Aurora Borealis - by Daniel Ernst
Why Northern Lights - My excitement
It’s pitch black, a -32°C bone-chilling cold surrounds me while I am off the paths in the middle of Abisko Nationalpark, Sweden. Packed in my Parka, few base layers and a thick insulation layer of clothing, I am walking with snowshoes through waist deep snow while guided by only the light of my head-torch. My head and eyes were constantly facing north when suddenly something bright appeared on the horizon. On first glance it looked like a thin cloud, then it started to move quickly in wavy motions. Out of nowhere a second beam fired up and the color changed to an unreal saturated green while both started to move fast and eventually join in circular shape. That is why I am out here, for moments exactly like this:
My quest for the Northern Lights began in December 2015 and I’ve been chasing them every winter season since. There is a feeling about them, that no other motive gives me - the unpredictability, the low chance to see them while being in a raw and unforgiven place makes this so exciting. Once they start dancing above me, adrenalin rushes through my body, a feeling of joy and happiness spreads and I am left completely speechless.
Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis - are produced by the Earth’s spectra of gases and the height in the atmosphere where the collision of particles from the sun and the Earth’s gases takes place. Our naked eye can most easily see the unique colors of the Northern Lights, especially the greenyellow part of the spectrum where the sun emits most of its light. Photographing the Northern Lights To capture the beauty of Northern Lights on your camera’s sensor a few things are good to know to avoid ending your shooting unsuccessful:
Absolutely essential for great photographs is a stable tripod with a ball head that allows you to change angles quickly (also when operating with gloves). The next important piece of gear is a fast wide angle lens with an aperture of at least f2.8. In my bags during my trip to the Arctic I had the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f2.0 and the M.Zuiko Pro 17mm f1.2, all paired with the Olympus OM-D EM1 Mark II. Fast lenses like these give you the possibility of keeping the camera’s ISO down to improve image quality and avoid noise.
Prior the shoot
Before setting out for shooting the Northern Lights find a place that is ideal for photographs - means it should have some sort of foreground that you can integrate in your shot such as trees, ice sculptures, mountains, a lake etc. I usually try to find a nice house and if this is not available I try to integrate a person as a silhouette in the image. Important for choosing your location is that it should face the northern sky. Weak Auroras likely occur on the northern horizon while extremely strong ones can be all over the sky. As its usually complete darkness and you don’t have fix point to use the cameras autofocus switch the lens to manual and set focus to infinity. Sometimes it’s possible so set a bright star as reference - use your screen to focus until it’s a its sharpest.
During the shoot
Most important: Photograph in raw to allow post processing and correcting the white balance. For the cameras settings you should choose the widest aperture you have and then set ISO at around 800 to 1600 depending on the shutter speed. Choosing the right shutter speed depends on the movement of the Northern Lights. Sometimes they are relatively calm and remain on one place for a longer time, that is when you can shoot between 10 and 20 seconds. I would not recommend to go any longer, as the stars might get unsharp due to their movement. But sometimes there are quickly moving Auroras that change their direction, colors and shape every few seconds. If this occurs you should choose a slower shutter speed as a 20s image might only look like a green cloud just moved through your photo. With the slow shutter speed you can capture the detailed shape and color of the Aurora.
The Post processing - how to edit your Northern Lights photos
After a successful shoot, it’s time to edit your photos. The ‘right’ pick of the white balance is one crucial step on editing. Right white balance in this case means that there is no right one - you can alter the colors of the Aurora in small amount with this setting and in my opinion this is the artists freedom to go for one look. Warmer white balances make the Aurora more green-yellowish while a colder one puts it in a more blue-violet tone. To demonstrate the effect see the below comparison of the camera’s auto WB, a colder and warmer pick.
Tips and Tricks
1. Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for a destination
Choose a destination where Northern Lights are likely to happen in the time of the year you are planing your visit. If I visited Iceland, Finland or Norway only hoping to see the Northern Lights, I would probably often be disappointed. But instead each destination gave me a fantastic opportunity to go on other activities for the time of my stay - hiking, glacier tours, snow mobile tours, etc.
2. The Northern Lights are unpredictable, there is no reliable forecast
There is no forecast that can reliably tell the probability of Northern Lights, only short-term forecast exists which can the chance for the 30 to 45 minutes. To get the best chances to see them, travel far up in the North, anywhere beyond the arctic circle during late September to early April to maximize your chances. Then hope for a dark and clear night, get away from towns and sources of light, and begin the waiting game. I personally use the App called ‘Aurora Pro’ to get an idea of the strength and probability.
3. The weather in the Arctic is almost as unpredictable as the Northern Lights
Some days you will have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow and high winds - all in a few hours. Just because you wake up to cloudy skies, doesn’t mean these clouds will stick around until dark. Once in Lofoten I experienced the strongest Aurora in a window of clear skies for about 10 minutes, then the clouds rolled back in again. So pack food and warm drinks while you wait outside for it to happen.
4. Give your camera time to acclimatize
This is actually one of the most important things to consider, because it can ruin your shot. Due to the extrem cold, it can happen that your camera gets foggy from the inside while entering into a warmer environment. I usually leave my camera outside while waiting inside for Northern Lights, then the camera is always ready to use.
5. The most important rule: ENJOY!
Personally the best advice I can give to you - do not enjoy this phenomena only through your viewfinder or camera screen. After a few shots, put your camera aside and stare into the night sky, following the movements of the Aurora. I often find myself laying down in the snow, starring up - try it, it’s the BEST! :-)