A winter dance by nature:
capturing the Aurora Borealis
The northern lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, attract increasing numbers of people to Abisko who want to experience this fascinating dance across the winter sky. People come to watch and photograph its beauty, from every corner of the world, especially so now that we have entered a decade that is affording the best possible conditions for sightings. Wolf joins in the winter adventures and speaks to some of the experts at chasing the aurora – photographers Chad Blakley, Jonas Sundberg and Peter Rosén.
Aurora film: Arctic Nights is Chad Blakley’s second major film that focuses on the Aurora Borealis in Abisko National Park, Sweden. The video was captured in its entirety during Lights Over Lapland’s photo tours in Abisko between 2012 and 2013.
Lights Over Lapland, Abisko Sweden
A little over five years ago, my wife and I moved to Abisko National Park to take on seasonal summer jobs. We quickly fell in love with the breathtaking landscape and the warm people of Northern Sweden. Lights Over Lapland is our venture into photography to capture and portray the wondrous nature that we are fortunate enough to observe first-hand in Swedish Lapland.
My interest in photography began at a young age. When I was a teenager, I worked for the local newspaper in a small town outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. During my college years, I started a small but successful business photographing weddings and students preparing for graduation. Though I truly enjoyed the technical aspects of photography, I soon grew tired of the repetitive scenes. I put down my camera and thought that my days behind the lens were finished.
Nearly ten years after losing interest in photography, something incredible happened – I saw my first aurora. Since that cold, dark night in the far north of Sweden, I was hooked. I have now spent thousands of hours outside photographing the star-filled skies. My passion for the night sky was further peaked when I began working at the Aurora Sky Station where my actual job is to hunt for auroras. Today, Lights over Lapland is able to offer all inclusive multi-day aurora photo expeditions, nightly aurora photo trips, customizable aurora photo adventures, HD Video, postcards, aurora souvenirs, and marketing images for individuals and companies all around the world.
'I am overwhelmingly proud to say that every aurora image and video I produce is 100% free from editing and colour correction.'
I believe that you should see the auroras as I saw them, and am I committed to sharing this wonder of nature with you in its natural form.
Lights Over Lapland was the first company to offer aurora photography adventures in the north of Sweden. Our attention to detail, extreme interest in our clients’ needs, and a desire to make sure that every one of our guests has a great time in Abisko National Park, is what sets us apart from the other operators in the area.
I have been working as a photographer on and off for the last 20 years - I was a professional wedding and portrait photographer in New Orleans for many years, but none of my experiences then came close to providing me with the job satisfaction and happiness that aurora photography has given me. To be able to capture something as magical as the northern lights, is truly one of the best work experiences I could ever imagine! I consider myself to be one of the luckiest men alive!
I work in a very harsh and demanding environment. Very few people work in -30 degree temperatures with howling winds and snow, but I think this is one of the many things that keep me coming back. My job is NEVER boring! It is also worth mentioning that the northern lights are a natural phenomenon that often requires a lot of patience – it is not terribly uncommon to have to wait several hours in the cold only to capture a few nice images to show for my labour.
One of my favourite accessories for photographing the aurora is the time-lapse dolly. My dolly allows me to capture the movement of the lights in the sky and add an additional layer of excitement to my films by allowing me to move the camera in any direction as I capture footage of the aurora. Time-lapse dollies are a relatively new invention and I believe that they add an extra level of excitement to my work.
Aurora film: Peter Rosén has just released his first film about the Aurora. The images are taken during the past three years in Abisko and Swedish Lapland.
Lappland Media, Abisko, Sweden
Fourteen years ago, I moved to Abisko and fell in love with the subarctic light, as well as the natural phenomena Aurora Borealis, and the midnight sun that package it all so beautifully with the seasons. The landscape, wildlife and everything that belongs to the wilderness of Lapland inspires me to find new photograpy projects. It surprises me quite often that I can get so excited about a new aurora display even though I have seen thousands of them during my 14 years in Abisko and Swedish Lapland. Why? Probably because I love photographing light and the dancing queen of the northern sky is certainly the most spectacular of them all. Every evening is something different and when it comes to photography, there is always something new to explore and improve. Night photography can be challenging, but with the newer camera models, it gets easier, and the quality of the images improves every year.
