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Photographing an amazing natural phenomenon

Photographing an amazing natural phenomenon - Here's photographer Mark Humpage's account of his trip to capture the Northern Lights.

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"The Northern lights is an amazing natural phenomenon. It has a magical and mythical surrounding that has been witnessed by few people in all her glory. The Vikings thought they were contrails from Thor's chariot pulled by three goats. I am privileged to have seen Thor's chariot" - Mark Humpage.

Without adequate planning the odds of seeing the Northern Lights are very low. Logistically, one has to travel to a cold northerly location where firstly they can be seen and when the sun is particularly active (solar particles colliding with the earth's atmosphere) and also hope the skies are clear. In addition, it is a winter event (summer in some northern latitudes enjoy 24 hrs of daylight). Throw in the phases of the moon, which can diffuse any showing, and you realise how the odds are really stacked against witnessing the phenomenon. However, with good planning one can significantly increase the odds of seeing the Northern Lights.
 
What causes the Northern Lights?
The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, is a pattern of differently coloured lights sometimes seen in the night sky in most northern parts of the world. In the southern hemisphere they are know as the aurora australis or Southern Lights.
 
The Northern Lights originate from our sun. Explosions from the sun's surface eject huge quantities of solar particles into deep space. These particles travel through space and take two to three days to reach our planet. As they close in they are captured by Earth's magnetic field and then guided towards the two magnetic poles. On their way down towards the poles, the solar particles are stopped by Earth's atmosphere, which acts as an effective shield, and collide with the atmospheric gases. The collision energy between the solar particles and the atmosphere gas molecules is emitted as a photon or a light particle. When you have many such collisions, you have an aurora - lights that seem to move across the sky.
 
Forecasting the Northern Lights
It is relatively easy to find out when the sun is active and more importantly when it will interact with earth (resulting in aurora).The internet is your friend. Two useful sites that I use are:
 
  • www.spaceweather.com This has images and information on the sun's activity & current auroral oval (a map of the world that shows location and strength of aurora activity).
  • www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast This site has an excellent advance forecasting feature allowing you to nail down your exact travel dates many weeks in advance.
  • Where to see the Northern Lights? There are some great locations which have proven to be very popular and ideal for seeing excellent aurora activity. Two of the best are relatively easy to travel within Europe and the other slightly further afield, across the Atlantic in Alaska.
  • Norway offers excellent viewing opportunities. The northern city of Tromso is 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle and a great base to travel via air. It also has a good road network should you need to travel away from the city. www.yr.no/place/norway is the Norwegian equivalent of the UK Met Office and is useful for checking cloud forecasts.

Where to see the Northern Lights?
Iceland is also an excellent place for viewing. The island’s remote geographic location ensure plenty of clear sky nights, ideal for viewing the Northern Lights.
 
Reykjavik is easily reached by air and the road network is good should you need to move away from the city. Iceland offers splendid scenery such as geysers, waterfalls (frozen in winter) and volcanoes. These are stunning features to include in those Northern Lights photos. http://en.vedur.is is the Icelandic version of the Met Office, for weather forecasts and easy to read maps.

Fairbanks is an ideal target and another great aurora destination. Yukon Territory is a short drive away and the stunning scenery acts as a perfect backdrop for images.

http://climate.gi.alaska.edu/AKweather is a useful link to the Alaska Climate Research Centre which offers a comprehensive weather forcast.
 
Camera equipment and settings
A digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera is an absolute must. Such a challenging and nocturnal subject will require a good camera system that allows full manual control and capability to interchange lenses (for close up and wide exposures). Personally I use the Olympus E3 DSLR, an ideal camera for this subject. Tripod - This will keep the camera still and minimise blurring from the long exposures. Lens - The best lens for capturing the Northern Lights is a wide angle lens. At times, the subject will span across the horizon. A wide angle lens such as the Olympus 7-14mm will be ideal for capturing a 180° field of view.
 
I also love using a fisheye lens, such as the Olympus 8mm fisheye. This really does complement the magical subject and produces wonderful photos. It is also advisable to include a mid level zoom lens, something like the Olympus 12-60mm, to vary composition. Batteries – Take double the amount you would normally use. In extremely cold conditions batteries will drain a lot quicker. Tip - wrap a towel or fleece around camera whilst shooting. This will preserve battery life surprisingly well.
 
Photo by Mark Humpage.
Switch on Noise Reduction (NR). Shooting long exposures at night will generate noisy images. Noise adds a grainy like appearance and reduces image sharpness. With NR the camera will automatically reduce the noise and produce a clearer image. Remember that camera processing will double exposure times.
 
I always shoot RAW (and JPEG). RAW is the equivalent of the 35mm negative and will improve final image quality when post processing with software.
 
High ISO settings allow shorter exposure times, but will increase noise, especially visible on dark exposures. The level of noise will vary with each camera model. A good starting point is ISO 400 and exposure time of 15 seconds. Check noise levels by zooming on the LCD or if possible on a PC. Adjust ISO and/or exposure times accordingly. Most cameras should not require more than 60 seconds exposure time. In remote northern latitudes light pollution is non-existent resulting in intensely black skies (stars really do sparkle like diamonds!). Paradoxically this will highlight noise and is especially important to photographers.
 
Auto focus will not work in low light. Manual focus is required and set to infinity in the first instance. Tip – Use a lit foreground object, if possible, such as a cabin or building to manually focus. The camera must be set in full manual or M mode. It is the only way to get good Northern Light images. By using the lowest aperture value will allow the maximum available light into the camera (even in the dark). For my 8mm fisheye lens this is F3.5. It is good to start with a long exposure time of about 15 seconds. Check the image. If it appears too dark increase in steps of 5 seconds until you are happy.

Composition is also important. Nice aurora images generally include a strong foreground subject in the frame whether it’s a building, tree, mountain, water or some other feature. If you have the luxury of one or more of these
do move around and vary the composition, remembering to manually adjust the focus on each subject.

Shooting Tips:
  1. Travel lens light yet efficient. Think WAZ. A Wide angle, All rounder and Zoom will cover 99% of most shoots.
  2.  In cold conditions wrap a towel or fleece around camera whilst shooting. This will preserve battery life surprisingly well. Take double amount of batteries you would normally use.
  3.  Check noise levels on early shots through zooming on LCD or if possible on a PC. Adjust ISO accordingly. This will ensure an entire shoot is not ruined.
  4.  Capturing Northern Lights - Tripod, good foreground object, noise reduction ON, manual mode, lowest F number aperture, start with 15s exposure time (increase as required). Be patient. Aurora can appear sporadically over a period of many hours. Take warm breaks but constantly check the skies for activity.
  5.  Moving a camera from the cold to a warm interior will fog up lenses and introduce moisture inside the camera/lens. To overcome this wrap the camera inside a plastic bag, whilst outside, and then take it indoors. Wait 20 mins for the camera (inside the bag) to regain ambient inside temperature.
Visit Mark Humpage's website for more details.

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