Finnish Architecture

I 100% do not consider myself an architecture photographer - but I do like to capture little details in a local culture that tell you something about the place.

Finland is a fantastic country with so many incredible places to see and explore. The people here are also unlike any others I've met anywhere else in the world - bubbly, optimistic, friendly, and nature lovers. My kind of people!

Anyway, these photos were all taken on a farm - the same farm, as a mini expose into how Finnish homes look. I think seeing these little bits of the architecture tell you more about the culture and the people who live here than a zoomed out photograph of the whole farm. 

What do you think? Can you envision their farm?

Cold Days, Geomagnetic Nights

It's time for one last European adventure!

We had to cancel our three week trek through Thailand to support our ongoing move back to the United States, which is why you haven't heard much from me lately. I've been breaking apart my studio and getting the rest of our house in order - my car gets loaded onto a boat next week and our first load of movers is just days away.

But we couldn't leave Europe without sneaking away for one last adventure. So we called the Aurora Zone and asked about being slotted last second into one of their trips into the Arctic. This is a popular time to head north, as it's peak Aurora viewing season, but we managed to snag a week in Finnish Lapland.

There will be lots of photos to come, but I'll start with the highlight, which is the Aurora. We have been very lucky this week to witness several spectacular showings of the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are the result of solar gases hitting the atmosphere (ok, that's the overly simplified science) and aurora activity can be forecasted several days in advance by monitoring solar winds.

For the layman, scientists use the KP scale to describe the intensity, with 1 being weakest and KP9 being the best. Before this week I had only ever seen KP2/3 displays, which are most common and still pretty spectacular. But this week we had two nights of high intensity activity registering KP5! At KP5, it's considered a minor geomagnetic storm.

In the photos it's hard to tell the difference, but it's very obvious to us as spectators. An Aurora at KP2/3 is nice and green, but not as fast moving, big, or dramatic. At KP5, almost the entire sky is covered, and I have to keep moving my head and camera to where the action is most intense. 

On a slow night, the green bands don't move very fast, but on a fast night, it's like watching a ribbon waving in the sky, and the movement is very easy to see with the naked eye. Our local Finnish guides - the ones who live here and see the Aurora most often - have even been animated and excited by the spectacular displays we've had the past two nights.

Normally, I use exposures of 10+ seconds with KP2/3 storms to get enough color and intensity to make a nice photograph..... however, I have been shooting this week at 4 seconds! 

This is also the first time I've used the Leica SL for photographing the Aurora, and so far, so good! I chose the 21mm Super Elmar Lens for the task, and it's been a great choice. 

Video: Adventures in Sunlight

You already know that our primary goal when we travelled to Menesjarvi, Finland, was to see the Aurora Borealis, and we certainly saw it (check this video if you missed that!).

But how did we spend our daylight hours (besides waiting for the sun to set)? We kept very busy on snowmobiles, ice fishing, dog sledding, reindeer herding, snowshoeing, and having fun in the snow! This short video highlights our adventures when the sun was up.... check it out. And if something like this appeals to your adventurous spirit, then check out TheAuroraZone.com - they arranged all of the travel and activities.

Quick Shot: Finnish Forrest

I have been saturating my website with aurora photos, so it's time for a quick change up! Today's quick shot features one of the landscapes I was most excited to see while in Finland --- trees sagging under the weight of months of snow. 

This was one of the easiest shots I took in Finland. We were hiking on a small trail with some snowshoes and the low sunlight on the horizon gave some nice color to the sky. All I needed to do was stand back and shoot!

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

Video: Chasing the Dream

I have dreamed of the day when I would see the Aurora for as long as I can recall; the idea that, in some parts of the world, the sky can turn neon green and purple was something I longed to discover for myself. I wanted to be humbled by the power of our planet.

In February 2015, my friend and I set out on an adventure to try and make that dream of seeing the northern lights a reality. We travelled into the deep northern wilderness of Finnish Lapland to a small lodge at Lake Menesjarvi. The lodge’s name literally translates to “Wilderness Mansion” and was the perfect place to seek out the Aurora due to it’s remote location away from any light pollution. 

