Chasing Aurora Borealis in Greenland

With its long nights, winter is arguably the best time of the year to shoot Northern Lights, although it is not the season with the highest number of clear sky days.

Sony Alpha 77ii + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art
26mm, 8s, F/1.8, ISO 400

Personally, I decided to go to Greenland in February mainly to experience it at its coldest. Also, it is easier for me to travel before the start of the Whale Watching season in the Azores.

Sony Alpha 77ii + Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di USD
300mm, 1/320s, F/5.6, ISO 1600

I spent eight nights in Greenland, six of which in Ilulissat and two in Kangerlussuaq.
Overall, I was not very lucky with the weather in Ilulissat and I only got one chance to see Aurora Borealis there.
Unfortunately, the organisation I booked my Northern Lights tour with turned out to choose a relatively poor location to stop their van out of town. Basically, as soon as Northern Lights were visible, the guide pulled out with no much thought to conditions and composition for the photographers who joined the tour.

The wind was strong and the spot was totally unsheltered from it, so that snow was constantly blowing onto our faces and cameras. That made -20°C feel a lot colder and it did not take me long to realise that it was only possible to shoot downwind, thus limiting my composition to whatever happened to be in that direction.

I was struggling so much that I quickly chose my settings based on what I believed it was reasonable to capture a weak aurora and pressed the shutter (self-timer set to a 2-second delay, to avoid camera shake).
I know it sounds funny, or even stupid, but it is true that I realised what I got in the shot only after I checked the image on the LCD screen at the back of my camera.

Sony Alpha 77ii + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art
20mm, 10s, F/1.8, ISO 800

Yes, it is a cemetery. Overall, I was moved by the sight of the graveyard. My thoughts went immediately to the dear ones I lost and I wished peace to the people who are resting there.

That being said, I still believe this is not the type of place tourists should be taken for a northern lights tour. Furthermore, as a tour leader, I would never want my guest to think that I am stopping the vehicle at the very first opportunity just to secure the excursion, which is the feeling I had. 

Back to my shot, if you are wondering why I included so little of the Northern Lights in the frame, it is because I wanted to shoot something with the aurora in the background, not just the aurora.
That night the northern lights were very high in the sky and that did not help either. Also, it looks like conditions were smooth, while in fact they were very harsh!

REMEMBER: what you see and feel is one thing, what your camera captures can be a completely different thing, especially with long exposures!

No other nights in Ilulissat were suitable to shoot Aurora Borealis, so that I had to bet on my very last night in Greenland, which I was going to spend in Kangerlussuaq, where the international airport is.

12 exposures blended together, it is the same aircraft everywhere in the shot
Sony Alpha 77ii + Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di USD
70mm, 8s, F/7.1, ISO 50

While Kangerlussuaq is known for its amazingly high number of fine weather days per year, I still needed a lot of luck to get clear skies that particular night. In fact, at the beginning it did not look promising at all, as the afternoon was still very cloudy and only at dusk some patches of blue appeared in the sky.
Finally, around 7:30pm all clouds disappeared and the miracle happened.

Sony Alpha 77ii + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art
20mm, 6s, F/1.8, ISO 800

Thinking about it now, it is easy to say I should have probably contacted a local operator to move out of town and find some nice compositions in the wilderness. However, after the negative experience I had in Ilulissat, I preferred to go out on my own, so that I could only blame myself in case things went wrong.

As for the town - Kangerlussuaq - I heard quite a few people saying it is as ugly as sin. Well, as a former military base, entirely revolving around its airport, I see why they said that. However, there is such Grandeur in the skies of Kangerlussuaq that I could never say it is an ugly place and, if I ever go back to Greenland, I will most definitely spend more time there and explore its surroundings, which I did not have a chance to do this time.

When shooting Northern Lights, you do not really choose your composition like you do when shooting the Milky Way (whose position can be predicted very accurately). It is more about following the activity of Aurora Borealis and trying to combine it with a suitable foreground and middle ground to get your composition.
All in all, I am very pleased with the image below, which I reckon is the best Northern Lights shot I got during my trip to Greenland.
Click it to see it on my Portfolio website. 

