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How a Stunning Aurora Video Was Made

Even a fever couldn’t keep filmmaker Anna Possberg from photographing auroras literally dancing atop her car. “We jumped out and said, ‘The hell with the flu, we have time back home to get healthy again; we have to do some work,'” recalls Possberg, who was photographing aurora borealis in February in Tromsø, Norway, as part...

Even a fever couldn’t keep filmmaker Anna Possberg from photographing auroras literally dancing atop her car.

“We jumped out and said, ‘The hell with the flu, we have time back home to get healthy again; we have to do some work,'” recalls Possberg, who was photographing aurora borealis in February in Tromsø, Norway, as part of her Arctic Lightscapes project. (Watch a 2012 time-lapse video of auroras over Lapland.)

Auroras result from charged particles that are flung off the sun‘s surface during solar storms known as coronal mass ejections. When the particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they cause geomagnetic storms that trigger the neon-colored auroras. (See another time-lapse video of auroras fueled by a solar storm.)

Over the past year, Possberg and her husband, Claus Possberg, have traveled four times to the Scandinavian Arctic to photograph the phenomena, which appear as stunning light shows in many northern countries, especially during dark winters.

Claus is a radiologist who’s also an avid traveler and photographer, and Anna is a full-time professional filmmaker. The Arctic Lightscape project, which the couple funds independently, resulted in a time-lapse video: a series of still photographs stitched together into a video format and published on Vimeo last week.

Possberg, who’s based in Freyung, Germany, started Arctic Lightscapes in 2012 during a photography trip to Sweden, when she found herself “attracted magically” to auroras but realized that filming them is impossible.

Gorgeous as they are, the light emitted by auroras is too faint for most film cameras to pick up. There are some video cameras on the market, but they don’t capture the auroras very well, she said.

But Possberg came across some blogs describing how to make aurora films using still photography. Because auroras occur in low light—generally challenging for photographers—it wasn’t easy to learn, but she got a lot of practice during the couple’s four expeditions to see northern lights: twice to Norway, once to Iceland, and once to Finland. (More pictures: “Multicolored Auroras Sparked by Double Sun Blast.”)

“The first time you see an aurora, it doesn’t seem to be real—it’s like from another world,” she says. “You are infected—you want to see them every day.”

Making Time Lapse

To photograph northern lights, it’s best to use a light-sensitive digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR, with a full-format setting to capture as much light as possible, Possberg says. (See National Geographic’s tips on shooting with available light.)

The couple shot with three cameras using light-sensitive, wide-angle lenses that were programmed to take a picture every 30 seconds. Possberg also used her iPad to change the ISO and shutter speed—two ways to manipulate how much light is registered by the camera’s sensor—remotely without touching the camera.

Because cold temperatures zap battery life quickly, Claus customized batteries normally used for computers to power the cameras. Those batteries lasted up to 12 hours in -4°F (-20°C).

To steady the cameras in the polar wind, the team fitted them to tripods—”without a tripod, you can forget it,” she says—and covered the cameras with hoods to shield against snow or rain.

Once everything was set up, the Possbergs would shoot for at least three to four hours at a stretch—sometimes continuing through the night. (See National Geographic’s tips for photographing the night sky.)

During post-production, Anna lightly edits the pictures to make them sharper, but does not add additional light or make other alterations. Then the pictures are put together and sped up to create time-lapse video. This final step is time-consuming, taking about a month of eight-hour days, due to the sheer volume of photos and the careful editing required for each.

Arctic Challenges

The toughest part, not surprisingly, was the Arctic chill, Anna says. To capture auroras, the couple had to drive to remote spots and wait, which often meant sleeping several nights in a freezing car. (A tent would be blown away by the wind, and a hotel would emit light that would block the sky show.)

The other challenge was just finding the auroras; the colors don’t appear when it’s cloudy, and the Possbergs couldn’t travel during snowstorms. As Anna put it, “We chased the clear sky.”

But the Possbergs also had some cooperative weather, with one trip yielding six clear nights brimming with auroras. (See more pictures of polar landscapes.)

By publishing her video to Vimeo, Anna said, she can share the aurora experience with people who can’t make it to Scandinavia—and share the beauty of jet-black skies to encourage people to fight light pollution. (See pictures of our vanishing night in National Geographic magazine.)

Her advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Don’t be intimidated by the professionals out there. They also started from zero.”

Anna, who studied linguistics, international cultures, and economics in college, worked various desk jobs before she met Claus, whose passion is travel and photography.

“Then I started filmmaking,” she said. “I realized that a 9-to-5 job at the desk is definitely not for me.”

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Meet the Author

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.