The international fascination with the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, has been my favorite theme for many years. With the book Aurora Borealis in Lapland, myself and the author Lisa Holmström try to convey the spirit and awe felt by seeing the aurora live. Aurora Borealis in Lapland has sold over 4,000 copies before it was even published. This is one of the highlights of being a photographer in Lapland, where the tourism industry is growing every year. A month ago, I published my first e-book Aurora Borealis – the Science, Folklore and How to Photograph the Aurora. We also deliver aurora jewellery, aurora posters, with more products to come.
I love travelling and have been visiting more than 20 countries, but Lapland feels like home to me. The untamed landscape of Lapland, with its unique flora and fauna, provides a fascinating backdrop to the human dimension, which is full of laughter, serenity, playfulness and adventure. A love for nature evolved around us as a result.
My background is in environmental research and I have held the position of associate professor in Environmental Science, but my love of photography and nature made me to take an important step last year -I quit my research position to turn into full time photography. That was one of my best decisions in life. Right now, I am having a busy winter helping people take aurora photos in the Abisko and Kiruna region. I organise evening, 3-nights, and 5-days all inclusive tours. I have really felt the effects of the increasing number of tourists. Last year, I had guests from 18 different nations on my Aurora borealis photography courses in Abisko. This winter I have even more reservations for the courses. I employ two professional photographers to meet the popular demand for the evening courses for visitors in Abisko. New this year is two camps that we will have: a Sámi tipi tent and an ice igloo camp to visit and photograph the aurora. Photographers Ylva Sarri and Anette Niia, both Sami, will weave together their knowledge of night and aurora photography, with stories of the Sami culture. As my background is in Biology and research, I am very happy to share what I know about the nature of Lapland and how climate changes affect everything in this subarctic region. My photography courses usually have a Sami theme as the majority of my guests are interested in learning more about the native Scandinavian population. I also work closely with Nutti Sámi Siida, a Sami company that offers genuine Sami experiences.
Thanks to the increasing number of bookings this winter, we will expand our photo tours even more next winter and will offer tours every night!
My name is Jonas Sundberg and I am a 40-year-old professional photographer from Kiruna, northern Sweden. Photography has been a big interest of mine since my childhood days, and I have been working as a professional photographer since 2003. I do assignments for weddings, corporate organisations, as well as for magazines. The most enjoyable aspect of my job though, is taking my camera for a walk in an urban or natural environment to capture my own images and to express myself. If I later go on to sell these photos, which customers chance upon by browsing my web archive, I feel an added joy. Northern light photography, which I work with every winter, is an example of this. I work with Nikon cameras and use natural light as much as I can. I am a creative photographer who dislikes repeating my work much. Before most new jobs, I try to find fresh ideas and inspiration. Good TV and movie photography are examples of sources of inspiration I use.
My experience with hunting the aurora has been a unique journey. Growing up with this natural phenomenon ‘around the corner’, I barely paid any attention to it – not until I started to hunt it with my cameras. Ever since, I always look up at the sky when I go out in the evening or at night, and appreciate and notice its beauty much more. I have learnt that it changes very fast, and the strongest ones usually last for only 10-20 minutes. Occasionally, they last longer which allows for more time to work with them.
The aurora is a phenomenon that most photographers around the world will never catch ‘in their backyards’. Many will probably never even see one with their own eyes. Such photography is undertaken in cold temperatures, at late hours (between 8pm and midnight), and includes a lot of waiting time in the freezing cold.
Chasing the aurora is filled with challenges. It is very unpredictable and changing in its nature. Sometimes, it takes weeks to appear, and when it finally does, you may be occupied with other obligations. It does not appear where you want it to either! For example, I have yet to catch a really good and strong one above the town (Kiruna) from a distance. Streetlights can also pose a challenge, giving flair light that can ruin a very good picture. They also make it much more difficult to spot the aurora.
Over time capturing the aurora, I have grown very fond of my tripod. It often helps me to take better pictures. When I use it, I feel there is no need to rush, and I am more composed as a result. It also aids me in planning what technique to use.
Tips from the experts
'The Arctic is an unforgiving location and a guide’s local knowledge can prove to be invaluable.'
