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Esben Utgård is a photographer living in Tromsö, in the northern part of Norway, where he spends too much of his time taking pictures of aurora borealis, more commonly known as “northern lights” (which are caused by the collision of charged particles that hit the Earth’s magnetic field). We had a short chat with Utgård about how to shoot aurora the right way.

We Are Replicants: How did the aurora thing start? When and why?

Esben Utgård: I started around 2006 when a good friend got a digital SLR and I got one as well. He taught me the basics and I joined him on aurora photography. The aurora is so colourful and beautiful, yet so difficult to estimate and capture. You need special aurora photo skills and knowledge of forecasts of weather and geography. And a lot of good luck.

Tell us about your process before going on an aurora trip. What gear do you bring? Where are your aurora spots?

My aurora spots are a secret! I have all my clothes lined up to go out at any time. Wool underwear, a middle layer, a new layer of wool and then a thermo suit plus a quilted down jacket. And of course mittens and a hat. I use my Nikon D200 with a Tokina 11-16 mm 2.8, a Manfrotto tripod and my camera bag with extra lenses, battery and memory disks. I’m ready every day of winter when the sky is clear.
I take my car and drive to the country side, mostly on the coastal lines of my area, where I can get a clear horizon and still get some steep mountains. I need to get away from the city lights to get good photos of the aurora. That usually means one hour of driving, one way. It’s time consuming and expensive…

How come your spot is secret?

There are several others doing exactly the same thing as me. Everyone takes photos of the aurora and we all publish them for critique on the interweb. Because the aurora is the same for everyone who see it you have to add a special element, location and composition, to make it stand out. That’s why I don’t want my fellow aurora hunters to know where I find her. They probably know, but all the newbies who don’t know should have to learn it the hard way like everyone else before them!

Is a firesteel included in your aurora kit?

Ha ha, no it’s actually not. But it should be. I always have a case of matches and a hunting knife in my bag. And of course a head lamp and an extra flash light with extra batteries.

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Frost bite or any other dangers when you go on an aurora trip?

It gets insanely cold when you’re standing on the shorelines with the wind from the ocean blowing in your face. Often between -10 and -45 degrees Celsius. If you stay in one spot, in -45 degrees, for five to six hours, you feel it afterwards! I got some frost bites on Svalbard a couple of years ago. So every time I’m out, I can feel it on the tip of my nose and my finger tips. It hurts and stings. But it’s really just about knowing your limits. And choosing the clothes based on that. There’s never a day that I go out to shoot the aurora that I don’t bother because of the cold. I just put more clothes on!

On Svalbard you have to look out for polar bears, right?

Yeah, you should watch out for polar bears. They can be everywhere. Everyone has to have a rifle when they’re out on Svalbard, even in Longyear City. There could suddenly be a polar bear walking behind you on your way from the supermarket!

You were on TV a while ago, showing the Norwegian viewers some awesome northern lights.

I’ve actually done it twice. Every season the aurora is big news in Norway, ‘because we don’t have that many other big things happening. I’ve been working as a freelancer for that particular TV station and they know about my photography. So when they wanted some aurora news the local reporters thought of me!

What makes a good photo of the aurora?

As I mentioned earlier, it takes a lot of willpower and patience to actually capture just a glimpse of the aurora. But the difficulties lie in composition, lack of light, focus and capturing an outburst. You never know when an outburst is coming and it’s usually over in a couple of minutes, often less. You have to be prepared and know exactly what you’re doing to get the shots. There are several aurora photographers and many of them know how to get the perfect shots, but there’s always an element of the unknown involved. They can’t all be out hunting at the same time and everyone knows that.

Do you have any advice for other photographers wanting to shoot aurora?

Be patient, get a lens with a low f.stop, like 2.8 or less. You need a wide lens or maybe a fisheye lens. Set all settings at manual. Choose the lowest f.stop and the highest ISO without ruining the images. Try to get the shutter speed as fast as possible. Shoot the aurora pictures when the moon is present. Then you get the foreground lit as well. You should also shoot all your images in RAW. That way you can correct the exposure and white balance afterwards. Always bring enough clothes and maybe a good friend and some hot coffee. Good luck!

Utgård mostly likes to shoot aurora, landscapes and urban decay, you can see more of his photography on the Photo.net community and on his Flickr account. He is currently majoring in document sciences, mostly to avoid getting a job at the local supermarket.