Typically an outdoor photographer is searching for special lightning conditions. Sunraise, sunset, sun shining low, sun shining high enough…anything which provides exceptional, artistic and dramatic atmosphere to the photo. No matter the subject, the light paints it all.
Some outsider might also think that the night is not the best time to take photos. Well, as we all know there are many different photography categories which need to happen during night. Astrophotography, lightpainting and Aurora photography definitely requires low light conditions. So, night is The Time for a outdoor photographer.
But how about the Polar Night? The speciality of the nordic hemisphere. Oh, sorry. It actually is also the speciality of southern hemisphere. Both Poles are great places to see the Polar Night, but the South Pole has some disadvantages like the weather. It is also slightly easier to travel to the area between North Pole and northern Polar Circle. It is also more fun because Santa Claus is living in the Lapland.
Back to the topic. Polar Night, that time period when the night lasts for more than 24 hours. (Like the Wikipedia says). Typically the border of real polar night, the time when the sun is fully below the horizon, is somewhere close to Sodankylä. Typically polar night lasts about 4-6 weeks around the Christmas time, depending on the location.
Well, that was the reason why I also decided to make my latest roadtrip to the Lapland, during the Christmas week. The Christmas Eve is typically also the shortest day of the year so that is another reason to travel to Lapland for a Christmas. How convenient, meet Santa and take lot of special photos at the same time!
If you want to get all the benefit out of your long and expensive trip to the distant Finland you should also pick the right place. Especially if you want to take some polar night photos. You know, travel agencies want to transport tourists to Rovaniemi because it is quite handy. Airport, shopping centers and decent hotels are located at the quite small area. Well, here might be a reason why many tourists coming from UK, Japan or USA are doing it only once…No true Lapland magic, peace and silent but a group of other tourist at the same square meter.
I must state that in my opinion Rovaniemi is not part of real Lapland. Yes, it is located at the southern part of Lapland. So, geologically it is part of Lapland. It is also the capitol of Lapland region so also in that sense it is important part of Lapland.
What comes to the real polar night it is not yet the Lapland. As said, Sodankylä is the border line for a real Polar Night and that is about 180 km norther than Rovaniemi. Norther you go, lower the sun stays during the polar night. The position of sun compared to the horizon naturally varies based on your location. The most northern tip of Finland, Utsjoki, has the shortest day. Sorry, I mean there is no day at all there but what I try to say here is that Utsjoki has the best polar night. Utsjoki is about 450 kilometers north from Rovaniemi. You get some perspective when I say that there is about 800 km from Rovaniemi to south, to Helsinki. So, Finland is a long country and 1/3 of our country is north from Rovaniemi.
Upper Lapland is really The Place to enjoy the polar night (And also some Northern Lights!). Compared to Sweden and Norway Finnish Lapland has one benefit. The infrastructure is far better than in western neighbors. There are more ski resorts in Finnish fjells than for example in Sweden. Norway and Sweden has bigger mountains but Finland has better services. Tourist centers like Levi, Ruka and Ylläs offer hotels, restaurants, spas and shopping centers like ones at the southern Finland. You can say that there is some kind of ski slope in every little bit higher hill in northern Finland.
The drawback of the good infrastructure is naturally loosing the feeling of wilderness, the silence and the privacy. Frankly said, in Swedish or Norwegian Lapland you are closer to the nature and you don’t have so much light pollution. Finnish Lapland has a small urban spot here and there. That means that as a photographer you have more challenges to find a decent spot for your hobby. If you don’t want to ski to the middle of wilderness, or at least to the other side of the lake, you need to select your place well. You really need to make good research at the location and know where to go for the best shot. That might be impossible in one week. One rule of the thumb is that norther you go, better circumstances you find.
Anyway, there are still some easy spots for a photographer. One of my favourite places in Lapland is the Saariselkä ski resort. Saariselkä is located in between of Rovaniemi and Utsjoki so there is true polar night. There is also quite much open wilderness around Saariselkä village. North from Saariselkä there are still two small cities, Ivalo and Inari, but the light pollution caused by them is pretty minimal. The open tundra starts from the end of tree line which is at Kaamanen, about 100 km north from Saariselkä. Therefore you need to find either a top of a open hill or a lake for your best photos. Forests are covering the best views still at Saariselkä area.
Still you’re able to reach quite good spots easily with a car. That might sound funny but if we think how to develop real tourism around photography this is crucial. A photographer from Japan does not want to waste time for finding the most remote positions during their once-in-the-lifetime holiday week. Decent places should be easily reachable.
That was clearly visible when I spent the Christmas Eve on one of my favourite spots, at the top of Kaunispää fjell. The amount of busses and minibuses parked at the top was a clear sign. Tourists from Asia wanted to enjoy about the Lapland magic and see some Norther Lights. Naturally there were some German and Finnish tourists also. Many of them were waiting with their cameras.
As it often happens, also this time the hobby connected people. I had many interesting discussions with people I have ever met before. Mostly we discussed about the Aurora photography and settings or our cameras. The most interesting occurrence was when I met a German guy who were photographing polar night with his Canon and L-series tele at the day light.
We met again in the evening while we were waiting for northern lights. He had a Canon D40 and he was never shot Auroras before. Well, we tried to find best settings for his camera together and I think that helped a bit. At least the smile in his face was really wide when he succeeded to take his first Aurora photo ever. This is the way you build great experiences.
We, meaning original Finns must remember why people come here. It is still the silence, it is the fresh air. It is the nature which provides truly amazing light and colors. Now when the number of Russian buy-relax-and-party tourists is degreasing we should put more efforts to tourism around nature photography. The polar night and the Northern Lights both provide lot of interesting subjects for great photos.
Should we build photography trails instead of MBT tracks and roads?