This Aurora Image Took Over a Year to Capture
Dreaming of capturing the incredible Northern Lights above a breath-taking mountain formation, myself and award-winning photographer Florian Ledoux set out to photograph this unique aurora shot, a creative idea that took us over a year and a half to complete.
After planning every aspect of our idea, from choosing a location in a remote and challenging area just outside Tromso, to studying forecasts, safety, and security, and constantly monitoring the aurora activity, we finally managed to capture this shot on February 21st, 2022.
After discovering Lapland, Finland in 2016, I witnessed the Northern Lights for the first time. I became hooked on night photography, specifically the aurora, and have spent the last six winters working as an outdoor nature guide and aurora photographer in and around the Arctic.
I simply adore exploring and finding new and hard to access places in deep valleys or on mountain tops, with the aim of capturing ‘never seen before’ aurora photographs. To me, this is a key aspect of my photography: capturing the Northern Lights in a way we’ve never seen them, and being able to enhance their uniqueness and beauty.
Throughout my evolution in photography, I have focused on building impactful aurora photographs that require organisation, extensive planning, and deep creativity.
To me, fine art aurora photography is one of the most complex styles of landscape and night photography. This is because it brings together a vast amount of knowledge about the aurora, the weather, the locations, and of course technical photography. It requires plenty of patience, creativity, frustration, and perseverance.
Some of my photography takes a huge amount of time, and requires many attempts to capture the right moment, sometimes spread across a few winters. This is why I want to share the stories behind the photos I take, and I wish to explain how and why I captured the 2022 unique aurora shot.
Preparing for the 2022 unique aurora shot
The preparation for our project was such an entertaining process.
We had studied this specific mountain top for a long time, starting about eighteen months ago. Florian had been on many ski tours up on a mountain top located on the western side of Tromsø city.
He kept showing me some really nice phone photos of the impressive mountain formation, which gave me an insane idea: why don’t we try to get you up there, standing on the top of this tooth, with some dancing aurora behind you, Tromsø city lights in the back, and our tent lit up on the side?
It sounded like a dream shot, but not the easiest to plan and achieve. It did not take long for both of us to agree that it could be one of the best projects of the winter.
Choosing our gear
The project quickly became stuck in our minds, and we started to plan.
We had about 25kg of equipment on our backs. We needed quite a lot of gear, including avalanche safety gear and probes, shovels, a beacon searching device, our camera equipment (I shoot on a Sony A7RII and use a variety of lenses), our tripods, and strong head torches.
We knew the wait up on top could be long, so we also decided to bring two -30°C sleeping bags and a tent, so we could shelter in case of bad weather, and gather some heat.
Spare clothing was mandatory, as we would be wet with sweat when we reached the top of the mountain, due to skiing up 750 metres of elevation.
We also knew that communication could be an issue, because I would be staying at the bottom of the tooth (the mountain’s peak), and Florian would be standing at the top, exposed to the wind. To help this process, we took some VHF radios to be able to maintain communication.
Calculating aurora intensity
To be able to capture the aurora correctly, we had to understand the direction we were facing, to calculate what intensity of Northern Lights we needed. When we knew the aurora index we needed, we could plan which night we could go out on.
After studying the exact spot from which I wanted to take the photo, I figured out that I would be facing east/south east. This brought us to the conclusion that we would need a KP index of 3 or 4 (the KP index ranges from 0 to 9).
Once this was decided, we kept a constant eye on the aurora previsions during the upcoming weeks, so we could plan the night and decide when we wanted to launch the mission. We would also need to time it perfectly with the weather forecast, my time off work, and Florian being free to join the mission.
Hoping for the right weather conditions
We needed a completely clear sky to be able to see the lights. If the clouds rolled in, they would cover the sky and prevent us from seeing the lights.
We wanted to avoid wind, because staying in temperatures around -20°C for four or five hours can be really exhausting, and cold temperatures can be amplified when the wind gets stronger. By standing on top of the tooth, my little skier (Florian) also puts himself in a tricky position, which is not really safe when the wind is strong.
It’s all about the timing
We wanted to minimise the time spent up on the mountain peak; under really cold conditions, standing still for a few hours can be tough, tiring, and boring. When facing hard conditions for a long stretch of time, our productivity and efficiency also decrease heavily.
This can be prevented either by finding warmth, or by reducing the time spent out of the comfort zone.
While we were hiking, my fear was that the aurora would already be active on our way up. We did not want to rush the moment and feel we were missing out on the aurora activity. On the other hand, we had to plan some spare time around when we would arrive at the top of the mountain.
We wanted to be able to scout, and work out where to set the tent for a great placement in the photo, but also have time to gather all the right elements to build a powerful composition.
All of this, before the Northern Lights filled the sky!
The first attempt: 2nd February 2022
On our first attempt on 2nd February 2022, the predictions were looking amazing. Everything was lining up for us: a clear sky, soft winds expected, strong aurora with KP6 predicted, and really cold temperatures. It was forecasted to be -17°C, feeling like -24°C.
