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.

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.

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.

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!

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?

When – where – how

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There are a few questions I get asked almost daily and as much as I love helping people out, I just don’t have the time or energy every night to give everyone extensive answers.

I feel really bad when I leave messages unanswered so I decided to write this blog post. I’ll try to answer all of the most common questions here, if there’s something you’d like to know that is not mentioned here or if you just want to chat about aurora photography or something, feel free to shoot me a message!

I will not be addressing aurora photography questions in this post.
You can find my free guide here: Aurora photography guide

Ok, here we go!

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When is the best time to visit your region to see the aurora?

This is not as simple a question as you might think. There’s no definitive answer, I can’t tell you a specific month or week to visit.
The aurora occurs all year, in summer and winter, day and night.
Awesome! Right?
It would be if we could actually see it.
Naturally, we can’t see the aurora during the day and this is the subarctic which means “a day” doesn’t always mean what you think it does.
Located far above the arctic circle, Kiruna experiences 1,5 months of midnight sun in the summer. During this time the sun stays above the horizon 24/7.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a considerable amount of time before and after that period when the sun only dips below the horizon for minutes up to a few hours. During those periods it’s still almost daylight all through the night.
We’re left with September all the way through to April, this is when our night sky is dark enough for the stars and aurora to shine through.

So when should you come?
It all depends on what type of experience you want to have.

In autumn, September,October and most of November, there’s no snow and lakes and rivers are not yet covered in ice.
This is a perfect time to visit if you want to see the aurora and starry sky over open water. The reflections are magical!
During this period you can also go hiking in the mountains but beware, it gets cold at night!

Midwinter, December – February, this is when you’ll get the real winter wonderland experience.
Tons of snow and it can be ice cold. Temperatures can drop down to below -30°C in town and below -40°C only 15 minutes or so outside of town.
You can go dogsledding, ride snowmobiles, go skiing, stay at the famous Ice Hotel etc.
In March it’s usually a bit warmer again but still just as much snow and in mid April our nights start getting brighter again.

These are the months when it’s technically possible to see the aurora up here but there are never any guarantees. I can’t stress that enough!
The aurora is a natural phenomenon and nothing we can control. It all depends on the solar activity and the weather down here on earth. If it’s cloudy you won’t be able to see it.

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How long should my visit be in order to maximize my chances of seeing the Aurora?

As I just said, we need a clear sky (or mostly clear) to see the aurora and the weather can change quickly up here.
I’d suggest you plan for at least 4-5 nights to maximize your chances. Still, there are no guarantees. You might get amazing shows every single night or you might just see a faint arch on the horizon or nothing at all. That’s one of the most frustrating things about the aurora but also one of the reasons I love it so. You just never know what you’re going to get and you’ll never see the same show twice.

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What should I wear? Doesn’t it get insanely cold up there?

Yes it sure can!
It all depends on what you find “insanely cold” of course. As I mentioned before, in midwinter the temperature can drop down to below -30°C in town, that’s cold!
But since you’re here to hunt the aurora, chances are you’ll be out of town at a darker location. Just a few minutes outside of town the temperature can drop down to below -40°C.
That’s “OMG it hurts to breathe”-cold, it’s “lose your gloves – lose your fingers”-cold, just trust me, it’s cold! But it’s an experience in and of itself. I’ve never felt so alive as when I’ve been out shooting in -42°C.

Layers, layers, layers!

It might not get anywhere near these temperatures when you’re here but it’s always good to come prepared.
If it does get that cold and you’re not properly clothed it is downright dangerous.
Fortunately those temperatures aren’t all too common and don’t occur all through winter. So how do you dress for extreme cold?
I would suggest your first layer consists of a good quality merino wool set. Don’t wear cotton as a first layer against your skin! Wear a warm pair of pants, avoid jeans, over the wool undies and a warm sweater. Over this you’ll wear good quality, warm, snow pants and a warm parka or jacket. If you’re shopping for your winter clothes in a warm country you might want to look online instead, and make sure you look for clothes made to withstand extreme cold weather.
A good pair of boots is essential. You’ll be standing still in cold snow for a considerable amount of time. Your winter boots should not be tight at all and you should be able to fit a warm pair of socks in there without feeling squished in.
The air in there is keeping you warm. You’ll also want thick, wool, insoles to keep the heat.