Northern Lights over a Canada Goose store in GreenlandNORTHERN LIGHTS ON THE CANADA GOOSE STORE IN KANGERLUSSUAQ
Sony Alpha 77ii + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art
26mm, 8s, F/1.8, ISO 400 

I think there are about 500 people living in Kangerlussuaq and, because of that, I was quite surprised to find a Canada Goose shop there. 
On the other hand, the place is so... ARCTIC (!) that, thinking again, it makes complete sense to be a presence there for them and their Arctic Program.
I feel the shop plus the Northern Lights and the smoking chimney made my picture rather strong and interesting.

What do you Canada Goose guys think about it? Any picture-for-parka trade opportunity here? ;-)


My night in fairytale Rifugio Nambino

Luckily, there are still places you are only allowed to reach by walking and Rifugio Nambino is one of them.
Located in the Adamello-Brenta National Park (Trentino, Italy), the mountain refuge sits right by Lake Nambino, which is frozen and covered in snow in winter.

The easiest way to reach Rifugio Nambino is from Madonna di Campiglio. You first drive to where the refuge's cableway is located (which is also where the road ends) and then hike up from there.
We found the cableway very handy as we could load our luggage on it, rather than carrying it all the way up. People cannot use the cableway, it is just for stuff!

The hike is supposed to be about 25-minute long, but it actually took us 45 min to reach Rifugio Nambino, as I was carrying a crate with our cat Alya in it (8kg overall) and we were also happy to stop from time to time to enjoy the snow and let our Newfoundland dog Coda discover new smells in the woods.
By the way, a big thank you to the owners and the staff of Rifugio Nambino for being pet friendly

After relaxing a little bit in our room, I started to wonder around the frozen lake to scout for compositions. Looking at the photo below, you can imagine it only took me about 10 seconds to realise that, if they persisted, the low clouds would prevent me to get the shot I wanted. 

While it is true that I had a single night to get my image, I was sensible enough to book a room up there, so that at least I had the ENTIRE night to fulfill my goal.
Remember the landscape photographer's motto: Never Give Up Until it's Over!
Indeed, I did not lose hope at all when, at first, the low clouds seemed to be willing to hang around the refuge forever.

In the end, I did not have to wait too long. Around 9h50pm the clouds cleared up, leaving just a translucent curtain of snow, that was invisible in the foreground and middle ground (due to the small aperture I used) and just created a little mist in the background, which I believe even adds something to my image.

Did the mist still make me pay a toll? Yes, it did! From the other side of Lake Nambino, looking at the back of the refuge, on a clear night you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Dolomites. Due to the weather, that view was entirely precluded to me.
Am I disappointed about it? Not at all! The night shot of Rifugio Nambino I got is more than I could have hoped for. As I write this, I am even considering to add it to my Portfolio and, more importantly, I had a great time there with my wife Dania, Coda and Alya.

As a final note, I would have actually felt more stressed if I had known the entire night was NOT there for me to capture a night shot of Rifugio Nambino. Starting from 11pm it started to snow pretty heavily and later on they even turned off the lights!

To learn more about Rifugio Nambino, please visit their website:

Click my image below to access my Portfolio Website, where prints and wall art can be purchased, along with digital versions: 

Rifugio Nambino in the Dolomites


The 500 Rule of Astrophotography

When shooting stars and the Milky Way in particular, you can use the so called 500 Rule to calculate the longest exposure time (shutter speed) that still allows you to avoid star trails.

Baia das Caldeirinhas, Faial, Azores, Portugal
(Sony A77ii, Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Art, 18mm, 18s, F/1.8, ISO 2000)

Since our planet spins around its axis, we move relative to the stars. As a consequence, keeping the shutter open for too long will result in stars trailing in your pictures, as opposed to looking like dots. 

While star trails are sometimes a desirable feature, more often than not photographers try to avoid them and prefer to capture well-defined, sharp stars. 

If stars were visible during the day, trailing would not be an issue, as we could always use a fast enough shutter speed to avoid them. However, we can only photograph stars at night, making long exposures a necessity if we are to avoid underexposing our images or, worst case scenario, even ending up with a completely black shot.

This is when the 500 Rule comes in handy, as it lets us calculate the maximum number of seconds we can keep the shutter open before star trails will begin to appear.

In case you are new to night photography and wondering what star trails actually look like, I took for you an almost 4-minute long exposure of Mount Pico at night, which you can see below. 