1. Choose a camera with a wide-angle lens
2. Take with you fully-charged batteries
3. Invest in a high-quality memory card
4. A stable tripod is a must
5. Take a headlamp with you
6. Dress for the cold
7. Get familiar with the ISO settings on your camera
8. Set the focus to infinity to make the stars sharp
9. Give the image a context
10. The exposure time varies
11. Invest in a wireless release for your camera
12. Place your camera in an airtight bag before taking it inside
13. Never breathe on the front element of your lens while you are out in the cold
14. Finally, before you book your trip, research your destination
Words: Sharman Tanny
Photographing the Aurora
Among the most important things to think about when photographing the aurora is to hold the camera still. If you do not have a tripod, place your camera on the ground or anything else steady, direct the lens towards the aurora and take the picture. If your camera has settings for exposure times, allow for as long exposure as possible, 10 – 30 seconds is usually enough. If you have a little more experience and your camera allows for manual settings, try the following tips to capture your aurora image in the best possible way.
Before you set out
Choose a camera with a wide-angle lens – you need the right camera if you are going to capture high quality images. Always use a modern digital SLR camera. Pocket compact cameras, even high-end models, will not provide quality results. A minimum aperture of f3.5 will work but f2.8 or faster is recommended. An 18mm lens is a good minimum starting point. Since all the adjustments are done in the dark, it is a good idea to become well-acquainted with your camera and perhaps read through the instruction manual one last time before you set out. If you do not have one, it is worth checking if you can hire one from an online camera rental service or an aurora photography outfitter.
Take with you fully-charged batteries – batteries can quickly run down out in the cold. They will function approximately one third as long as they usually would under normal conditions.
Invest in a high-quality memory card – all the prep for the right equipment will be for nothing if you have a cheap memory card. They can become sluggish and fail in the cold conditions.
A stable tripod is a must – you will need to use a slow exposure to capture the light and if you try to do this by hand, you will get blurry results. Low quality tripods often fail under the extremely cold conditions present above the Arctic Circle.
Take a headlamp with you – the light is convenient when adjusting your camera settings, but also very useful for lighting up a nice foreground. A flash unfortunately gives an unnatural lighting and can spoil the atmosphere you want to convey in the image. A headlamp with the option of a red beam is also a very good investment. The red beam ensures that you will be able to maintain proper night vision while adjusting equipment and you will not ruin anyone else’s shot.
Dress for the cold – do not miss out on covering any part of the body. It could ruin the experience if you are freezing.
Out under the aurora
Get familiar with the ISO settings on your camera – you will be shooting the aurora in low light situations, and will need to use a high ISO. It is recommended to use 800-1600 ISO for all exposures unless you are using an extremely fast lens such as an f1.4. With the newer cameras, you can set the ISO higher without too much noise in the image. Open the aperture as wide as possible, between f2.0 and 4.0. A wide-open aperture allows for more light to reach the sensor per second.
Set the focus to infinity to make the stars sharp – especially if you do not have a foreground. One way to do this is to use the digital zoom function while in live view mode to be sure that everything is perfect. Few things are more disappointing for an aurora photographer than to capture a once in a lifetime image only to discover that it is blurry! With a wide-angle lens, you can focus on an object ten meters away and still capture a beautifully sharp aurora and a star-studded sky.
Give the image a context – a house, person or tree in the foreground may make the image more interesting and give perspective.
The exposure time varies – this depends on your ISO and aperture settings, as well as how strong the aurora is. A simple tip is to take a picture, evaluate it on the LCD screen or histogram, and make adjustments from there. If the image appears too dark, increase the exposure time. It can be anywhere between 5 – 60 seconds.
Invest in a wireless release for your camera – this lets you take a photograph without touching the camera and works best when the camera’s shutter needs to stay open for a long duration and you want to eliminate all possibility of camera shake. A wireless remote control device is best because cable releases can become hard and brittle in the extreme cold temperatures above the Arctic Circle.
Place your camera in an airtight bag before taking it inside –otherwise you risk condensation in the camera. Let the camera warm up inside the bag before taking it out in room temperature.
Never breathe on the front element of your lens while you are out in the cold – ice crystals will form on the glass and cause blurriness, ghosting and overall image degradation.
Finally, before you book your trip, research your destination – some locations offer far better chances of seeing lights than others due to local weather patterns. If you want to capture the perfect photograph of the aurora borealis, then book your trip with a reputable professional photographer. The Arctic is an unforgiving location and a guide’s local knowledge can prove to be invaluable. It is also important to make sure your guide has experience so do take a look at their work.