As the northern lights season, or aurora borealis season, starts to wind down for those of us here in Alaska, it’s often harder and harder to be motivated to get out yet again and spend the night hoping for some nice displays. Last night I saw the data online looking promising for the northern lights, and the skies here started to clear up a bit, I thought I’d keep an eye skyward.
So after movie-time finished, I checked outside and sure enough, the northern lights were kicking overhead. I grabbed my camera gear, threw on some pants, and headed out.
This shot above is a photo of the aurora borealis corona. I’ve often been asked what the corona is, and why it’s called the corona. No, its not enough the famous song, Muy muy muy muy, Corona, by English punk band The Knack.
I’ll tell you a little known secret. The activity or display we call a “corona” is named for a very simple reason; the root word is “coronary”, which is what you’re going to have, trying to adjust your tripod, ballhead, camera and lens, as well as yourself, into a suitable position to photograph this phenomenon. Trust me.
Your gear is all nicely set up, well-positioned, focused, exposure correctly adjusted for, and you’re shooting across this grand landscape that you picked out for your foreground, capturing all kinds of wonderful northern lights photos. Everything is going to plan. Then you notice the arc shifting, brightening, intensifying, and rising ever upward into the sky. You know exactly what’s about to happen.
You try to loosen your ballhead and adjust the angle of your camera straight up toward the sky, directly overhead, because you know this is where the action is about to be. Directly overhead. Have you ever tried to take a photo, in the dark, at -30 degrees, directly overhead, using a tripod and ballhead?
Your knees bend, your back flexes, arching, contorting your body into the most impossible of postures, and yet still you can’t see through the viewfinder. Still not working. Instead, you stoop and bow and crane your neck. Yes, this might work better, bend at the neck rather than the knee. The human body does well with this approach, right?.
You get one eyeball to see through the viewfinder. The viewfinder is now frosted over with a good 1/4″inches of moisture from your breath, exhaling profusely from these inconceivable deformities you’re forcing your body through.
The aurora gathers overhead, patiently at first, awaiting for you to be set and ready.
Upside down, cold and unable to feel your fingertips, you’re uncertain of which of the 3 tension adjusters on the ballhead you need to loosen slightly. This one here, beneath the thumb.
Your camera, weighing over 3 pounds now mounted with a heavy, hard and frozen 14-24mm lens on it, flops down, dropping straight on to your eyeball. That’s definitely gunna leave a mark. Nice.
Fortunately, you can’t really feel the pain, as the air is numbingly cold right now. And the blood, beginning to ooze from your newest of wounds, will coagulate and freeze up quickly at his temperature.
Fumbling further, your frustrations mount as the aurora decides to move on with the show. The sky brightens further, the lights dance and soar, and your camera is still not pointing directly toward the stage. Well, maybe it is. Who knows, because you can’t quite get into the right position to see through the frozen-over viewfinder anyway. So fire away and hope for the best.
Dropping to one knee, you look upward to see an over-exposed image of half the corona, and coal black sky. You’ve practiced though, and even here, half blind and frozen, in the dark, you’re able to drop the exposure by 1 and 2/3 stops without turning on your headlamp or even having to watch what you’re doing. You’re an aurora shooter, your pride momentarily upwelling in your chest at how skilled you are. Fire again.
Nope, you forgot to recompose, another image, better exposed but still with blown highlights, of half the corona.
The tripod is set, of course, too high for you to shoot from your knees, and not tall enough for you to stand and look through the now almost opaque viewfinder window. More distortions, more crooking and crinking (and, at my age, crinkling), you warp your body just a little more. Now you can see into the viewfinder, but the angle is all wrong. You still can’t compose from here.
Angle your left leg a little further that way, hoping you don’t slip on the ice beneath your feet. That’s it. Now, eye to the viewfinder and .. well .. not quite, scrunch up just a little more.
Wow, you can actually see through your viewfinder. Grabbing the tension knob, the correct one this time, you adjust it just enough to loosen the camera. You twist and twiddle, and can’t quite reframe the camera as you need to.
Loosen the panning knob, that’ll do it. Ouch, that wasn’t the panning knob. Another mark, this one to your cheekbone.
Retighten that one, loosen this one .. that’s it .. pan around. Now your knees won’t pivot any further, you try the swivel. The hips, that’s it the hips .. swivel baby.
Your entire body is starting to buckle now. The g force just reached 7.1, and you, Aurora shooter, you don’t give in to the pain.
But, look at that … the corona is right there in your viewfinder. Shoot, shoot, shoot …..
You can’t feel the shutter release button, of course, with your frozen knob of a finger, but you press and press and press until finally something clicks.
You just adjusted your flash setting by 1 stop. Nice.
Move your hand and press again. That’s it, the shutter release button. Woo hoo!!!
Of course you shot, without retightening those knobs. Your old friend the panning knob allows just enough play for the camera to rotate ever so slightly. Those tiny little star trails won’t look too bad, will they?
Of course they will, you’re better than that. Tighten that knob.
Oh, look, you didn’t tighten the OTHER tension knob, and it too now has decided to loosen its grasp on your camera. With a mind of it’s own, your camera has once again wandered off in search of its own creative composition throughout your brief exposure. Your histogram is killing it, perfect, nothing blown out, but you’ve blurred everything. And these little star trails are squiggly. How cute.
Reloosen, recompose, tighten, check ….
Oh look, the moment’s gone, the corona is now a soft dim curtain of dust in the dark night air.
Fix it in photoshop, right?
Now, about this rising crushing pain in your chest. Here comes that coronary.
All in fun, but I trust ANYONE who’s spent much time shooting the aurora knows exactly what I’m talking about.
We call it a “corona” after the Latin word, “coronaries”, which means “of a crown”, or “corona” itself, which translates in English as “crown”.
And yes, it is as difficult to shoot as I’ve just described. But oh wow, what fun we have …