Getting the shot!
The first in an irregular series of stories, about the images I've captured.
Seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights had been one of those things that I'd always wanted to do since I was a child. Pushing the button was the last in a series of steps that had taken five years of planning that culminated in the capture of this image. This page details some of that journey.
I first went to Lapland some 7 years ago, a group of us had skied down Mont Blanc the year before and we were looking for somewhere else for a skiing holiday. We couldn't get into any of the places we wanted to and ended up, almost by accident on a package tour in Finland for a week. Instead of spending the time skiing, we were too busy with snowmobiles, reindeer and huskies to strap on some skies. On that trip I saw a very short, three second aurora and vowed to go back to photograph them. Over the next two years I learnt about space weather and how the aurora were caused when they were most likely to happen and managed to learn to speak some Finnish from working as a volunteer for a Finnish centre in London.
The second visit was unsuccessful with lots of snow and therefore complete cloud cover. On the third trip I hired a car and went looking for suitable places to stay on the next trip. I found a great location near a place called Muonio with good views to the north, and more importantly, near to a husky farm. I'd found out from the locals that the dogs would bark at the aurora, so I had a built in alarm clock right next door if I did manage to sleep. I got some good pictures on the next trip but the camera I had at that time couldn't handle the extreme cold although by then I did have the necessary specialist clothing that was needed if I wanted to stand around for hours in the sub zero temperatures of -25c.
And so to the most recent trip, I had the great location again, 4 legged aurora detectors, clothing to keep me alive in the arctic and had settled in to the pattern of staying out from about 9pm till around 3am before heading to bed. There had been a couple of small storms during the early part of week I was there, but the last night saw me set up the three digital cameras as usual, Nikon D70, D70s and Canon EOS 20D. Spare camera batteries keeping warm under the 4 layers of clothing that were needed. and a space weather forecast of moderate to good. During the next three hours I watched satellites passing overhead glinting in the sun that was far under the horizon, looked at the milky way that was visible in the clear arctic skies and counting the meteorites that flew overhead punctuating the scene.
Then came the first hint of an aurora directly above me. As the aurora developed, it looked like high, wispy cloud and doesn't so much get brighter as thicker and darker. Then without further warning the storm was upon me.
It's difficult to describe the aurora to someone who hasn't seen it. You can describe with a mathematical precision the interaction of a single particle from a coronal mass ejection being trapped by the magnetosphere and then colliding with an atom of gas to give off a single photon.
You can describe the scale of the 100 million of these collisions that are needed to make the aurora visible 100 miles below it on the ground. But what no pen may describe and no brush reveal is the awesome power and incredible beauty of these dancing ribbons of green light at the very edge of space as they race from horizon to horizon as some unearthly hand plays a hose of light across the sky .
The curtains of light that extend thousands of miles across the sky and flutter in the solar wind are more incredible in that they do so without a sound either from them or in accompaniment to them. It all unfolds before you with only the sound of your own breathing.
All the cameras were set to 20, 25 or 30 second exposures, depending on the lens and although separated by about 20 meters and pointing in three different directions, it meant I had time to check the settings, realign the camera at the busiest part of the sky and start the next exposure before moving to the next camera and repeating the process. I'd just set off for the Nikon D70 when I saw the halo forming over the house and a light on in the porch. I pointed the camera in the right direction and hit the button. My attention was then onto the next camera as I was swapping batteries out by this time. Li-on batteries don't like cold temperatures, they go flat. Once they've warmed up a bit they go back to having some power in them, so the trick is to always have a warm battery in your pocket. With large mitts keeping my hands from freezing, working in the dark with small batteries and even smaller switches I didn't get to look at the images I'd taken until all the batteries were flat, the storm was subsiding and I was very cold. I got back to the house at around 3.30am. As I scrolled through the pictures I saw just what I'd captured for the first time and thought, "Sometimes I do get to places just as everything is ready to have somebody click the shutter".
The secret to this image as well as many others to my mind, regardless of portrait, landscape or any other type of image is a 'Methodical anticipation'. If I have a camera in my hand, then I'm looking for the image that's about to happen, if I look for the shot that is happening, I've already missed it. 95% of a good picture is anticipation and preparation, the other 60% is everything else! :-)
Getting good shots, regardless if you are in the arctic or your attic, if you are taking pictures of aurora or of someone's first visit to your studio is just about getting as many of the variables controlled as you can and then seeing rather than looking for that moment in time that will happen if you let it. The skill comes in the orchestration of all the elements into the right place at the right time.
Since getting my first camera thirty years ago, I've been on a wonderful journey of discovery with technology and seeing the world around me, my passion comes from melding the two together into images that are a permanent reminder of a memorable occasion.
The journey continues.
© Maximagery 2006