Reindeer under the aurora
Live animals standing under the aurora are not something you see often in photography. Here’s the tale of how ‘our’ reindeer posed under the aurora to give spectacular photos.
Reindeers are so cute and loveable. However they are all semi-wild in northern Norway. Some were born in the wild and some in captivity but the herds all eventually belong to the Sami people (Lapland’s native people). Reindeers are shy animals by nature and they generally don’t approach humans except for the herders. Reindeers also are the only species which both males and females have antlers!
In any case they’re adapted to cold temperatures and open prairies where they graze.
At the aurora borealis observatory we have our own reindeer enclosure. A few years ago we acquired two reindeer calves but last year one of the youngsters escaped leaving his brother alone. Nevertheless ‘Reinulf’ quickly adapted and can be seen all around his large enclosure at our resort. It’s always been a dream for us to be able to capture Reinulf under the aurora. There had been several photos of reindeers under the aurora in the past but never without the animal being on a leash. Besides the pictures usually look very dark or noisy. Here’s the main problem. At night you need to let the shutter of your camera open for several seconds to let in the little light there is. However the main challenge is that animals move in that lapse of time, resulting in you getting blurry subjects. Challenge accepted though! Here’s how we did and this is the stunning result:
How to pull off a shot like this ?
Firstly you need to wait for a time when the surrounding light is higher, ideally during a bright aurora display or a full moon (previous picture). Don’t use a flash as this type of light is not natural and won’t let you properly capture the aurora at the same time. Secondly you need to have a nice low-light camera that can handle high ISOs well. Since you’re going to want to reduce your shutter speed to under a second, you will have to compensate with cranking up the ISO film. You also need a very fast lens that ideally has a short focusing distance to have has many elements in focus as possible, even wide open. To help gather as much light as possible in the nick of time, you need to set your aperture wide open, ideally f2 or lower.
Now you also want to get a nice composition with the animal in the center of the frame, while having other natural elements like mountains, trees, snow… As a consequence the thing you’re going to need the most is patience. Loads of it! We tried many times throughout the years but either the weather, the animal or the auroral rarely cooperate!
We set our camera and tripod within the reindeer enclosure on a clear February night when we knew the aurora would be very bright with many colors. We used the Canon 6D and the Sigma 14mm f1.8 lens. After some tests we noticed that Reinulf wasn’t significantly moving that much so we tried setting up at ISO 6400, f1.8, 1 second shutter speed. That’s as far as we could push the settings so we had to hope for at least one shot that was sharp. When the aurora started to dance brightly in the sky we started a timelapse sequence in portrait mode with the same settings. The shots were firing one after the other. We made sure to stay close to the camera because we are the ones feeding him so he would stay in the same area to see if we had a treat for him. In no case the animal was attached though. On the timelapse you can actually see him straying off the frame every now and then.
We took about 300 pictures. Back behind the computer screen most of the pictures were correctly exposed but Reinulf was moving and blurry. However when you scroll through a bunch of bad pictures and finally find the one that is sharp, you just can’t contain your joy. Out of the 300 shots, only 8 had Reinulf sharp enough to be satisfactory. Only 3 had a very nice aurora above head. Finally this shot stood out from all the others. The bright aurora behind his head makes the silhouette very defined while the aurora above illuminates his fur and the snow around so you can see something. Finally the pink and purple colors compliment the shot in a very nice way.
We are so proud of this shot and it is the first time we see one where a semi-wild animal, which is not on leash, stands under such a display of aurora!
We tried another shot earlier in the season to get the milky way, the aurora and the reindeer together. To capture the milky way you need at least a 10-second exposure, but then there was no chance of getting Reinulf to stay still. However this picture was the best of about 200, and still pretty cool to look at !