Travel and photography blog Capture the Atlas has released the images from its third annual Northern Lights Photographer of the Year – a compilation of 25 of the best photos highlighting the aurora borealis/australis from around the world.
Similar to its process for highlighting photographers of the Milky Way, Capture the Atlas doesn’t have any single winner, runners up, or special prizes for its award. It simply selects and publishes the best images of the Northern Lights it can find. Dan Zafra, the editor of Capture the Atlas, curates these photos throughout the year. He looks not only for images taken by some of the most renowned photographers but also for new talents and for new locations where the Northern Lights haven’t been photographed before, such as the Antarctica image at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in this year’s edition.
2020’s list includes images that were taken around the world, in countries like the United States, Russia, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, and Antarctica, by 25 photographers of 18 different nationalities.
The Northern Lights season ranges from September to April in the Northern Hemisphere and from March to September in the Southern Hemisphere. The best time to see and photograph the Lights is during the fall and spring equinoxes because of the orientation of the Earth’s axis.
Below are 11 of the 25 incredible photos from this year’s group:
“Heavenly Dance” – Sergey Korolev
Location: Kola Peninsula, Russia
Caption: I’ve been hunting landscapes and Northern Lights on Russia’s Kola Peninsula for several years and I still find new spots. I found this stone beach on the coast of the Barents Sea a few years ago. At the time, I was mesmerized by the shape of the boulders, which moved with the rumble of the ocean waves, as well as the steep mountains rising from the sea.
I tried to shoot the Aurora here for a long time, and one day, I got lucky and captured this image.
The photo is very simple and consists of two shots; one short exposure to freeze the movement of the Aurora in the sky, and another longer exposure for the rocks.
“The Hunt’s Reward” – Ben Maze
Location: Tasmania, Australia
Caption: I have had the incredible fortune to witness the Southern Lights twice during two photography trips to Tasmania.
Captured in this image is a trifecta of astronomical phenomena that made for some of the best astrophotography conditions one can witness in Australia, namely, the setting Milky Way galactic core, zodiacal light, and of course, the elusive Aurora Australis. On top of this, a sparkling display of oceanic bioluminescence adorned the crashing waves, adding the cherry on top to what was already a breathtaking experience.
Having been out of reception and civilization for over a day, fellow photographer Luke Tscharke and I had no idea the aurora would strike on this night. We’d just heard rumors of a potential solar storm. We could barely contain our excitement when the lights first showed up on our camera’s screens. We later realized we were in the best place on the entire continent to witness the rare show, with Lion Rock being on the southernmost cape of Tasmania and much more cloud-free than the rest of the state at the time.
The colors that our cameras picked up were incredible, too. Rather than the classic green, the display ranged from yellow and orange to pink and purple. When I’d captured enough frames that I was happy with, I simply stood by my camera with my head tilted towards the sky, occasionally swirling my hand around in the sparkling water by my feet. I’m forever grateful for moments in nature like this that show us the true wonders of our planet.
“Dragon Eggs” – Roksolyana Hilevych
Location: Lofoten Islands, Norway
Caption: I found this unknown place on the Lofoten Islands as I was moving around the Gimsoya Islands.
That night was very cold, with temperatures reaching -20º C. It was probably one of the best shows of watching and photographing the Northern Lights I’ve ever experienced, because in a place like this, it’s not easy to find something new with such a magical foreground and the kp5/kp6 Northern Lights dancing all night long.
For this shot, I did a focus-stacking of three shots, two for the foreground at f/8, 10s, ISO 400 and one for the sky at f/4, 2s and ISO 640.
“Antarctic Night” – Benjamin Eberhardt
Location: Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory – Antarctica
Caption: This image shows a strong and colorful aurora over the IceCube Neutrino observatory in the South Pole and is part of a longer time-lapse series. The South Pole is probably one of the most remote and challenging environments to do photography, and it is strenuous for both humans and technology.
To achieve 24h-long time-lapse shots, you need some creativity to heat and insulate your equipment in order to keep it running, and even rotating, in temperatures ranging down to -80ºC (-112 ºF). In my case, this was a learning curve over multiple months, with a lot of trial and error and frostbite. On the upside, once you have tackled all the challenges, you have plenty of reasons to be proud of your shots.
“Convergence” – Agnieszka Mrowka
Location: Jökulsárlón, Iceland
Caption: It was late September 2020, and finally, the perfect conditions for the Northern Lights came together; +Kp6 converged with unusually calm weather and the moon illuminating the ice of the most popular glacier lagoon in Iceland.
