A summary

Winter is coming to an end and so is the aurora season. Our nights are now getting much brighter and soon there will be daylight round the clock.
It’s with mixed feelings I see the starry sky go this time. It’s always sad not being able to stargaze at all but this year I’m happy to welcome summer.
Not many photos were taken by me this autumn and winter. At the beginning of the season I relapsed in my disease and was too sick to go anywhere at night. Then my beloved Tellus suddenly fell ill and left us way too soon.
Weeks after that I had my radiation treatment and am still recovering while waiting for the results.

Needless to say, this season has been awful.

I still wanted to share a few photos taken in the last eight months.

This was the start of the season. The end of August when nights were finally dark enough to see the light. I shot these, by the Bengt Hultqvist Observatory here in Kiruna, an observatory owned and operated by the Space High School.

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Next up is this September night out in the village Holmajärvi not far from town. The first sighting of our beautiful galaxy, The Milky Way. The aurora also put on a show that night. Our galaxy is not the only one visible in this photo, in the top left corner just to the left of the satellite trail is the Andromeda Galaxy. Our neighbour 2,5 million light-years away.

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Later on in September I shot this. My most treasured photo. It’s not by any means technically perfect, it’s a snapshot in our backyard but it means the world to me. Tellus and I enjoying the autumn night while the aurora shines above. ❤️

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And then everything happened. Life fell apart, hearts broke. This was February 4th, almost a month after Tellus passed. My first time out stargazing behind the house since it happened.

The aurora flared up as I was climbing the plowed up snow hill so I sat down and teary eyed took this picture.

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That’s this whole season summed up. Time for a fresh start, time to heal. Time to soak up the sunlight, watch everything come back to life. Watch my new family member Wil Wheaten grow up and create new adventures together.

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Can you really see colorful aurora with the naked eye?

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We’ve all seen the photos, bright shining green lights, sometimes even pink or purple.
The stunningly beautiful aurora borealis, the northern lights.

We’ve also seen the articles with headlines asking if we can really see them.
Do they really look colorful to our eyes, are they really bright or is it just photo editing magic?

Every such article I’ve read was written by someone who briefly, maybe for a weekend, visited a region where the northern lights appear and a lot of them came to the conclusion that no, it’s all enhanced photos.

This post is not written by a visitor, someone out to spend a few days investigating the truth.
This is written by someone who lives in one of those regions.
Here in subarctic Kiruna, Sweden, the aurora is just as normal as clouds in the sky. To those of us who have spent our lives under winter skies of green, the existence of brilliantly bright and colorful lights in the sky isn’t up for debate.

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Can you see them shining bright and colorful with the naked eye?   Undoubtedly yes!

Will you?
Impossible to say.

The thing is, you can never know for sure if there will be visible aurora on any given night.
There are forecasts but there are so many variables to take into account, you can never look at a forecast predicting a massive event and be certain that you’ll see anything at all.

The aurora can occur all year and at all hours of the day or night so why do people talk about the aurora season?
The answer is simple: sunlight is incredibly bright, the aurora doesn’t stand a chance to outshine our nearest star.
In the arctic region summer is dominated by the sun both day and night, the same goes for the antarctic region in winter.
During that season it’s impossible to see the aurora.

From September until mid April, that’s the “aurora season” for us in the North. On most clear nights during this period there will be aurora.
You can see the most mind blowing shows, rapidly moving beams of colorful light, flowing veils of green and pink. The kind of sight that makes you stop and stare and gasp for air.

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So why do these writers say that it’s all camera magic? I’ve even seen one say that it’s impossible for the human eye to see any color at all in the aurora.

The answer is this: they were simply unlucky or, possibly, have bad night vision.

There won’t be spectacular shows every night.
Sometimes it’s no more than a faint haze on the horizon, a colorless dim band stretching from east to west. You’re not sure if it’s a thin cloud or something else.
In those cases your camera will give a very different image. That faint colorless haze will be green and/or red in your picture.

Sometimes it’s a slightly brighter band reaching higher in the sky, maybe a hint of color and you can see that it is moving.

Sometimes – and these are the times us aurora lovers live for – it’s like a massive explosion in the sky. Lights dancing in every direction, seemingly shooting out of a dark center spot directly overhead. So bright and intense that it feels like you can reach out and touch it.

You can find yourself experiencing any of these examples or even all of them in one single night but you can never know beforehand what you will see.

That is part of the allure of the aurora.

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If you find yourself reading one of those pieces on how the colorful lights aren’t really colorful at all, just sit back and think about simpler times ages ago.
Ask yourself why there are old legends about the aurora from every culture around the auroral zone.

Why did Finns centuries ago come up with stories about how those mysterious dancing lights were really caused by the flaming tail of the Firefox, if they couldn’t even see them?
Or in Norse mythology where there is a legend saying that the shining northern lights were reflections from the armour of the Valkyrie?

