Capture a skier in Northern light

Text och foto: Fredrik Schenholm

I have many times tried to capture skiing in Northern light before – but failed.
Last winter in Senja I almost nailed it. You will soon understand the “almost”.

 

First of all you might wonder why to go skiing at night. That is a question pretty easy to answer.
I love to experience the art and power of nature. And to do that in the silence of mountain with a good friend is just amazing.

I have had the idea of an image combining skiing and Northern light for a long time. To capture this I knew I needed time. Last February I spent one month in Senja, a Norwegian island located far up North in this elongated country. It was said that 2013 would be an a really good year for Northern light, due to the activity on the suns surface. According to some Northern light hunters we met, that wasn’t the case. Winter 2013/2014 will most likely be better.
Anyways…

Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_01
I spent many hour during my month stay in Senja looking at this on my computer…

I got really obsessed with Northern light forecasts, and checked Aurora Forecast daily. On the 10th of February 2013 it looked good, so Oscar Hübinette and I headed up in the mountains.

In addition to all the ski touring gear I brought this in my camera backpack:

  • 1 Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • 3 Lenses (16-35, 24-105, 70-200)
  • Elinchrom Quadra flash system (2 A-heads, batterypack, cords and a transmitter)
  • 1 Tripod for the camera
  • 1 Monopod for the flash
  • Remote camera trigger system
  • 4 Lens cloths
  • Extra batteries
  • Extra memory cards
Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_02
The gear I used for the Northern light/skiing-shooting.

Oscar and I started to skin up the mountain. So far no Northern light, but a crystal clear black sky with millions of stars. We headed up about 400 vertical meters and suddenly the Northern light started. The green light wondered the sky and we couldn’t stop staring until I broke the silence and said “Oscar, we need to capture some photos!”

I found a spot straight away; a good slope with an amazing backdrop of mountains and sky. I threw a snowball so Oscar knew where to make the turn. This snowball also helped me to get the focus right as well as making my desired composition possible. Oscar headed up (so he could get speed for the photo) while I started to arranged with all the photo gear. I put the flash on the monopod, connected it to the battery pack and placed it aiming towards the snowball. I checked the memory card and the battery of the camera. I put the camera on the tripod, set the focus, made the final composition and also checked that the remote trigger system worked. I checked that the remote trigger system for the camera worked. I also checked that the flash fired when I pressed the button on the transmitter. Finally I checked the exposure via the histogram of a test image. Now I was ready with the remote transmitter for the flash in my left hand and so was a cold Oscar. He had been waiting in the cold while I was making myself ready.

This was the procedure to capture the first image:

  1. I told Oscar to get ready, he said he was ready in 10 sec.
  2. After a while I opened the shutter on the camera with the remote trigger, now we were in photo mode!
  3. I told Oscar to go
  4. As Oscar made the turn on the snowball I fired the flash manually with the transmitter in my left hand. It was hard for Oscar to make the turn on the snowball due to the poor light condition. I didn’t want him to use a head torch because that would draw lines in the image.
  5. I closed the shutter with the remote trigger and looked at the image.

The first image was a failed one due to Oscar’s position cutting the horizon. His legs and skis are looking good, but his upper body looks like a ghost. This is because I got too much light from the sky before Oscar was captured doing his turn. And this is really hard to predict.

Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_03
Oscar getting cut in half. This was a hard task getting Oscar in the right position to the horizon, and at the same time getting as much sky as possible into the image.

Lesson learned: Oscar need a solid and preferably dark background while making the turn!

 

We made another try and I put him in front of a darker background.

And the result was much better!

Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_04
Much better with a dark background. Sure you can see a little bit of ghosting, but this is ok according to me. 5.500K of transmitting light from the flash causes some problems though. The snow gets white, but the sky and the Northern light are a but yellowish.

 

Now I am going to tell you why I almost caught the perfect image.

It all goes down to white balance. A light source transmits light in different temperatures measured in Kelvin (K). The flash I used transmitted light in 5.500K. If I want white to be white I need to set the cameras white balance on 5.500K. Here is the problem I didn’t think of. As I did the editing of the images, I realized the sky and the Northern light looked best at app.3.300K, but if I tune in 3.300K on the image the sky looks great but the snow and the skier gets blue.

Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_05
A much nicer color of the sky when I change the white balance to 3.300K. But the snow gets bluish. I would have needed a filter on the flash!

Lesson learned: To get the sky to look good the flash need a filter decreasing the temperature to app. 3.300K.

We tried hard to capture our perfect ski image in Northern light. We almost got it. I thought I planned it well, but I didn’t think about the Kelvin-challenge. I guess we go for
another try next year. Still so many photos to capture in Northern light. I always aim for the perfect image, but never get there.

And that I like!

Copyright_Fredrik_Schenholm_NothernLight_06
This is an image from winter 2012 when Andreas Fransson and I went out during one night. This is what happens if the skier is using a head torch. This night the Northern light was very weak.
© All images and content are property of Fredrik Schenholm. All rights reserved

www.schenholm.com