The North at Night

Northern lights long exposure platypod tripod

By Dave Williams

The tail of the Arctic Fox whipping across the night sky certainly is a sight to behold, and one I recommend everybody sees at least once in a lifetime. As a travel photographer who loves the cold and has a particular penchant for the Arctic and Scandi countries, I’m in a lucky position in that I see the northern lights several times each season. I’ll qualify my use of the word ‘luck’ in that statement by pointing out that luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity, and I prepare hard so that when the opportunity arises I have that luck.

The Northern Lights have fascinated me since I began shooting travel. The first time I visited Iceland, I remember driving endlessly around in the winter night searching for gaps in the clouds, catching nothing but glimpses. As the trip went on I got more and more desperate to see the Aurora and the best I got was a brief shimmer overhead and a glowing cloud. despite that being all I got, my addiction was alive! Since then I’ve taken every opportunity to see the Northern Lights that I can and have so far seen them in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Svalbard with plans to get to Canada as soon as I can as well.

The thing I’ve learned most about the northern lights is that they are insanely dynamic. Being mobile is very important, it gives you the best chances of seeing them. The lights occur between 100 and 200 miles above the earth’s surface and so the only realistic obstruction to our view comes from the clouds in our atmosphere. When there’s a gap in the clouds and solar activity launches particles through space at our ionosphere, the results can be absolutely incredible.

When I’m shooting the lights dancing in the Arctic skies I find myself chasing them from valley to valley trying to avoid the clouds of snow building up against the sides of the hills and mountains, relying on the upper air currents to keep the high clouds clear and moving, and the protection of the mountains to catch the moving, low clouds. This technique is great for chasing the lights, but it makes it important to have the right equipment. With such fast-paced and unpredictable activity happening overhead, I need to be shooting as fast as possible when I stop and find my location because the more time I spend getting ready, the less time I can spend shooting. This is where the Platypod comes into its own.

Being able to have my entire camera rig complete, sitting on the passenger seat of the rental car as I carefully navigate the dark, icy roads of the north means that when the lights begin to shine I simply have to pull over and start shooting. It is a relief not having to fumble with legs. When shooting the Aurora, as with all categories within the genre of ‘landscape photography,’ it’s important to have a foreground interest. To attain and maintain this foreground interest, the low aspect of the Platypod makes my life much easier to find something interesting in what may otherwise be a very plain, dark and featureless landscape. From this perspective, anything small and close to the lens seen becomes much larger and the ratio of sky to ground in the photo becomes favorable for the northern lights to dominate the frame thanks to the compression effect flattening the ground into something much thinner.

The Platypod provides me with exactly what I need when shooting the northern lights. The stability for a long exposure is table stakes for a tripod, but my favorite thing about my Platypod is the ability to keep the entire rig together in one, compact piece. I regularly keep my Platypod attached to my camera, slung over my shoulder with a strap, so that whatever the circumstances I’m ready to shoot with a stable platform for a long exposure. Whether the circumstances are aurora hunting or otherwise, if it’s in your interest to be ready for a long exposure photo without having to carry a large, cumbersome tripod around then Platypod is the answer.

Dave Williams is a UK-based travel photographer and editor of Layers Magazine, produced by KelbyOne. Find him at capturewithdave.com and on Instagram, too!

Noah Christensen