Facing my fears and capturing the Aurora Borealis

I dream of seeing a ‘proper’ display of the Northern Lights in one of the northern countries one day but until that day comes I am quite content on watching the displays Scotland has to offer. I’ve seen the ‘merry dancers’ a few times now and even though the Scottish display mainly consists of a couple of glowing arches in the sky and the occasional flare it’s still mesmerising to witness. The best display I’ve ever witnessed was in April 2016 over Moine Mhor, Mid Argyll, where I could actually see what looked like lasers shooting up into the sky.

Anyway, in this blog I wanted to talk about my most recent sighting. I saw them last Thursday night, January 31st January 2019, this was my first sighting of them this season and the best thing about it was they were totally unexpected. The conditions were perfect for star gazing so after dinner I had decided to go out to attempt to photograph the Milky Way and my chosen location was the standing stones in Kilmartin Glen. I’d chosen the standing stones as my location as for me, personally, it’s not just enough to capture something pretty, I like to be able to add an atmosphere and something special to my photographs. I think i’ve said this before but I like my pictures to have almost a fairytale feel to them. So I chose the stones as they are so mysterious just like the night sky.

I find night photography quite difficult, it’s a photography skill i’ve not quite mastered yet but what makes it even more difficult is I have Nyctophobia, a fear of the dark. So trying to make a photograph while frighted is rather difficult as you simply cannot concentrate properly and night time photography requires a lot of concentration. It’s silly really, I’m well aware I live in an incredible safe place and no one is going to attack me but it’s not really humans I’m afraid off. It’s more the supernatural but at the same time the logical part of me doesn’t believe in the super natural but I guess the fear comes from not being able to see what’s there and that something, even totally innocent like a wee mouse or a sheep, could appear at any point and catch you unawares.

Anyway, back to Thursday night after sitting in my car for about 10 minutes I managed to pick up the courage to venture down to the Ballymeanoch stones which are about 10 minutes walk past a cairn and through a field from the carpark. As soon as I arrived at the stones I think I knew this wasn’t going to go well, I set up my camera but because I was so scared and alert I wasn’t really concentrating on what I was doing. I then discovered by using the Night Sky App that the Milky Way was in the wrong position anyway in relation to the stones so I clumsily picked up my equipment and fumbled through the snowy field back to my car phoning my boyfriend on the way as I’d worked myself into such a panic (don’t know what he was suppose to do, he was in Mull but I suppose it was just that human contact.)

After I composed myself I headed along to the Nether Largie stones, they are only two minutes from the carpark so slightly more manageable. I quickly tried to focus on what I came to do locating the Milky Way and setting my camera up on the tripod. While I was doing this I noticed a slight glow to the north but the village of Kilmartin is located about a mile away so at first I just thought it was the lights from the village but the glow slowly grew stronger and at this point I got excited as I then realised it was the Aurora Borealis.


The Aurora doesn’t appear as vivid to the naked eye as it does on the camera and it does take a wee bit of of experimenting with the settings to get it right. In the image to the left here my settings were ISO 5000, Aperture f/3.5 and a 15 second exposure. Again my night time photography skills and knowledge are not fantastic but what I tend to do is put the ISO up as high as it will go without getting to grainy, have a wide aperture to let as much light in as possible and have a long exposure to again let light in and capture the movement of the lights. Also I flick my focus settings over to manual focus and focus to infinity if the lens I’m using allows. Oh and I use the widest lens I have, this was taken on a basic 18 -55mm lens. I could do with upgrading but lens are so expensive.

After figuring out the settings and doing a few tests it was time to work out the composition. Again I try to make my pictures more than just a nice picture or capturing one thing so composition is very important to me. I wanted to incorporate the stones, northern lights and Milky Way into the image to create that magical image that I visioned. It took a lot of pacing back and forward and a bit of cursing under by breathe but I finally got a composition that I was more or less happy with and the results are below.

After taking a bundle of shots I switched the camera off and just watched the display and suddenly realised I wasn’t frightened anymore. It just goes to show that fears can simply be overcome by taking your attention else where, this is something I hope to apply to many other parts of my life.

Since Thursday night I’ve seen so many amazing photographs of Aurora Borealis display from all over Scotland which has actually made me doubt my work. There have been some truly wonderful shots where the photographers have captured a more powerful display of the aurora or the quality of the pictures are better or the photographs are just more eye-catching and it has made me question if my photos are up to the high standard that I set myself or as good as others. But then I realise that sometimes it’s not always about the photos, sometimes it’s about enjoying the experience and realising how lucky you are. I suppose there are not many people who have been lucky enough to watch such an incredible natural phenomenon surrounded by 5000 years of human history 10 minutes drive from their house and for that I should be grateful.