If you don’t live above the Arctic Circle (66° North of the Equator), there is a huge chance you’ve never experienced a phenomenon called “Polar Night”. Imagine waking up, opening your curtains and seeing total darkness. But wait until lunch. No, still dark. Afternoon? Same thing. Evening? Maybe you will see beyond a few meters if the sky is clear enough for the moonlight to get through.

Photographing Polar Nights

Now, how would you feel if this happened every day for several months? Apathetic or excited? Discouraged or inspired? If you are like me – a photographer passionate about nature – your curiosity would take over.

Stories of Polar Night is something I grew up with. I was born in the Russian Far East, where not seeing the sun above the horizon for several months is considered a norm. It’s natural that as an adult and a professional photographer, I wanted to challenge myself with photographing the nature and the landscapes of the Arctic regions during this magical period. What would be the best place to start? Svalbard Archipelago, a home to the northernmost settlement in the world, where the Polar Night lasts from November till February.

I’ve been going to Svalbard for several years now and I feel confident in photographing its unique landscapes at night. But it hasn’t been always the case. Absence of sunlight challenges your creativity and technical knowledge in many ways

It’s More Than Just Night Photography

If you love photographing landscapes at night, you know how important it is to scout a location first. You go around during the day, pick the most photogenic spot, set up your tripod and wait.

But what if whenever you go out, all you see is complete darkness? Amazing, I’d say! Imagine, how many surprises are awaiting you out there. For instance, when I was taking the image below, I had no idea that there was a group of reindeers in the frame. All I could see with my naked eye was the tips of the mountains slightly illuminated. Since then this image became a great conversation starter when people are trying to guess what these silhouettes are.

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

Always be Ready to Go Out, Anytime.

Svalbard Archipelago is a unique place for many reasons, including the fact that in winter thanks to the Polar Night, you can see Aurora Borealis 24 hours a day. Which means that you have to be ready to go out any minute.

To make things easier I always have this checklist in mind:

  • Keep all your batteries charged at all times. I have 7 batteries for my Fujifilm XT-2. First, they deplete very fast in the cold. Second, you always want to have a few extra. Just in case.
  • Back up and empty your cards every time you set foot inside.
  • When you enter a warm area, remove any snow or ice from your tripod. You don’t want it melting and then freezing around the moving parts of your tripod when you are back outside.
  • Always have hand warmers with you. They are a life-saver if you have no idea how long you have to stay outside.

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

Moonlight is Your Biggest Enemy and Your Best Friend

Every Aurora chaser knows that the Moonlight is the antagonist of every Northern Lights story. What do you do on a day of a full moon then? You take advantage of the fact that you can see father than 2 m away and go explore the landscapes that are hidden from you most of the time.

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

The image above is a good example of that. I scheduled my departure flight from Longyearbyen based on the moon cycle; seeing the shapes of the mountains outlined by the moonlight was definitely worth it.

You Have to Know Your Camera Like the Back of Your Hand.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is!

You know those famous Wild West quick-draw movie scenes? If you want to take good pictures during the Polar Night, you have to be that cowboy – ready to shoot any minute without even looking at your hands (or your camera).

Let me give you an example. I was on a snowmobile trying to get away from the city lights when the sky started glowing bright pink. I’ve never seen anything like that before and had no idea how long the glow would last. A few seconds later the snow scooter was shut down, my camera mounted on the tripod, manual wide angle lens was on (Samyang 12mm).

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

After I took this image, I looked around and saw Aurora starting its dance from behind the mountain on the far right. I had to be quick; Fuji 50-140mm mounted, aperture set, ISO changed, Auto Focus on the stars, back to manual focus, “Bulb” mode on. No time to double check the settings, both Aurora and the pink glow might be gone any second.

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

Only afterward I found out that I was lucky to witness and capture a rare phenomenon that happens once every 3-4 years. The pink glow is caused by the sunlight being reflected by stratospheric clouds. The position of the clouds between Svalbard and the Scandinavian mainland is the main cause of the red light rays. I would have missed both shots if I had wasted a second more on changing the settings of my camera.

As you can see, photographing during Polar Night can be challenging, but very rewarding. Both, in terms of fantastic pictures and personal experiences.

Would you like to experience Polar Night yourself? If so, what excites you about it? Leave your answers below and I’ll make sure to respond to them.

Polar Nights Made me a Better Photographer

About the Author: Maria Sahai spends most of her time leading Photography Tours in the Arctic with her husband Karim Sahai. She is obsessed with icebergs, Midnight Sun, dark polar winters and Aurora Borealis. You can find her images on Instagram.