We spent the limited daylight hours exploring life in the arctic. We joined a Sami reindeer herder on a snowmobile ride to tend to his herds. We also explored deep into the picturesque Lapland forests on a 16km dogsled ride and tried our hand at ice fishing. All of these activities left us exhausted come nightfall, but the prospect of seeing an aurora display kept us going.

This time of year, the sun sets early in the evening, so the aurora viewing opportunities start around 6pm. At that point, the aurora is visible only as a thin green line along the horizon, but the rotation of the earth causes the aurora to soon appear overhead.

Finnish folklore suggests that the aurora is caused by an arctic fox swinging his tail and causing snow to fly into the sky. Modern science tells us that the aurora is actually caused by solar energy hitting the atmosphere. The different colors come from the different gases, with green being the most visible, followed by purple and red. Viewing the aurora is best done close to the north or south pole; in the darkness of the night, the gasses hitting the atmosphere create a storm of colorful lights only seen at these extreme latitudes. Aurora forecasting lets scientists predict, with reasonable accuracy, how active the sky will be in the hour preceding the activity. 

Viewing the aurora requires some warm weather equipment and patience. Our location in Menesjarvi meant that the best viewing was done from the lake that had frozen over for the winter. We spent hours sitting exposed on the lake staring up at the northern sky watching and waiting for the peak aurora activities. In temperatures that reached -20*C (below 0*F), it was imperative to be well dressed!

The aurora rewards patience and commitment. After sitting in the cold, the sky would suddenly and unexpectedly light up in a colorful display of lights that danced and swirled like I could never have dreamed. At times the aurora was limited to a small section of the sky, but often it would fill huge sections with this bright green glow.

Seeing the aurora with my own eyes has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life; there are some things you need to see to believe and the aurora is certainly one of those experiences. 

Although my dream to see the aurora has been satisfied, I thirst for more. Each night brought us a unique and different display to feast our eyes upon. I am now addicted to the nighttime glow in the sky......

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

Quick Shot: Reindeer Herder

When booking our travel to Finland, seeing the Aurora was priority #1. After that, we wanted to get a flavor of life in the arctic north - ice fishing, snowmobiling, snow shoeing, and to experience the culture of the Sami people who reside in this area. The Sami people depend largely on reindeer to survive - a family can sustain annually on only a few of these magnificent animals while profiting from selling the meat to other families.

We had a chance to meet Petri Mattus, a Sami reindeer herder who has lived inside the arctic circle for his entire life. Petri's family has been herding reindeer for generations, so this isn't just a side gig - you're born into this lifestyle! A few years ago, Petri realized he could make a little extra money by educating visitors in Lapland to reindeer farming.

I'll admit, before heading out to see the reindeer, I thought this trip would be a bit of a petting zoo. I expected we'd see a few reindeer and pet their noses before waving goodbye. I couldn't have been more wrong!

We started at Petri's house - he invited us inside to see how they live in temperatures that often reach -40 degrees celsius. Their house was very modern and cozy - if it wasn't for the snowmobiles, triple pane windows and reindeer in the back yard, you could have mistaken it for any metropolitan home. 

Petri then took us out into his property - there are up to 5,500 reindeer in the area he works and he goes out every day to check the herds and ensure no predators are harming his livelihood. He also has several feeding stations that he sets up during the winter and moves around - these stations provide extra food during the harsh winter to make sure his reindeer stay nice and fat. Petri took us by snowmobile sled out to one of these feeding areas, which was about 7km from his home. Once there, he started to make some calls that attracted hundreds of reindeer to the feeding ground. 

The reindeer were absolutely magnificent - I saw them as cute and cuddly animals, but Petri was always quick to remind us that these aren't pets - they are food. Petri also believes in shooting only those reindeer that he needs to eat and sell rather then sending them to the slaughter house. A reindeer in his herd could live for a few years in the wild and being shot in the wild - it's about as humane as you can farm! 

Petri made us a fire and some fresh coffee while we relaxed on reindeer hides. It was completely surreal - I never thought I'd find myself sitting on a reindeer hide by the fire in the middle of nowhere Finland enjoying listening to a Sami farmer talk about herding reindeer!

