When it comes to the beauty of mother nature, few views shine as spectacular as the arctic night sky. Frank Olsen is a self-taught photographer based out of Sortland, Norway, and is always on the hunt for an amazing Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights shot.
We caught up with Frank about life, astrophotography and the pursuit of the ultimate aurora.
What motivated you to get into photography?
I’ve been living all my life in the northern parts of the country, above the arctic circle. Before I got ill, I was working as a technical engineer in one of Norway’s biggest hospitals. So what used to be a dear hobby, has now become more like my daily routine. I bought my first SLR in 1979, at the age of 16. It was a Minolta with a 50 mm lens. Later I bought a lesser known brand, a Petri with several lenses. Then, after a few years with small, compact cameras, I bought a Nikon D60. This was in 2008. A friend of mine asked me to join him one night trying to shoot the northern lights. Well – from then on, I was hooked!
There are of course a lot of good crop-cameras, but they create a lot of noice at high ISO. So I strongly recommend full frame cameras. A sturdy tripod, a wide angle lens prefreably with aperture f/2.8 or lighter, cable release shutter. Turn off auto focus and image stabilizer. My camera can easily handle ISO 4000. But I prefer to go as low as possible, typically 1600 – 3200 ISO. White balance set to Auto. Set lens wide open, f/2.8 and focus to infinity. You can either do a full manual exposure, witch is quite easy when you have taken more than 800.000 night photos. Or use the aperture priority. If the photo get underexposed, adjust the exponation compensation. For Canon cameras there are live view, that is lifting the mirror, and see through the lens. Point the lens onto a distant light source, like a street light a couple of miles away. If there are no light sources, use the brightest star. Then zoom in, in live view and do a manual fine adjustment.
A night exposure can last from a second, and up to 30-40 seconds. The wider the lens are, (like 14 mm) the longer you can keep the shutter open without getting “star drag.” But I think it is important to keep it under 25 – 30 seconds. Especially if you are doing a panorama. Most wide angle lenses aren’t wide enough to get a great northern lights outburst. Or the entire Milky Way. And then you have to be very precise when you align the tripod and the camera. The tripod has to be precisely leveled. And the tripod head has to allow a smooth sweep from left to right, ( or vice versa). And you have to tilt your camera 90 degrees, and level it with the tripod. A panorama picture typically consist of 7 – 10 single photos. I only use Photoshop for post processing, and most of the time I get it right.
How long does it often take to get that perfect aurora shot?
The perfect Aurora shot? I am still searching…And soon turning one million photos, I’m still haven’t nailed it. That is the best about the Aurora shooting. You are never satisfied! I’ve been told I am one of the best Aurora shooters, ( don’t agree to that, though)…But I don’t know anybody else that are as committed tho this kind of photography as I am. For us, living in the arctic, we’re blessed with the auroras several times a week, weather permitting. The season stretches from September to the end of March. And even though we live at such an latitude, the temperature isn’t like the north pole. In my area, close to the coast, it rarely drop below -15°C / 5°F. But I always recommend to overdress. And feet, hands and head are always exposed. So be aware! I don’t care too much about time when I am out, so mostly I am out for 4-5 hours. But many times I’ve been out 10 hours or even more.
You can also check out more of Frank’s work on Fineartamerica.