Want to capture stunning shots of the elusive aurora borealis within the Arctic Circle? Arild Heitmann is your guide…
Here in Norway the aurora borealis is a booming industry. Tourists flock north to see the lights, and it seems there’s an aurora guide in every little fjord, waiting with 20 reindeer to take visitors into the cold Arctic landscape. And I can totally understand the fascination surrounding this phenomenon; I’ve seen it so many times, but it still manages to send shivers down my spine.
From late autumn to early spring I’m constantly monitoring solar activity, which determines if the aurora will appear. Two of the best websites that can help you predict aurora activity are www.spaceweather.com and www.spaceweatherlive.com. They tell you when a coronal mass ejection (a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields) is directed towards earth, as this normally means vivid auroras. There’s also a site run by Tromsø Geophysical Observatory (http://flux.phys. uit.no/stackplot/), which shows solar activity in real time.
When you’ve determined the best time to catch the aurora, (and got yourself to Norway, Iceland or some other place way up north!), the next step is to find a great location. I always look for interesting foregrounds. If there’s no snow, find still water or ice to create reflections. It’s always a good idea to have a decent view north, but the wildest displays will often be more to the east or west up here in the high latitudes.
The ideal equipment is a camera that can handle high ISOs, like the D800, and a fast, wide lens. I’ve yet to find anything that beats my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. I use Manual
mode 100 per cent of the time, and set the white balance to around 3300K. Fully open the aperture, set the ISO to 8006400, and adjust the shutter speed as required.
Focusing in the dark is tricky. I manually focus most of my shots, using a headlamp to illuminate the scene, but you can use autofocus if the scene is well lit. I’ll also use focus stacking to get the immediate foreground sharp. If you’re not shooting in bright moonlight, you’ll find the landscape looks dark in your shots, and there are a couple of ways around this: you can shoot a longer exposure for the foreground and blend this with the sky exposure, or you can shoot a single long exposure, but block the sky for the most of the time, exposing it only for a few seconds.
When it comes to postprocessing, again white balance is crucial – you can change the entire feel of a shot with just a small adjustment. I’ll also generally apply a selective Levels adjustment, which really brings an image to life, and use dodging and burning to enhance particular areas.
Shooting the aurora can sometimes be more painful than enjoyable, but the moments when everything falls into place are worth all the suffering!
01 Secret River Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 40 secs (landscape) 10 secs (sky), f/2.8, ISO1600
02 White wat er Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 24 secs (landscape) 3 secs (sky), f/2.8, ISO3200
03 Va lley Nikon D800, Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 52 secs (landscape) 11 secs (sky), f/2.8, ISO3200