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Northern Lights

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

December 11, 2023

On my recent trip to the sub-arctic to photograph/film Polar Bears and Beluga Whales, we had an opportunity to witness and capture some images of one of nature’s most spectacular and inspiring shows, the Aurora Borealis or otherwise known as the Northern Lights.

Each day after a long adventure of traveling across the tundra in search of Polar Bears, we would head back at sunset to grab a cold sandwich and beer, we would get about an hour and a half break before heading out for the night to capture images of the northern lights.

We would check several apps on our phones to see what the aurora forecast would look like and if we would have clear skies and light winds. Then we would decide upon what we wanted to use as a subject in the foreground of the picture. Images of the northern lights are good but having something in the foreground to give it some perspective is essential in my opinion. The first night we decided it would be spruce trees and a small rustic building.

We drove about 20 minutes to a spot that would accommodate both trees and a building. Along the way we could see the aurora outside the van windows, and everyone was getting excited. When we arrived, I quickly set up my tripod and small ball head which would allow me to position the camera either vertical or horizontal and make sure to hold the camera very still since the exposures needed are very long.

Once I picked out a spot with several nice tall and narrow spruce trees in the foreground, I needed to make the changes to the settings on the camera to be able to capture the images. For this I use a red-light head lamp to see the small knobs on the camera and make all the adjustments needed.

For most of these images I knew I needed at least a three and sometimes up to five second exposures. This is why a stable tripod is so important. The ISO, or sensitivity of the sensor, needed to be adjusted to be very high, around 3,200 or higher. Using extremely high ISO’s is something that I couldn’t do back in the film shooting days so it’s a welcome advancement in photography.

Setting the focus on the camera to infinity is the next important setting. You can’t go past infinity; it needs to sit right the exact spot to make sure the image is sharp. Then it’s a matter of taking a picture and seeing how it looks on the display screen and tweaking the adjustments to your liking.

At the same time, I set up my GoPro to capture night-time time-lapse sequences. This isn’t an easy thing to do but after fiddling with the settings I found a combination of settings I thought I would like the best and gave it a try. I used a mini tripod to stabilize the camera and set it up and walked off. Only time would tell if this would work out or not.

This went on for 3 nights in a row, each night after a long day of being in the tundra during the daylight hours looking for foxes, hares, and bears. Needless to say, we were running short on sleep, but no one complained. You don’t get this kind of opportunity every day, so it is important to give it your all and try to enjoy every single moment.

We stayed out until about 1 or 2 am capturing images of the northern lights. It was fun to find different foreground subjects to make the image pop. One night we ended up on the banks of a large body of water. The northern lights were exceptionally bright. I was standing on the rocks at the shore. The reflection of the northern lights in the water was the subject of the evening’s photo shoot.

While setting up I heard clicking of nails on the rocks just inches away from me. I turned my head and looked down. At first, I thought, who brought the dog with them, but a split second later I could clearly see the white tip on the tail indicating it was actually a Red Fox. I turned on my head lamp and sure enough a Red Fox was walking down the shoreline looking for things to eat and passed withing 12 inches of where I was standing in the dark.

The northern lights are one of those things in nature that defy description. They bend your mind into spaces our mind normally doesn’t go, and they are extremely inspiring and motivating. Often, I would stop photographing and just stand and enjoy the show. Taking it in and burning it into my memory because that’s what you do when you are inspired by nature. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at www.Instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at www.naturesmart.com

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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