Of course, the camera was busy during this trip - here's a few shots of the adventure.

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

Quick Shot: The REAL Aurora

I was wise to call the first aurora sighting of our trip a teaser..... tonight was the real show.

Since traveling to Finland, I've suddenly become a weather freak. I am constantly clicking refresh on all of the solar wind charts, real time satellite feeds, and weather radars in the hope that my attention will help alert me to possible aurora activity. I was watching the solar wind forecast and around 5:30pm, things started to suddenly change. The solar winds (which is what causes the aurora) were suddenly stronger than they had been all week, so I told my friend it was time to suit up and head out..... I was feeling lucky.

As soon as we got out onto the lake, we could see a small clump of green lights above the northern horizon. It wasn't very bright, but the camera confirmed it was really green, so we grabbed the kick sleds and setup shop. We didn't have to wait long.... within 20 mins the sky was turning green and several new clusters of light had arrived. In an aurora workshop earlier this week, we'd been told that seeing two distinct bands of light across the sky meant it was going to be a good aurora.... we had three and four bands!

Suddenly, mother nature went to work in a big way. We could watch as green streaks would fall from the sky like rain, sometimes twisting back up into a spiral before being over taken by another falling streak. All thoughts of dinner were gone and were replaced with a flood of emotions. It's been a long time since I felt like a kid opening presents at Christmas.... but this was it! I wanted to cry, dance, yell, sing, and proclaim genuine glee at the top of my lungs! An hour and a half went by before I realized we were running low on memory card space and we needed to bundle up before we jumped onto the snowmobiles and went searching for more lights.

I really didn't think things could improve - the lights that had been tricky to see with the naked eye the first night were so vibrant and beautiful. The lights stretched out to cover a full 360* of the sky while we boarded our snowmobiles and headed out for some additional adventures.

Obviously, there was no need to travel far on the snowmobiles. Just enough to get away from the lights of the lodge and a new scene. The lights seemed to know we were up to something, because they waited until we were in position with the cameras setup before exploding.

The colors of the aurora are caused by different gases coming in contact with the atmosphere. Green is the most common color, followed by purple and occasionally red. The purple and red are normally very difficult to detect with the human eye and the camera tells you they are present.

This show was completely different- a huge stream of lights came from these sky and danced back and forth. Up to this point, the movement was slow and subtle - you could see it but it wasn't a roaring and fast movement. Now the lights changed and started a quick back and forth dance in the sky, with the purple being very prominent. I was in total awe. There is nothing I can hit on this keyboard to describe the incredible power of this display. Our guide told us afterwards that this was an above average showing of the aurora, so we were quite lucky. 

Seeing the aurora has been a lifelong dream of mine - it was #1 on my bucket list of things to see. While I was content with the first day's small aurora sighting, this totally blew me away. Now I can say I've seen the REAL aurora!

I have more photos to edit than I could possibly look at tonight, so here's a quick time lapse teaser. This was shot from the GoPro Hero 4 Silver that we just shoved in the snow.... the video will replay twice. This should get you excited for more pictures!

PS - if a trip like this interests you, check out www.theaurorazone.com. They were top notch!

How To: Photograph the Aurora

After yesterday's post about our first Aurora sighting, I got questions via Facebook and email asking how to take the shot. In this case, the mechanics of the camera are much easier than the execution!

First, let's discuss the challenges:

  • It's -20*F outside. To get the shots I posted yesterday involved 2 hours of sitting on an frozen lake where I was exposed to the wind.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, so I'm dressed like the Michelin Man! I am wearing a base layer, a mid layer, fleece vests, ski pants, down jackets, scarves, multiple hats, a balaclava and most importantly, two pairs of gloves. The gloves consist of a finger base glove liner with a thick mitten on top. Why bring this up? Go put some oven mitts on your hands and try and work your camera.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, so anytime you get near the camera, you create ice. Just getting the camera into position, my breath from a few feet away as I worked with the camera was enough to create a sheet of ice on the back of the camera. Looking through the viewfinder means you must hold your breath - and don't you dare go near the front of the lens!
     
