By Marcus McAdam
We’ve been treated to some great aurora displays up here on Skye over this winter. However, I seem to always be off the island when the best ones occur. Only a few weeks ago there was the most powerful solar storm in over a decade, but of course, I was in the Faroe Islands to photograph the solar eclipse. You would have thought that being as far north as the Faroes, I would have been perfectly placed for a major aurora display, but I was actually too far north, as the display went far further south and was placed right over Scotland.
Getting a shot of the northern lights is easy enough, but simply going outside and pointing your camera into the sky isn’t going to give you the best shot. The key is to include a land based feature, as this gives the aurora a sense of scale and provides a much needed focal point in the image. In the past I have used an old derelict church a few hundred metres from my home, but I have always wanted to try something a little more ambitious. I made a list of a few ideas, and one of them was to silhouette the iconic Skye landmark of the Old Man of Storr with aurora dancing around in the sky behind it. I’ve been waiting over three years for the conditions to be perfect, but the only times these have occurred has been typically when I have been off the island.
Just so you know, the perfect conditions are very clear air (good visibility), clear skies (no cloud), a new moon, and low wind. The number of times these conditions occur in a year can be counted on one hand. When you then consider that the months of May - Aug are no good (as it never gets dark enough) then this reduces the opportunities further. Then if all the planets finally do align, there’s the small issue of needing a major solar storm to hit the Earth at exactly the same time. When you consider all these variables, it’s surprising I’ve only had to wait three years to get this shot.
A few days ago I had an inquiry from a man from Saudi Arabia who wanted to visit Skye to take some photos. When I spoke to him, I asked if he was interested in shooting the northern lights, for which he could hardly contain his excitement. I had mentioned that a solar storm was forecast for the first night of his stay, and the weather conditions were looking promising too, so we made a tentative plan.
Fast forward a couple of days to Ibrahim’s arrival and I broke the bad news that the solar forecast had been downgraded and that the chances were going to be slim for seeing any decent aurora displays during his visit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look more deflated in my life. He made it very clear that he wanted to try regardless, so myself and my new colleague Harry picked him up from his hotel at 11pm and drove to Storr. As we started our climb up the mountain, there was an obvious band of aurora hugging the northern horizon, but it was nothing to get too excited about. As we got higher, the band started to develop structure and colour. We quickened the pace, but for Ibrahim who is not used to climbing steep hills in the pitch dark, this change wasn’t welcomed with elation. This is where it paid to have Harry my colleague with me, as it allowed me to push ahead while he looked after the customer.
The very moment I arrived at the viewpoint I had been aiming for, the sky suddenly exploded with the most amazing aurora display I have ever seen. Greens and purples were dancing everywhere, like neon lights all moving in unison. I quickly set up and stared shooting.
Eventually Harry and Ibrahim reached my more elevated location, and we stayed until almost 2am being treated to one of nature’s most impressive displays. The intensity peaked and troughed, but even during the silent periods, it was great just sitting under a canopy of crystal clear stars, knowing we had the entire mountain to ourselves.
It was 3am by the time we all got back, and my first aurora workshop customer went to bed with tired aching legs, but a camera full of images which hopefully made all the effort worthwhile.
The aurora season comes to an end in a few days time, as the moon will soon be back, and by the time it’s out of the way, astronomical darkness won’t return until Aug. With the Sun now receding in its eleven year cycle of activity, it could be well over a decade before the planets realign to create the scene we witnessed last night.
You can check out Harry's facebook page to see what he's been up to during his first few weeks on Skye. He took the image of me above - not an easy place to stand perfectly still for 20 seconds in the dark!
Meanwhile, you can now follow me on Twitter.