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Behind The Shot: Painting The Sky With Auroras

Einar Jenssen (@polarjenssen) lives in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost permanent settlement, located at the 78th parallel on the archipelago of Svalbard. “Here I work as an engineer for a telecom company,” he explains. “In my spare time I head out into the wilderness photographing landscape, wildlife and during the dark season, the northern lights – yes, it's pitch black night for almost three months.” He created this image of the northern lights with an unmodified Sony Alpha 7R III and Sony 24mm f/1.4 G Master lens. “I like this picture because it shows that even if it's completely dark, you will always find some light,” he says. “The image also plays with the imagination of ‘painting’ the skies with auroras. I have seen many pictures with headlamps pointing up in the air together with auroras, but I wanted to take it a bit further.” Keep reading as he explains the story behind the shot.


Photo by Einar Jenssen. Sony Alpha 7R III. Sony 24mm f/1.4 G Master. 1.6-sec, f/1.4, ISO 3200

Braving freezing temps and polar bear dangers, Svalbard-based photographer Einar Jenssen got creative with his Sony Alpha 7R III and 24mm f/1.4 G Master to create this shot.

The Scene

I love taking photos of the night skies, and Svalbard is an excellent place to do it. This winter started with minimal snow, so conditions were not perfect for long trips into the wilderness. During the holidays, we headed out to our cabin right outside Longyearbyen and stayed there for a week. Conditions were perfect with clear skies, little wind and a coronal hole on the sun feeding us with stable solar wind. I'm not kidding when I say we had auroras nearly 24/7 for a week. I think it's important to be creative and try to create unique images. For this scene I wanted to take a picture where I "painted" the skies with auroras.

The Gear

For this shot I used my work horse, the Sony Alpha 7R III and the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM, an excellent combination for the night skies. The camera's low light performance is outstanding and picks up details not seen by the human eye. The lens outputs a crisp image with very little coma distortion of the Stars. I also have the Alpha 7R IV, but I nearly always use this combination.

The Shot

Capturing the northern lights isn't always easy, and you will need the right conditions combined with having the northern lights. I use various sources for giving me information when I can expect these conditions to be met, but it's more or less a waiting game. Taking pictures outside here at Svalbard also adds some extra requirements. It's mostly freezing cold (below -15C) and you have the extra element with a certain polar bear danger. A headlamp, powerful searchlight and protection is very nice to have. I find myself a place with little light pollution, make sure I'm alone, and set up my tripod.

My camera is set to prioritized shutter, ISO 3200, manual focus and f/1.4. I now have to find something far away to focus. Sometimes I have something I can shine my searchlight at and do an AF before going back to MF, other times I use manual focusing. Once the settings are correct I plan the scene and wait for the lights to become powerful enough to be photographed. Once the conditions seemed about right, I did some final adjustments of the ISO, aperture and shutter, and ended up with ISO 3200, f/1.4, 1.6-sec, a little underexposing. For this particular shot, my plan was to do a self portrait holding my searchlight up in the air. I used a remote control for managing the shutter. I turned the searchlight at full power, stood perfectly still and pressed the remote.

The Edit

I do my editing in Adobe Lightroom which gives me good control of the various aspects I need to correct. First of all, this image is shot at ISO 3200, which gives me some noise I need to correct, but it's not necessary to do a lot, because the insane resolution of the Alpha 7R III enables me to scale down the image quite a bit, at least for screens. I also correct the highlights, shadows, white balance using various techniques such as masking. Some color correction is also added to create the correct mood.

See more of Einar Jenssen’s work on Instagram @polarjenssen.


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