It was a fierce and peaceful night to remember.
“Flames in the Sky” – Risto Leskinen
Location: Finnish Lapland
Caption: This image was taken in the Pallas-Ylläs National Park in the Finnish Lapland.
Satellite data indicated strong solar winds for the evening, and I decided to drive to Pallas Fell, where the landscape was ideal, with fresh snow on the trees. I usually concentrate on one composition per night, but this time, the aurora storm was exceptionally long, covering the whole sky, and I was able to get several images with various foregrounds. It was freezing cold, but flames like these make you forget the temperature.
“Turbulence” – John Weatherby
Caption: This night was surely special. It was the second night of our Iceland workshop, leading 10 people around the beautiful country for their first visit.
The forecast on this night was for a solar storm, and it did not disappoint. After the first sign of green in the sky, the group decided to book it out to the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. It was a group effort, but we managed to light the plane from the inside with two colored LED lights that a participant brought. Hearing the group’s screams in the dark from seeing a KP6 aurora for the very first time was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
I love chasing the Northern Lights because it is always a new experience. No two auroras are the same. The thrill is the chase. The forecast could call for nothing, but then, out of nowhere, it’s amazing. It’s part careful planning and part luck, but when you get an incredible show on a clear night and in an open sky, time freezes while you stare up and shoot in complete awe.
“Aurora Eruption” – Tor-Ivar Næss
Location: Lyngen Alps, Norway
Caption: A few years ago, I realized how spoiled I am. On a random Tuesday night, I can head out, if the weather is decent, and capture one of the most sought-after phenomena in the world: the Northern Lights.
This image came from a night just like that in the majestic Lyngen Alps, which are always a fantastic background when the Northern Lights go bananas. It was a clear night in February, and the Northern Lights started moving very slowly, but they kept building up, so when I watched what was happening on my LCD screen, the Northern Lights looked as if they were erupting from the mountain.
Thanks to the moonlight coming from the left (south), the landscape was nicely illuminated and I got a decent balance with the overwhelming display of the Aurora Borealis.
One thing that I’ve learned over the years shooting the Aurora is that, if you wait for 100% clear skies before heading out, you will miss out on plenty of good Northern Lights displays. This is just a tip if you are in a region of the world where the Northern Lights are visible at night.
“Natural Mystic” – Virginia Yllera
Caption: It was a cold and windy night in November, and one of the most spectacular moments I have experienced chasing the Northern Lights. The wind-chill, added to the spray coming from the waterfall, was part of the adventure. The shooting conditions were challenging, as I constantly had to wipe out the lens and make sure that the composition and exposure were correct. Finally, the Lights exploded and all the effort paid off.
“Hafragilsfoss Aurora” – Stefano Pellegrini
Caption: During my last trip to Iceland last August, the weather conditions were very “Icelandic”: cloudy & rainy. One evening, after spending a sunset in Dettifoss, I looked up at the sky and saw something green. I didn’t plan a night session in that location since I didn’t have any subject to shoot.
Dettifoss was too big and full of spray to photograph at night, so I got in the car and searched for other spots. My final destination was Hafragilsfoss, where I found an interesting composition. As soon as I was in the right position, I started with a 4-minute shot for the foreground. After a minute, I saw the sky exploding, so I quickly got my camera ready to catch the aurora. It was absolutely breathtaking and one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen!
“Gate to the North” – Filip Hrebenda
Caption: I was really tired after a long day of traveling across Iceland and shooting the sunset in the northern part of the country. But after the sunset, charts of KP index jumped to number 6! That meant that I couldn’t go to sleep; it was aurora chasing time!
After a few hours of waiting, Lady Aurora came out with amazing power. The shooting conditions weren’t easy. In the evening, winds of 70+ km/h began to blow, which is difficult for shooting long exposures. To take this photo, I also had to make sure that my tripod was as steady as possible. Despite the challenges, I managed to pull off a very special Aurora image. It doesn’t matter how tired you are; when the aurora shows up, euphoria always wins over fatigue!
To see all 25 of this year’s winners, make sure to visit Capture the Atlas. If you want to learn how to capture images like these, the blog also has some excellent resources to help you out like this detailed blog on how to photograph the Northern Lights.
Image credits: All photos credited individually, used courtesy of Capture the Atlas.