Norwegian Sunrise – The story behind the photo

Over New Years 2009/2010, I went on a trip to Norway with some friends. We stayed in a remote area near Nissedal and everything around our little cabins looked beautiful. There was a big lake right next to the street, snowy mountains in every direction and tons of snow. I knew that, with good light, this would be an amazing place to take pictures.


This was our cabin in Nissedal, Norway

Our cabins and ‘the road’. The (frozen) lake lies to the left


Since it was a vacation with friends, I limited my photography trips to a couple hours in the morning, driving along the only little road that connected our cabins to the rest of Norway – mountains on the right, water on the left. Usually, it was so narrow that there was no chance to stop the car and get off, but then I discovered a small emergency parking spot right where there was a wonderful view of the lake.


Narrow and icy road near Nissedal, Norway

The narrow road went on and on…


It was around 10.30am when I took the shot below. I knew I really liked the location, but the light was neither good nor interesting enough.


First attempt of norwegian sunrise

18mm, f11, 13sec – Nice atmosphere, but not enough color. Yes, it is very blue! But that is mainly because of the white-balance, which is set to 5200K. When set to a ‘neutral’ temperature, the picture would look very pale and boring. What is interesting though: If you compare this to the final image (which has the exact same white-balance) you can see how drastically different light can be for the same scene, just 1 day and 1 hour apart. Timing is everything!


The next morning, I stopped by another couple locations first, but nothing was worth shooting. Soon it was already 11am and the light was getting warmer and more and more interesting. As I headed back to the ‘save spot’, I could tell that there was really good light coming and got worried that I would be too late and miss it. But then, after the road made a strong right turn to follow the mountain’s shape, the sky was glowing like I had never seen it before. I quickly set up my tripod and decided to go with the widest focal length, 18mm, on my Canon 20D. Already 2 minutes after this shot, the light looked drastically different. The sun had come up too high, projecting too much light onto the sky and the snow, and the strong colors were fading quickly.

The image looked good out of the camera and I knew this would be a keeper. The only problem was the dynamic difference between the sky and lake. The sun was very close to coming up behind the mountains and therefore, the sky was already much brighter than the lake and mountains. My camera exposed the sky correctly, which ended up in a dark lake and foreground – roughly underexposed by 2 stops.


Norwegian sunrise with underexposed foreground

Underexposed foreground. If I have had an ND grad-filter with me, I could have done everything right there. In this case, I needed to go the digital way. Shooting RAW is a must for this scenario!


I did not have any graduated filter with me, so I had to use the RAW file and apply the filter digitally in Lightroom. The two images are treated exactly the same in post-processing. The one above is simply missing the virtual grad filter that is lighting up the bottom half of the image by about 2 stops. Quite a difference, hm?

The final norwegian sunrise picture

So this is it, the final image. Canon 20D, Canon 18-55 @ 18mm, f11, 1/6 sec, ISO 100, tripod