Shooting Northern Lights

Some of you might have seen this picture already on lightharmony or facebook but I can find no better to kick off the Photo of the Week category than this one. It's the result of the most exciting photographic adventures I have gone through this year and perhaps ever. I've been dreaming to witness the Northern Lights for the last few years but only this March all elements came in alignment and I got lucky. Originally, I just wished to watch and photograph it. Then, let it happily rest in my archive and pursue other little projects. But the magic of aurora can't be described with words and I only know now that the night I saw it was just the beginning of our long-term dating.

There are many places on Earth from where the aurora borealis can be seen. I chose Norway for my old bias (I wrote my university thesis about Norway many years back) and because it's quite easily accessible from Prague via who fly to Oslo with very good connections elsewhere. It was my second trip to Lofoten this year but both of them were quite short - 4 days. Apart from my ultimate goal, northern lights, I obviously wanted to shoot the beauty and peace of arctic landscape during the winter. On my first trip, I was just gently kissed by a brief little green flame that was impossible to photograph. But the experience of seeing it moving fast on the sky was like a charm that you never wake up from... Also, the second trip was looking hopeless to the very last moment (like it or not, there's a song in Slovak with the meaning 'you're on a ski trip but it's not snowing' that came to my mind when I realize that I'm on a photo trip and it was nothing less than snowing all the time :-)). Only last night we had to go to Tromso as this is where my flight back to Prague was scheduled from. The sky became to clear out as we were approaching the city, fully in line with the weather forecast (extremely reliable service at Prediction of solar activity for the night looked interesting, too (4 of 9 at

Camera: Hasselblad H1, Lens: Hasselblad HC 35mm, Digital Back: Phase One P30, Filter: No, Exposure: 51s, Aperture: 3,5

We struggled a bit to find a good spot for shooting as our compass seemed to be puzzled by something in the car and we needed to stop to properly set the north. At the end, we parked in a place some 30 kilometers north of Tromso from which we climbed a heap of snow to have a good overview into all directions. We were high enough to have a good chance of composing in a way that a part of the landscape can be captured together with a hoped-for aurora. All was set - the place, the clear skies and the predicted solar activity. Time for a dinner (thanks, Miro, for a delicious spacial food).

The actual performance started slowly but even the constrained beginning was spectacular enough to forget about the rest of the world for long minutes. Perhaps nothing can beat the feeling when you get to see this demonstration of the mother nature's power on your own. Freezing sinked into the half a meter of snow, I felt far too small to do anything else than observe in a sublime silence. Soon after the show went on to its best, I realized that my beloved Velvia needs to remain unused if I want to capture this thing right. I guess it would help if there was a little bit of moon light (but definitely not the full moon) but I was not blessed by any. Hence I used my Phase One back at at least 400 ISO in order to limit the exposure time to less than a minute. Still, the stars moved during 40-60 seconds that were needed to achieve the properly exposed frame but I thought they would add a bit of dynamics into the scene. I tried few different combinations of exposure times and ISOs with the aperture full open, to make sure I have it right (except for the histogram, not too much could be seen in the viewfinder nor on my display). Using the widest lens is needed as the phenomenon requires the 'big' sky. The bigger, the better because it spreads throughout and it moves. Also, the wide angle allows you to include some surroundings into the frame. Lastly, do not forget to charge your batteries up! Lot's of testing and previewing on the display combined with the frost can drain them up faster than you think. And of course, you need to be quick and ready in general. The strongest effect lasted few minutes and you never know when it happens. :-)

I need to be back next winter for much longer to photograph this again. Planning to use Provia 400 as I think the colors on film can be different. Very different. So can be the photographic experience...