North­ern ex­po­sures

Want to cap­ture stun­ning shots of the elu­sive aurora bo­re­alis within the Arc­tic Cir­cle? Arild Heit­mann is your guide…

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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 and www.spaceweath­er­ 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.­plot/), 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.

Cap­tur­ing light

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

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