There certainly weren’t any fancy digital cameras back then when these legends were born so I would be willing to bet that those people saw the lights just as vividly as we do now.

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Those of us who have fallen madly in love with the elusive aurora and spend countless clear nights out waiting for them, we do it because when those spectacular shows happen, it’s one of the most beautiful sights a human can ever lay their eyes on.
We wouldn’t be out there in – 40°C weather waiting, sometimes for hours, for something that wasn’t worth it.

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Let’s talk about gear

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One of the questions I get asked the most, besides “when can I see the aurora, will it be there on Thursday at 8.30pm?” is about which camera I use.

I always answer, of course, but what I really want to say, and sometimes do, is that it doesn’t matter.
Yes, an expensive pro camera will probably give you more resolution, maybe a bit sharper pics, maybe shoot a few more frames per second but ask yourself if you really need it.
None of my cameras are considered professional level by the way.
I’ll be honest, I love Nikon (nope, they haven’t sponsored me in any way) the Nikon gear I own is all amazing, I like the menus, the placement of buttons and gears, the design and most importantly the results I get.

That’s my honest opinion BUT I realise that this is largely because the first proper DSLR I bought happened to be a Nikon (D7000) and I learned the menus, buttons, dials and got comfortable with it to the point where I can use it for my astrophotography in complete darkness without having to see the buttons.
As the years went by and it was time to get a new camera I decided that I wanted to step up to full frame and of course it needed to be a Nikon.
By this time I had acquired lenses for the previous camera and I really didn’t want to sell all those and have to learn a new system.
This is how it goes for many of us.
As I said, I do love it, it does the job and it does it incredibly well! Even though the Nikon I use now is almost 6 years old (D800).
Not to mention that it works great even in -40°C weather AND survives being forgotten out in the yard overnight while it’s snowing (don’t try that at home, it was not a nice surprise to wake up to).

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Shot at -42°C with the Nikon D800

The thing is, no one has mentioned a change in quality in my images when I switched cameras (I also use a Sony a7s), not followers on social media and not magazines, newspapers or anyone else who has published my photos through the years.

Even back when I first started, when I used the cheapest camera I could find, an entry level Olympus pen, I got comments from people saying “wow, you must have a great camera!”.

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Shot with the Olympus pen

And that’s my entire point.
No, you don’t need the most expensive pro camera when you’re starting out. Let your gear grow with your needs. Sure, if you’re shooting mainly fast paced sports events you will need a camera that can shoot more frames per second. And yes, it’s great having a full frame sensor when shooting astrophotography but the image is created by you.
You’re the one making that photo, whether it’s with the most expensive camera on the market or your phone.
If I give my camera to another photographer and have her shoot the same scene I just shot, our pictures will still be different from each other.
If I have Ami Vitale shoot a scene with her phone while I shoot the same with my DSLR, I’m willing to bet that her phone pic will be a million times better than my “real” pic.

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much in the various photography groups on Facebook lately and this gear obsession isn’t that common? I don’t know. I just wish that we would stop pixel peeping so much and focus more on the images.

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Let’s talk about it

Yesterday I posted a tweet about an upcoming photography exhibition where some of my work will be shown. I mentioned that I will not be speaking at the show opening because I just can’t handle it. I was asked why and answered honestly and bluntly: because of severe social anxiety, who knows why, I wish it wasn’t so. 

This prompted one person to privately message me saying I just need to get out of my comfort zone.
Now this isn’t something I haven’t heard many times before. This isn’t new to anyone with social anxiety, depression or any other sort of mental health issues.
This post isn’t aimed at that person, at all, but that message pushed me to write this post.

I have been very open about this in interviews and on my social media sites. It’s not something I’m ashamed of or find embarrassing and no one should! It’s just what it is. We’re all different and that’s good.

My journey in photography/art is probably very similar to those of many others.
You see, mental health issues are very common in creative people. Why is this? I don’t know, I’m no expert but I can speak for myself and based on the response to posts I’ve written about this in the past, I’m far from alone.

I started photographing as a form of therapy, a way to be in the moment, to force myself to really take in my surroundings, to notice things I hadn’t seen before and appreciate the immense amount of beauty we pass by every single day.
This started after I had been suffering from severe anxiety, depression and eating disorders for years, been on medication and then admitted to a treatment centre for months.

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Creativity reduces anxiety, depression and stress.
Whether it’s writing, painting, playing an instrument, creating sculptures, knitting or photography, it will make an actual difference in you. This is not hocus pocus, it’s just how we’re made and there is plenty of research to support it.
Maybe this is why so many of us with mental health issues find ourselves in creative fields. Doing these things releases dopamine, our own natural antidepressants.

