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.


NORTHERN 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

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.


HOUSES AND ICEBERGS OF ILULISSAT
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.


GRAVEYARD AND A HINT OF AURORA
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.


FIVE MINUTES IN ONE SHOT
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.


NORTHERN LIGHTS IN KANGERLUSSUAQ
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? ;-)

Cheers,
Enrico

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