Imagine seeing cinema-quality footage of the aurora borealis that was taken from way up into the stratosphere. Well you don’t have to imagine anymore because Lost Horizon Creative, a creator team made up of Alpha Collective members Nate Luebbe (@nateinthewild) and Autumn Schrock (@autpops), along with Austin Smith (@austincamsmith), did just that earlier this year when they sent a Sony Alpha α7S III up on a weather balloon to capture the northern lights. Their film documenting the experience, “Light Side Up,” is now available to watch and offers stunning shots of one of the world’s most spectacular natural phenomenons, as well as a valuable lesson on never giving up.
In the film Light Side Up, see how this small creative team launched a camera more than 115,000 feet into the sky to get a truly unique look at the northern lights.
“I’m very fortunate in my career to have gotten to see the things I have,” explains Luebbe. “I’ve had a sunrise at Machu Picchu, I’ve been 20 feet from a wild polar bear, and hands-down, the aurora borealis is the single most beautiful natural phenomenon. There’s nothing I would rather photograph. If it can be worked into any trip, it’s the thing I want to do.”
The self-proclaimed space-obsessed creator knew it was only a matter of time before he found a way to integrate it into his photography. While attending Sony Kando Trip and seeing a hot air balloon during a discussion about the aurora with other creators, the idea to send a camera up on a weather balloon popped into his head. Once that creative flame was ignited, it only grew.
“To my knowledge, this had never been done,” says Luebbe. “Nobody had ever taken cinema-quality footage of the northern lights from the stratosphere before. And any time you’re the first to attempt something, there are going to be some serious hurdles to overcome.”
He spent seven months figuring out how to pull it off. He spoke with engineers, sketched out designs and built concept models until he settled on a suspension system that would help stabilize the camera while in flight. Even after overcoming all of these logistical hurdles, there were plenty of other variables, like the weather, that offered additional challenges. With only a short window to capture the auroras and a concerning weather forecast, they had to wait for a break in the weather. Finally, launch day arrived.
Working through more gear challenges and learning as they go (this was their first time launching a weather balloon, a brave thing to do with over $5000 of delicate gear attached), they finally got the balloon with the Sony α7S III off the ground and headed toward the stratosphere. As it went up for the very first time, they were glued to their GPS locators tracking its location. Once the balloon reached 115,000 feet, it stopped moving upward. “It turned out there was a little bit of a fatal calculation error in the amount of lifting power that we would need,” says Luebbe.
They were devastated. The GPS trackers had failed and after searching for the landing spot of the balloon and camera with no luck, they thought the entire project was a total loss and the α7S III was gone, money down the drain. Instead of completely throwing in the towel, they realized that this past experience provided them with the knowledge they needed to have more confidence in the next attempt. They replaced all of their gear, and up another α7S III went. This time, the GPS trackers kept working and it came back down in perfect condition.
“Our plan initially when we picked up the payload was to leave the camera in the box until we got all the way home,” explains Luebbe, “and we could put the card in a computer and watch it on the big screen. And we got about five minutes away from the airport before I had ripped the camera out of the box and we pulled over at the closest restaurant, set the camera on the table, ordered drinks and watched the entire two-hour flight while eating dinner.”
What they saw was dazzling footage of the dancing aurora from a perspective far different than the usual you see on your Instagram feeds. The α7s III captured its vibrant colors in a way others previously thought impossible.
“When the impossible becomes the possible, says Luebbe, “now that is a life worth living.”
See more of Nate Luebbe's work at his website HERE.
See more of Autumn Schrock's work HERE.