Living with these issues is a constant challenge, trust me, if we could just “get out of our comfort zones” we’d do it in a heartbeat!
If all it took was for a stranger to say “hey, lighten up”, that would be amazing.
The thing is, that really doesn’t help. The exact opposite happens. What you’re doing when you offer these platitudes is placing yet another boulder on our shoulders. Making it our fault that we are the way we are, that we could change at will if only we wanted to.

A simple way to avoid this is to refrain from offering solutions to a perceived problem unless you’re actually asked.
I’m sure I’m guilty of doing it myself, we could all do better.

I’ll add this final part just because I know I would love to hear that someone else experience these things too. I’ve been through this so many times now that it’s become my normal and I know that I won’t pass out and nothing horrible will happen. If you’re “new” in the game of anxiety, I hope you can find some comfort in that. You’ll be fine, it’ll get a little bit easier to handle every time.

What will happen on Tuesday, the night of the show opening, is this.
I will be stressed all day, my muscles will be tense, especially in the back and neck. I will force myself to go to the venue where I will become incredibly aware of every single thing happening in my body. I will find it hard to walk normally, stand, sit, talk, breathe. I will bring my camera to act as a buffer between myself and the outside world, taking pictures and experiencing the night through the viewfinder. I will hope that no one approaches me but I’ll be happy when they do.
That doesn’t make sense, you think? Nope, it doesn’t to me either.
I’ll try so hard to act normal, to the point where I forget what normal looks like.
When I’m finally home again I’ll get a “high” and be incredibly happy that I did it, then I’ll crash.
I’ll be exhausted, mentally and physically, for days, I’ll most likely have a horrendous headache from the tension in the neck when I wake up the next morning and it’ll last all day. I’ll spend weeks going over every minute in my head and think of all the things I should have done differently.

I’m not sure why I’m even writing this post, maybe it’s just a way for me personally to sort my thoughts or maybe it’s because I know for sure that there are many others out there who’ll recognise themselves in this.
This post doesn’t offer any solutions, no remedies, no quick fixes, just words.
I sometimes find comfort in being reminded of the fact that I’m not alone. There are countless others sharing these issues and experiences so I guess I hope that someone out there might find some comfort in this.

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How I edit my aurora photos.

I decided to make a video showing how I work on my aurora photos.

I figured it would be easier to just look at my screen instead on me trying to tell you in words.

I’ve never done a video before so it’s very amateurish and far too long! It was twice as long but I’ve cut out two clips, one where I edit an underexposed corona and one with a winter scene with messed up white balance.

If I ever do another one of these I promise I’ll keep it very short and only focus on a single image.

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Photoshopped!

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Brilliant aurora on a winter night

Can we ditch the term “photoshopped”?
What most people mean when they toss that word around is “manipulated”, an image far from what the photographer saw at the time, an image with elements removed or added in the editing process.

I shoot in RAW, as I’m certain a lot if not most photographers do.
When you shoot in RAW you get an unfinished picture. It will be lacking in contrast, saturation etc. It is up to you to process/edit it to get the final result you desire. This is often done in Lightroom or Photoshop with Camera RAW.
This is when you can make sure your final image reflects what your eyes saw or you can go crazy and create a true work of art nothing like what it really looked like.
Or anything in between.
This is entirely up to you and there are no rights or wrongs in art.

However…

If you’re producing journalistic photos you need to keep it real and true.
If you’re calling your work “nature photography”, well then you need to keep it natural. Don’t merge images taken at different locations at different times and call it a photograph.

Those of you who shoot in jpeg get a finished picture straight out of the camera but guess what? Those edits I mentioned are still made but they’re done in camera and decided for you by the people who made that camera.

When you choose one of the different “shooting styles” that many entry level cameras have, your camera sets everything for you. Doing this can produce pictures that are much more “unreal” than any RAW file heavily processed in Lightroom. (yes I’ve tried).
Many photographers will say “it’s natural, straight out of camera, not photoshopped!” when in fact your camera has done the “photoshopping” for you, basically slapped a filter on the picture and given you zero control over the final product.

You can manipulate the scene in camera when you shoot in RAW as well, of course.
Change the white balance to get weird colors, underexpose, overexpose, create motion blur, zoom in or out during the exposure etc.
Are those pictures entirely natural just because they came out of the camera like that?

GalaxySmallI created this starburst effect by slowly zooming in during a 30 second exposure.

And what is “natural”?
When you stand in a beautiful landscape watching the sunset, is the landscape in front of you pitch black? No?
Well if you take a photo and expose for the sky it will be.
Is that natural? Or is it a more natural result if you pull up the shadows in your RAW-file to show the foreground as you saw it. Or if you take three exposures of different lengths and merge them into an HDR image to show a much higher dynamic range, more in line with what your eyes actually saw.

