I know this is not the prettiest of photos. I took it handheld with 1/2 sec shutter speed and a whopping ISO 25600. Out of the window of an airliner that was shaking from light turbulence. But for me it meant the world. Just a week after crossing off two items from my bucket list when skiing on Mount Hood I saw the very first Northern Lights of my life. And this was in the top 3 of my list. It came upon me out of the night sky 38.000 feet above the Northern Atlantic. For the full story and a few more images continue reading after the jump…
The regular readers of this blog might remember this post about my last night flight crossing the Atlantic eastbound on my way home from a business trip. Here I wrote that I have seen somewhere on the web amazing photos of the Aurea Borealis someone has taken out of an airliner window. So on that crossing I made sure I had a window seat on the left, north facing side of the aircraft and while staying up and watching a movie I was on the lookout for the dancing lights. There were none that night, and it turned out from another blog I missed them by one night.
When yesterday in Portland I was boarding my Delta Airbus A330 for the night flight to Amsterdam I was originally assigned a seat on the right side. Then another passenger asked me if I was willing to swap seats with his wife, who happened to have a seat on the left side. Traveling alone I obviously had no objections and while moving my stuff over to the other side I even thought that now I was potentially on the correct side to go looking for Polar Lights. Quite tired after a strenuous week I dozed off after dinner, woke up somewhere over Northern Canada. As a super frequent flyer these days I have really seen all movies there are to see, so I decided on a re-run of Titanic, fitting us flying over the icy North Atlantic. I also missed parts of that movie, but woke up again just as the historic liner hit the iceberg. During the hour long or so sinking of the Titanic I occasionally peeked out the window, but there was nothing to be seen. Then, just as frozen Leo started sliding down into the black abyss and poor Kate was lying shivering on that piece of wood my eye caught a shine outside the window. I really wasn’t sure at first. Despite the darkened cabin there are still plenty reflections in the windows, so I tried to cover the back of my head and the window with my sweater while pressing my nose to the window. And it was unmistakeable, the greenish and magenta dancing lights of the Northern skies.
I had the Olympus PEN-F with the mZuiko 12-40mm F/2.8 Pro Zoom in the bag under my seat, so I pulled it out. It really helps if you know how to operate your cam in darkness. I switched to manual focus and turned the focus ring to its infinity setting. Aperture wide open at f/2.8 was a given. I first tried a shutter speed of 2 secs and dialed in ISO 5000, but with the airplane slightly moving under light turbulence it was blurry and still way to dark to really see anything. Then I decided to go all in on the ISO at the Olympus max setting of 25600. I decided I rather have a grainy photo of the Aurea Borealis than none at all. And now I clearly saw the distinctive green textures of the dancing lights on my LCD screen. Increasing the shutter speed in various tries, I found my sweet spot for this extreme situation was 1/2 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 25600. Totally insane, but it did the trick. Sure I will never be able to do blow up prints of those photos, and I had to heavily apply noise reduction in Lightroom when processing the photos this evening. But it got the job done.
After shooting off about 30 frames I knew I had bagged some decent shots. I put the camera down and enjoyed the rest of this amazing performance of Mother Nature. It lasted just the good part of ten minutes, then it faded away.
On this magic travel night high above the Northern Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland I saw my first dancing lights of the Aurea Borealis. And I have the photos to tell the story. A combination of luck, perseverance and preparation. A dream came true.
Even better is that I’ll have a week back home with the family ahead of me.
Have a great weekend!