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Capturing the Aurora… Handheld!

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 8 sec. • ISO 3200 • Tripod

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is one of those magical, elusive things whose existence you never really believe in until you see them for yourself. Over the years, I have had multiple opportunities to find myself in locations where it was possible to spot the Aurora.

After the first two of three trips, I was left wondering:

“Is that really it?
Or am I just hoping to spot something that’s not really there?”

Capturing the Aurora is one of those types of shots that come with many challenges.
It is always to be found in cold, remote locations, close or beyond the arctic circle, and requires these, usually gray and overcast places to be crystal clear.
To even just get a chance of seeing it, many factors have to play in your favor. Even then, there is the unpredictable nature of the solar winds, which actually cause the lights to appear, that need to be strong enough for them to show as green or purple hues in the skies.
All in all, if you find yourself in a cold, far northern spot, with no chance of rain or snowfall, the rule of thumb is go for it!
Pack extra layers of clothing and be prepared to spend the entire night looking for something that might or might not appear.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 6 sec. • ISO 3200 • Tripod

How else would you expect to find magic, right?
When she does finally appear, oh boy, she is a pretty sight! Dancing in the night skies, she is magical, elusive, ever changing, and beautiful. Sometimes a weak streak of faint green shimmer on the horizon; sometimes a massive green night sky covering the landscape below in a green glow. Never the same; never boring.

But now comes the tricky part: capturing this beauty in a photo that really captures it in all its glory.

You see, the problem with capturing the Aurora is that you are going to need a long exposure—anywhere between five and fifteen seconds. This is something that, in most cases, requires a tripod. Plant your tripod feet and shoot. At least, up until recently, that would have been my answer to the task.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 4 sec. • ISO 3200 • Handheld

But, on my most recent trip to Norway, I suddenly found myself a couple of hours hike away from my tripod. I had left it in the car to pack light for the journey. Together with fellow Olympus Visionary Alvaro Sanz, I was out to spend the night and capture the golden hours on the famous Kvalvika Beach of the Lofoten Islands.

Solar activity was predicted to be low to non-existent so I decided it would be easier to just leave the tripod behind. But, of course, as Murphy's Law would have it, the skies cleared, and after an amazing sunset and blue hour that followed, the skies were starting to glow green. There she was, the Aurora I did not expect to see that night.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 15 sec. • ISO 3200 • Tripod

I had no choice, and so I started putting my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens to the test. If I was going to get a shot, I wanted it to be more than just the night sky: a well composed landscape shot complimenting the Aurora above. So I started pointing my camera at the sky—handheld.

After three seconds— sharp, pleasantly surprised.
After five seconds—sharp again. OK, now we were in the territories of the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO lens.

I decided to push it and see if I could capture the Milky Way and the faint Aurora on the horizon in one shot and handheld. I knew I was going to need a longer exposure. Therefore, I rested my arms on a large boulder and exhaled slowly, pushed the shutter button, and started counting in my head:

1… 2… 3…, time goes slowly when you are handholding a long exposure. Plus, since it was dark, I could not be sure how much I was actually moving…7… 8… 9…, still exhaling slowly, I started to wonder: could this even work? …12… 13… 14… 15…Click. Shutter closed.

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 15 sec. • ISO 5000 • Handheld

The shot was clear. How was this possible? Luck?
So I tried again.
Never had I experienced such freedom when shooting at night. This newly found handheld freedom had me exploring the entire beach for compositions all night long. Something I would never have done if I had been restricted to shooting with a tripod.

Photographer profile: Chris Eyre-Walker

OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO • F2.8 • 10 sec. • ISO 3200 • Tripod

Featured products:
OM-D E-M1 Mark II
M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO

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