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And then there’s those of us who also do astrophotography. Long exposures of the starry sky.
Our eyes will never see the bright colors in the Orion Nebula or the subtle colors of the Milky Way but our cameras do!
The information is there and our cameras capture it.

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A long exposure of the starry sky in a dark location will show many more stars than your eyes can see, straight out of camera with no editing at all. Is that “natural”?
To get a good photo of the Milky Way you absolutely have to do a lot of processing.

I just get so tired of seeing the phrase “photoshopped” thrown around when 90% of the time the person saying it doesn’t have a grasp of the meaning of it or the process.

If you really mean “manipulated” then say that and ask the photographer (politely) about their process. Any honest photographer would gladly answer. 🙂

If there’s any interest I’ll write a post about how I process my aurora photos!

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The aurora – then what?

Find a place far away from city lights to lean back and marvel at the night sky.

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Millions of stars shining bright, so far away you can’t even comprehend the distance, yet they’re all in our very own galaxy.
As your eyes adjust to the darkness you’ll start seeing more and more stars.

There you are, spinning around on a tiny little rock being hurled around a fiery ball of gas.

Moving through time and space wondering what your purpose really is in the grand scheme of things.

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The mountain tops you see in the distance, huge compared to us but dwarfed against the backdrop of the vastness of space.
You notice a small, blurry spot of light, different from all the other stars and planets you can see.
Like a tiny little cloud but it’s glowing.
You’re gazing at a whole other world.
Far, far away from all the stars you can see, 2,5 million light-years away from our entire galaxy.

Our neighbour Andromeda.

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You’re seeing it as it looked 2,5 million years ago, that’s how long it’s light has been  travelling to greet your eyes at this very moment.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the farthest object we can see with the naked eye, so far it’s hard for us to imagine.

If we were to travel at light speed it would take us 2,5 million years to reach it.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy are actually being pulled closer to each other, at 402,000 kilometers per hour.
4 billion years from now they will finally collide and eventually merge into a new galaxy. “Eventually” in this scenario meaning billions of years from now.

That’s as far as we can see with the naked eye, in binoculars or through a telescope the view is spellbinding.

So what else is there?

Dark sky spots are sadly becoming few and far between but if you manage to find one, far away from light pollution, let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Avoid looking at phone screens or using flashlights, just sit for a while looking at the sky.

As your eyes become accustomed to the darkness you’ll see more and more stars appear. After a while you’ll find it hard to make out the most well known constellations because there are just too many stars.
You notice something strange, a glowing band stretching across the sky. Brighter than the starfilled sky around it, like a gas cloud had been sprayed from horizon to horizon. As you keep watching you see that you’re looking at a band of layers upon layers of stars, our street in the universe, our galaxy from within.

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You might start noticing little clusters of stars, like fuzzy balls of light, globular clusters like the Beehive or Double Cluster.
Or open clusters like the famous Pleiades, the Seven Sisters with visible nebulosity.

If you focus your attention just south of Orion’s Belt in the constellation of Orion you’ll see another fuzzy “cloud”, the Orion Nebula. You are watching a stellar nursery, a place where stars are being born.

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To the naked eye it looks like a gray hazy spot, like a tiny cloud with edges you can’t quite make out.
I remember the first time I saw the Orion Nebula, or M42, through a small telescope, it almost moved me to tears.
When I took a picture of it and saw the colors the sensor in my camera captured, I was blown away.

M42 is located roughly 1,3 thousand light years from us. It feels almost within reach when compared to the unimaginable distance of the Andromeda Galaxy, doesn’t it?

Much closer than that we find our brightest stars, apart from the sun of course.
Sirius, the brightest one, only 8,6 light years away, is visible low down in the winter sky up here.
I say “one” but Sirius is actually a binary star, consisting of two stars but they look like one to us.

And then there’s our home in this galaxy, our corner of the Milky Way: the Solar System.
We can easily see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn with our unaided eyes and Uranus and Neptune through binoculars or telescopes. (Uranus can be seen with the naked eye if your eyes are sharp!)

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And then there’s the aurora.
That beautiful cosmic dancer, the mind blowing light show in the sky.
What a beautiful reminder of our magnetic field, always there to protect us.

Apart from all those objects we’ll also see an array of satellites on any given night, not to mention the International Space Station! Sadly we can’t see the ISS from up here but you probably can where you are.

If you’re lucky you might also see some meteors whizzing by, creating a spectacular show as they burn in our atmosphere.
If you’re incredibly lucky, and/or very dedicated, you might even find a meteorite. A piece of debris which has travelled from outer space and survived the harsh journey through our atmosphere before landing here on Earth.
Once part of an asteroid or a comet or maybe a meteoroid, now resting in your human hands.
Wouldn’t that be something?

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