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Will my camera work in the cold?

It might or it might not. I use a Nikon D800 and a Sony a7s and I’ve never had any problems. The only thing I’ve noticed is that the batteries will drain quicker in the cold. Personally I don’t do anything to prepare my gear or to keep it warm but there are products made specifically for this purpose so look around online for gear that will fit your camera.

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Will I need a car up there?

I highly recommend you rent a car! Especially if you’re planning on staying here in town.
The aurora is definitely visible from town but you’ll get a much better view, much more vibrant colors and brighter lights, if you get away from the street lights.
Check out Sixt Kiruna at sixt.se, they have plenty of very nice 4wd cars perfect for the conditions up here. (Full disclosure, I happen to know them, great people! but no, I’m not getting anything in return for recommending them)

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Does the aurora really look like it does in your photos?

Yes! and no.
As I’ve said before, you never know what you’re going to get.
Sometimes all you see is a faint hazy cloudlike streak in the sky, other times you can see the most brilliant green and pink lights shooting rapidly across the sky. Sometimes it’s just a green arch on the northern horizon and other times it covers almost the entire sky, moving like cosmic waves above.
You just never know.
One thing you won’t see though is the intense red color our cameras pick up. Our eyes simply don’t have the ability to see all that.

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Do you do guided tours or workshops?

Sorry, no. That’s something I’ve never done simply because I can never guarantee we’ll see the aurora at all or that it won’t be cloudy. I wouldn’t know how to handle the disappointment, I’d be just as sad as the person who had paid me to teach them. That being said, if you happen to be in Kiruna during the season and the weather looks promising you can always get in touch and see if I’m available!

That’s just how I function, of course, if you want to go on an aurora tour there are plenty to choose from up here!
Check out Kiruna Aurora or Lights Over Lapland for example. The latter is located in Abisko
(Nope! They’re not paying me to say that either!)
I think that’s it for now.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to shoot me a message. I might add to this later on.

Good luck with your aurora hunting endeavours!

I wish you all clear skies

Wow! You must have a great camera!

Is this something you’ve been told before? Or are you guilty of saying it to someone else?

I was scrolling through my news feed on Facebook today when I came across a beautiful aurora photo by a local photographer. I started reading the comments and came across one that said this: “Wow! What a camera you have that gets such beautiful aurora pictures.”

I know that the people who say this always means it as a compliment but it’s really not. It’s a bit like telling someone who’s just built a beautiful house that they must have had a great hammer.

You can take amazing photos with the cheapest, most basic camera and you can take horrible ones with a brand new D850. The camera is your tool, you create the image. The reason the woman on Facebook got a great photo is that she has spent a lot of time learning how to use her tool. She’s practiced for years, developed her artistic eye and figured out how to best use her camera to create the best image.

And let’s kill the misconception that you need a pro-level camera to capture the aurora. Here are a few examples from my journey.

This first one was shot with a Nikon D800, a great FF camera that was pretty much top of the line back when I got it and still going strong! Yes, you can get awesome photos with this camera but you don’t necessarily need a camera like this in order to get great shots.

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The next one was shot with a Nikon D7000, a DX camera i used before getting the D800. Also great but very much cheaper and not aimed at the pro market. Still great photos when you know how to use it!

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Let’s go even further back in time to one of my very first aurora shoots. Back then I had my very first DSLR, an Olympus E-pl1. This was their most basic camera in the PEN series if I remember correctly, and the cheapest. Back then I still shot in jpeg and I was learning by trial and error which settings to use. As you can see, this exposure was way too long and I got startrails but I still love it! 🙂

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And finally a photo I took this winter but not with a DSLR at all. This one was shot hand held with my phone, a Samsung Galaxy s8. Because apparently phones can do this now. 🙂

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My point is this: You can get great photos with any camera so don’t feel the pressure to get something “better” and more expensive if you don’t need it. Get to know the camera you have and use it, a lot!

And if you see a great photograph and you want to compliment the photographer, then do just that. Don’t compliment their camera because the image you’re looking at was created by the person behind it.