Mount Pico (2351 metres), Pico Island, Azores, Portugal
225 seconds exposure (almost 4 minutes)

Here is how the 500 Rule works.

500 Rule (Expression 1):

Max. shutter speed = 500 / focal length

Example 1 -
Imagine you are shooting at a focal length of 16mm => Max. shutter speed = 500 / 16 = 31.25 seconds.
In other words, you can shoot a 31 second exposure and still have sharp stars. Any longer than that and star trails will begin to appear.

Easy, right? Well, I wish it was that easy. Things are slightly more complicated, mainly because there are 3 types of photographers with respect to this rule:

  1. Type 1: those who never heard about the 500 Rule (well, some more do now!).
  2. Type 2: those who know about the 500 Rule, but they do not know how to apply it correctly (believe me, there are still lots of them out there).
  3. Type 3: those who know exactly how to apply the 500 rule.

If you are a Type 3 photographer, I guess there is nothing here for you to learn, unless you think you know everything but, in fact, you do not. Keep reading to find it out!

If you are a Type 1 photographer and you have a full frame camera, Expression 1 (see above) is all you need.

If you are an APS-C shooter, like I am, or a Micro 4/3 shooter, you are more likely to be a Type 2 photographer, because Expression 1 is what you are likely to find in most websites and texts, except it does not work as is for crop sensor cameras.

No big deal. The expression simply needs to be corrected to account for crop factor of your camera, which leads us to the more general Expression 2:

500 Rule (Expression 2):

Max. shutter speed = 500 / (focal length x crop factor)

The crop factor for APS-C sensors is 1.5, with the notable exception of Canon, for which the crop factor is 1.6 (i.e. Canon makes  slightly smaller APS-C sensors).

The crop factor for Micro 4/3 is 2.

For full frame cameras, the crop factor is 1, which means the sensor is not cropped. I guess this is why we call it FULL frame!

As a further example, I will show you how I calculated the shutter speed for my Milky Way shot of the Bay of Caldeirinhas (Faial Island, Azores).
My camera is a Sony A77ii (ILCA-77M2) and has a 1.5 crop factor. My lens of choice was a Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Art and I took the shot at 18mm.
The important fact here is that lens manufacturers always indicate focal length as a full frame equivalent value.
Therefore, 18mm on my Sony APS-C camera is not as wide as it would be on a full frame camera and corresponds to 18mm x 1.5 = 27mm.
It is absolutely crucial to take this into account when applying the 500 Rule to crop sensor cameras.

Example 2 -
Shooting at 18mm on a Sony APS-C camera => Max. shutter speed = 500 / (18 x 1.5) = 18.52 seconds

To be conservative, I rounded the shutter speed to 18 seconds rather than 19.

Failing to take the crop factor into account would have led me to think I could shoot a 27 second exposure and still get no star trails (500 / 18 = 27.7, rounded to 27 to be conservative). No way!

Please keep in mind that the 500 Rule is a rule of thumb. That said, it does work very well.

You probably noticed by now that the maximum shutter speed calculated with the 500 Rule is solely a function of the focal length. In particular, it is not affected by the aperture and the ISO.
While this is absolutely true, not all combinations of apertures and ISO will produce an acceptable Milky Way image.

In most cases, your camera will struggle to gather enough light and you will find yourself cranking the ISO more than you wanted to, along with shooting wide open (lowest possible F-stop for our lens).
Remember: you cannot increase the shutter speed any further or you will get star trails. Hence, aperture and ISO are the only two variables you can play with in the attempt to produce a correctly exposed image.

This is the main reason why I purchased the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8, which is arguably the best lens ever made for APS-C cameras. It lets me shoot at a maximum aperture of... 2.7!
Why 2.7 and not 1.8? Confused?? You are not alone.
This is indeed the single, most misunderstood truth about APS-C and Micro 4/3 camera: with crop sensors, you have to multiply both the focal length AND the aperture by the crop factor
In this case: 1.8 x 1.5 = 2.7.

To learn more about it and understand why shooting the Milky Way with no star trails is one of the few fields of photography where my gear (as an APS-c shooter) is actually holding me back, you can read my post on why I do not need a full frame camera

That is pretty much it, ragazzi!

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