  • It's pitch black outside, so the camera cannot focus. Try as it might, when it's total darkness, you have to think for the camera. Everything is manual - the aperture, shutter, and focus. I set the lens to focus at infinity and hope to get lucky. Several times I did not, and the photo was a total blur.
     
  • It's -20*F outside, and the batteries are pissed. I knew keeping the camera batteries warm was going to be a full time charge, but you really don't appreciate how much the cold kills a battery until you are here. In the walk from our room down to the lake and into the shooting position, which took less than 10 minutes and in which I never used the camera, the battery went from fully charged do down one bar. I actually took the battery out of the camera for most of the waiting and only popped it in once the aurora was out. Where did I put it? The batteries for the D800 and GoPro were safely stored in the "titty pocket" inside the jacket.

Scene should be set for you now..... it's cold, you can't go near the camera without creating ice from your breath, the camera has to focus and be set manually and you're wearing oven mitts.

Actually taking the photo, once you get past all those things, is fairly easy! I obviously used a tripod that I pushed several feet down into the snow for stability. The camera is my trusty Nikon D800 + 14-24mm wide angle f/2.8 lens. I wanted the widest field of view possible, so set the lens at 14mm for all the shots. Aperture was f/2.8 and ISO 200. Shutter speed ranges from 15-30 seconds.

Since I'm pretty clumsy once I have my oven mitts on, I used a cable shutter release to trigger the camera. Thankfully I was smart enough to realize I couldn't use my wireless releases due to the batteries, so I purchased a cheap cable release a few days before we left.

I didn't bother to carry any fancy accessories or extra lenses. It's too cold to change the lens anyway! The dryness also creates so much static charge that my sensor could immediately become a dust magnet if I exposed it to the open air.

Like everything I shoot, I took the aurora photographs in RAW and edited them in Adobe Photoshop. 

That's not the sun in the corner - its the moon!

Quick Shot: Teaser Aurora

Today was our first night in Menesjarvi, Finland on our week long aurora-hunting trip. I know what you're wondering..... where the heck is Menesjarvi? For the geography students - that 68*North and well into the arctic circle. The airport we flew to, Ivalo, is the northernmost airport in Finland and Menesjarvi is another hour from there. Having grown up in Atlanta, today hit several milestones for most snow I've ever seen, first wild reindeer seen, and first time I've been outside in temperatures below -10*F.

We spent the day recovering from a long series of flights and connections, taking a hike through the back country, and exploring Menesjarvi. Our lodging is a converted boarding school that sits on the edge of the frozen lake and was selected for it's location and total darkness. No city or highway nearby to provide light pollution!

On our drive to the lodging this morning, we'd inquired about the recent aurora activity and our spirits were lifted when we were told it'd been quite good recently. Our spirits were then crushed when we saw the thick cloud cover that was forecast to hang around all day.

Hang around it did - the clouds were thick and very grey, so we expected an early night with no chance of catching nature's fireworks. But you don't win a baseball game if you never swing a bat, so we decided to brave the elements to try swinging at balls we probably had no chance of hitting. To make getting around a little easier, there are kick sleds that we use to move across the frozen lake. The sleds also have little seats built in, so we went out onto the lake to an area we liked and setup mini camp. 

For two hours, my friend and I just sat there with our necks kinked back looking into a dark sky. The clouds had started to break enough that we could see some stars and planets, so we called out the few constellations we knew to help distract ourselves from the -18*F temperatures. At one point we decided there was a band of clouds that looked green, so I took a photograph to test if we were seeing things, or if this was real activity. Sure enough, the viewfinder agreed - aurora! For the next 20 minutes, the clouds were away enough for us to see several distinct bands of green light up the sky. It was certainly hampered by the clouds and not as prominent as I expect it will be in good weather, but the long exposure on the camera was able to pull out the northern lights.

So here's a teaser of things to come. The weather forecast looks favorable during our trip so we should have some clear nights for better viewing.... but for now, mission accomplished!