After gathering all the equipment we would need, we started the hike at around 6:30pm. We reached the top around 8pm, ready to search for all the elements we needed, and had thoroughly planned for earlier.
The clear sky was here as predicted! I spent one hour scouting when we reached the top, trying to understand where to place the tent, where to stand with my tripod, and how to find the right composition.
Meanwhile, Florian went to find a route that could lead him to the top of the tooth. This is where we hit our first issue, as there was a layer of thin snow covering a hard icy layer, making the way up really hard and slippery without crampons or ice axes.
After four and a half hours of waiting, sheltered in the tent, the wind picked up heavily, sending a snow drift on top of our gear and our tent. It forced us to pack quickly, move away from our spot, and reach the bottom of the mountain under really bad snow conditions.
The weather forecast appeared to be quite wrong, as there was much heavier cloud coverage than expected. The wind picked up at around 13 or 15 metres per second around 1am, making it really uncomfortable to capture images, or even pack our equipment, with so much snow drift.
Our first attempt was not a complete success, but we learned some really important lessons from it. We realised that we would need to bring ice axes and crampons for the next attempt, as the ice conditions change pretty fast.
We felt ready and more prepared for next time. I found the composition I wanted, I understood the settings I would need, and we knew how to safely access the top of the tooth.
We also figured out its exact orientation and, most importantly, where to place the tent, and how to leave no foot prints, keeping the snow clean of tracks for a neat photo. I also learned a lot about the camera settings required. It all became more organised in my mind.
I had to take the light pollution for Tromsø into consideration, which would have a great impact on camera settings. My idea was to take the same shot multiple times on different exposures to get the city light well exposed, but also have the shot as a panorama.
One thing was really important to me: to capture these shots a few seconds apart, to get a full homogeneity in the frame.
Adjusting our original composition
Florian would be my subject in the photo; a skier standing on top of this impressive tooth. The plan was to build a really constructive composition with the main mountain shape in the middle. By placing our lit-up tent on the left side, we could show the proper context of the night.
I wanted to create a panorama of two wide-angle shots, but the skier in the photo would barely be visible, because the lens was too wide. Having Florian standing on the top of the tooth would not allow me to see his full body. I was not able to capture his legs.
The outcome would probably result in only a head light being visible; this is not what I wanted. I decided to place him to the right side of the frame to bring more balance, creating a triangle of subjects, with the tent on the left, the tooth in the middle, and the skier on the right of the frame.
The second (and final) attempt: 21st February 2022
Following the lessons learned in our first attempt, we were ready to try again.
This evening, all the stars lined up to offer us the best night sky we could wish for. It took us about an hour and a half to ski up the mountain and set up our tent. The aurora was not visible yet, which gave us time to analyse our surroundings, the different snow conditions, and the correct orientation.
We spent a total of six and a half hours outside on this night, with a crazy temperature of -27°C on top of the mountain, occasionally sheltering in the tent to get some hot food and warmth.
Throughout the night, the cold was really affecting my photography, as I was switching lenses all the time. I wanted a panel of wide-angle shots, but also some close-up ones, so I kept changing my focal length according to the aurora movement in the sky.
I believe I carried out this process maybe 17 or 18 times during the evening, losing feeling in my fingers every single time.
Unfortunately, I gathered some unwanted scratches on both of my lenses, though luckily this didn’t affect my final photographs.
The cold was sharp, and I remember some moments when I could not even press the shutter to capture the image, because I had absolutely no feeling in any of my fingertips.
When standing on top of the tooth, Florian launched his drone to be able to capture the full perspective of the landscape around us. It gave us a glimpse of the amazing magnitude of this location.
Thanks to this aerial view, we could see the set up and the work we put into capturing these precious images. Florian is on top of the tooth, the tent is on the left side, and I am on the snowy ridge line below, figuring out my camera settings.
Having a photo where Florian is on top of the tooth was probably one of the most important elements, and I managed to gather this image at around 10pm.
In this photograph, we can see the full oval of light from north west to north east, and Florian standing on top of the tooth on the right side, with his headlight on.
The first few photos were taken with the aurora dancing in the north. At this moment I captured some of the most impressive panorama photos ever taken with the aurora. We were patiently waiting for the green lights to appear in the south east, to be able to see them dancing behind the tooth.
I feel that this series of images is one of my best bodies of work with the aurora; shooting such images in these arctic conditions brings an incredible feeling of satisfaction, especially after spending such a long time building hope and excitement to grab this unique aurora shot.
At 11.30pm we started to see the northern lights slowly crossing above our heads, and gently gathering above the tooth, facing south east. We could not believe it. We were thinking ‘there we go, it’s happening!’
Our excitement was really high. It took me 5 seconds to put my camera battery back into its socket, and click the shutter to grab the shot.
I wanted to document the whole project to show what it takes to capture the real aurora that appeared at this exact moment in time, and the hours of work, effort, and frustration behind the shot. To me, this is what creates meaningful images.
“A good photo of the aurora is a good photo, even without the aurora”, as I always say.