evening, I'm going to post it here for the very simple reason that it was my stand-out experience from the week and the first image is the one that gets posted to social media when I share the link.

Northern Lights over Skeikampen || Olympus 8 mm, f/3.2, 2.5", ISO 6400 
The story behind this shot is that we'd settled down for the evening after our last supper together and one of our hosts, university friends who had moved to southern Norway when we first came to Munich, was innocently scrolling through Facebook when she spotted a local post of a photo of the Northern Lights that appeared to have just been taken. I was set up for an evening slobbing before returning home to Germany the next day. Last time we had been here I had done a couple of night shots on an evening where the Aurora forecast had been relatively high (there's an app for that) and had found a strange green band at the bottom of my astro photos. On the off-chance that Saturday's Lights might be a bit stronger, I donned my outside apparel and popped round the corner. My first reaction was one of disappointment. There appeared to be a band of greyish cloud low on the horizon, but no sign of the green Aurora. Just to be absolutely sure I pulled out my P30 Pro smartphone, put it in night photo mode and took a quick snap, and was blown away by the massive green cloud dominating the lower half of the sky. So I dashed back to get the others and grab my camera and tripod. After a first few test shots, I set up the Olympus for a time lapse and just sat back to enjoy the show. Here's a 45 min time lapse condensed down to 35 sec. If you're interested in the tech details, ISO 6400, f/3.2, 2.5" using the PL 8-18 at 8 mm (yes, I could have opened up even wider, but heat of the moment and all that...) The mountain (Skeikampen) is floodlit at night and a little blown out. I denoised using the new OM Workspace and batch processed the photos in ON1 Photo Raw 2022 and generated the time-lapse there too. If I´d had more time, I might have found a better composition, but I'm reasonably pleased with the outcome.

Anyway, that was the last evening. Now back to day 1. As mentioned before, the prevailing weather pattern was high pressure and blue skies. We'd only done a short løype in the morning and decided to take a trek up to the Bjørga, a nearby viewpoint overlooking the cabin settlement of Skeikampen and Austlid. We skied up before dinner hoping to catch sunset on the local peaks and my plan was to hang around to catch the blue hour before skiing down using my head torch. My guilty secret as a landscape photographer is that I really struggle with sunset photography, especially when there is low cloud cover - getting the exposure right is very tricky. This was just before the sun sank below the western horizon. I did end up waiting around alone for almost an hour and a half to catch the first stars, but with the clouds ebbing away I thought this was the better shot.

Sunset from Bjørga || Olympus 12 mm, f/8, 1/60", ISO 200 
Day two opened overcast, cold and windy and provided the best hoarfrost conditions of the week. We headed up over the back of the Skeikampen. Cresting the ridge we found the clouds lifting briefly, giving us hope that the weather might turn for the better. Unfortunately the reverse turned out to be the case and we actually found ourselves taking the skis off on the steep løype over the Prestkampen before finding shelter from the wind in the lee of the hut at Skardbua. We had originally planned to carry on into the hills, but the sense of gratitude that we all felt for having safely found the cabin in the mist recommended the more sensible course of skiing down and back to our friends' hytte.

Frozen Outcrop, Skeikampen || Olympus 18 mm, f/8, 1/250", ISO 200
Every now and then I get carried away with the photography (hey, it happens ok, don't pick on me!) and my people get away from me. This turned out to be one of my favourite shots of the week, just before conditions turned quite nasty. The reason I like it so much is that it really captures the moment and embodies the feeling that you experience being up in the Fjells in winter: Isolation, cold, beauty. The splash of light on the ridge on the right really brings the scene to life though.

In the Fjells || Olympus 18 mm, f/8, 1/160", ISO 200
The following day was windy and cold but the skies had cleared. The snow-sculptures left by the wind gave some great foreground for images of the surrounding peaks like this. I even managed to catch some spindrift.

Snowsculptures and Spindrift || Olympus 18 mm, f/8, 1/500", ISO 200
One of the things I always watch out for in the snow is stream beds. I love how snow 'covers a multitude of sins', making complicated and messy scenes simple. At the same time, a little variety spices up a vista and a dip in the snow marking a stream running under the surface will liven up a photo immensely. Taking this to monochrome in ON1 reduces such features to the essential elements. The tone curves of simple black and white reduce the images to their essential elements - tones of grey. I had another of these with the edge of the forest in the background. In the end, I decided to go with the 'less is more' principle and restrict the image to the meadow beside the track.

Snowfolds || Olympus 35 mm, f/8, 1/500", ISO 200
When we were here back in 2020, we had a memorable long tour out to the hotel at Fagerhøy, a 30 km round trip. It was a really cold day with strong cross-winds the whole time. It had been so cold that there was ice on the inside of the sleeves of my softshell jacket when we arrived. Back in 2022, day 5 turned out to be a lot milder and less windy and so we headed back out over the Fjells. Skardbua was a different place compared to two days previously.

Behind Skardabua || Olympus 12 mm, f/8, 1/500", ISO 200
The long views over Jotuenheim behind Fagerhøy were spectacular. I love it when the trees and bushes in scenes like this are outlined in snow, or at least a good casing of frost. Unfortulately that wasn't going to be the case today, but hey, at least I wasn't shaking ice out of my sleeves.

Fagerhøy and Jotunheimen || Olympus 29 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200 
All skiing and no sightseeing makes Mike a dull boy. Towards the end of the week we decided that we could bunk off for the afternoon and drove down to Ringebu to check out their Stavkirke in the snow. This is one of Norway's 28 remaining wooden churches built using medieval techniques. I think we've saw five of them during our 2018 southern Norway road trip, including Ringebu, so we haven't chalked up another one unfortunately. I could easily imagine making a road-trip some time to try to take them all in. They're fantastic buildings, wonderfully photogenic under the right conditions and some of them sit beautifully in their settings - Lom immediately springs to mind. The low afternoon light really caught the colours nicely and the wispy clouds really help make the sky look a little less boring.

Ringebu Stavkirke || Olympus 16 mm, f/8, 1/125", ISO 200
Sharon spotted this scene on the cliffs above the løype on our last day out. Ideally I would have shot this earlier in the day with the sun low and illuminating the ice, but this was making the best of it.

Frozen Waterfall || Olympus 100 mm, f/4, 1/640", ISO 200
This next one is a shot that I've been trying to pull off for quite a while, though not yet as good as I would like (or as big - the longest focal length I had with me was 100 mm). It shows the new moon, but exposed to reveal the dark portion of the moon. The shot I'm really after is one where you can still see detail on both the lit and unlit portions of the moon and requires a little jiggery-pokery. The thing I've always found challenging is avoiding light-spill from the light side to the dark. Maybe I'll get it right some time in 2022...

New Moon at Austlid || Olympus 100 mm, f/5.6, 4", ISO 200
I'm going to throw in a last black and white, just for fun. I love the forms these streams leave in the snow and this one had eroded the drift all the way down to the water. Looking at this as I write I may have to re-edit it so that the diagonal leaves the image directly into the corner. The trick with these monochromes is to make sure that you use the whole tonal range from black to white in the image without blowing out areas, provided it's not deliberately supposed to be high- or low-key. There's so much to take in here from the soft curves to the spiky ice crystals on the stream bed, one of those images that the eye loves to dwell in.

Frozen Heart || Olympus 34 mm, f/11, 1/400", ISO 200
And, did you count how many images? 😜

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