“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer," Philip Pullman describes the Northern Lights in the His Dark Materials series.

The Northern Lights have always fascinated humankind. And, it is quite impossible to put into words the experience of seeing it in person. But with the advent of DSLRs, photographers from around the world have been capturing these magical experiences on camera.  

The Northern Lights season ranges from September to April in the Northern Hemisphere and from March to September in the Southern Hemisphere. The best time to see and photograph the Lights is during the fall and spring equinoxes because of the orientation of Earth’s axis.

To inspire and share the beauty of this magical phenomenon, Dan Zafra, the editor of Capture The Atlas, compiles a collection of the best Aurora Borealis images every year, which is then published in December to coincide with the Northern Lights season and the end of the year. This year, the collection also includes images of Aurora Australis.

Scroll down to see 11 images from the 2020 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year compilation.


The Hunt's Reward – Ben Maze

Tasmania, Australia

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I have had the incredible fortune to witness the Southern Lights twice during two photography trips to Tasmania. Captured in this image is a trifecta of astronomical phenomena that made for some of the best astrophotography conditions one can witness in Australia, namely, the setting Milky Way galactic core, zodiacal light, and of course, the elusive Aurora Australis. On top of this, a sparkling display of oceanic bioluminescence adorned the crashing waves, adding the cherry on top to what was already a breathtaking experience. Having been out of reception and civilisation for over a day, fellow photographer Luke Tscharke and I had no idea the aurora would strike on this night. We’d just heard rumours of a potential solar storm. We could barely contain our excitement when the lights first showed up on our camera’s screens. We later realised we were in the best place on the entire continent to witness the rare show, with Lion Rock being on the southernmost cape of Tasmania and much more cloud-free than the rest of the state at the time.

Dragon Eggs – Roksolyana Hilevych

Lofoten Islands, Norway

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I found this unknown place on the Lofoten Islands as I was moving around the Gimsoya Islands. That night was very cold, with temperatures reaching -20ºC. It was probably one of the best shows of watching and photographing the Northern Lights I’ve ever experienced, because in a place like this, it’s not easy to find something new with such a magical foreground and the Kp5/Kp6 Northern Lights dancing all night long. For this shot, I did a focus-stacking of three shots, two for the foreground at f/8, 10s, ISO 400 and one for the sky at f/4, 2s and ISO 640.

Turbulence – John Weatherby

Iceland

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It was the second night of our Iceland workshop, leading 10 people around the beautiful country for their first visit. The forecast on this night was for a solar storm, and it did not disappoint. After the first sign of green in the sky, the group decided to book it out to the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. It was a group effort, but we managed to light the plane from the inside with two coloured LED lights that a participant brought. Hearing the group’s screams in the dark from seeing a Kp6 aurora for the very first time was something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Antarctic Night – Benjamin Eberhardt

Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory, Antarctica

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This image shows a strong and colourful aurora over the IceCube Neutrino observatory in the South Pole and is part of a longer time-lapse series. The South Pole is probably one of the most remote and challenging environments to do photography, and it is strenuous for both humans and technology. To achieve 24h-long time-lapse shots, you need some creativity to heat and insulate your equipment in order to keep it running, and even rotating, in temperatures ranging down to -80ºC (-112 ºF). In my case, this was a learning curve over multiple months, with a lot of trial and error and frostbite. On the upside, once you have tackled all the challenges, you have plenty of reasons to be proud of your shots.

Convergence – Agnieszka Mrowka

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

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It was late September 2020, and finally, the perfect conditions for the Northern Lights came together; +Kp6 converged with unusually calm weather and the moon illuminating the ice of the most popular glacier lagoon in Iceland. It was a fierce and peaceful night to remember.

Gate to the North – Filip Hrebenda

Iceland

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I was really tired after a long day of traveling across Iceland and shooting the sunset in the northern part of the country. But after the sunset, charts of Kp index jumped to number 6! That meant that I couldn’t go to sleep; it was aurora chasing time! After a few hours of waiting, Lady Aurora came out with amazing power. The shooting conditions weren’t easy. In the evening, winds of 70+ km/h began to blow, which is difficult for shooting long exposures. To take this photo, I also had to make sure that my tripod was as steady as possible. Despite the challenges, I managed to pull off a very special Aurora image. It doesn’t matter how tired you are; when the aurora shows up, euphoria always wins over fatigue!

Natural Mystic – Virginia Yllera

Iceland

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It was a cold and windy night in November, and one of the most spectacular moments I have experienced chasing the Northern Lights. The wind-chill, added to the spray coming from the waterfall, was part of the adventure. The shooting conditions were challenging, as I constantly had to wipe out the lens and make sure that the composition and exposure were correct. Finally, the Lights exploded and all the effort paid off.

Hafragilsfoss Aurora – Stefano Pellegrini

Iceland

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During my last trip to Iceland last August, the weather conditions were very “Icelandic”: cloudy and rainy. One evening, after spending a sunset in Dettifoss, I looked up at the sky and saw something green. I didn’t plan a night session in that location since I didn’t have any subject to shoot. Dettifoss was too big and full of spray to photograph at night, so I got in the car and searched for other spots. My final destination was Hafragilsfoss, where I found an interesting composition. As soon as I was in the right position, I started with a four minute shot for the foreground. After a minute, I saw the sky exploding, so I quickly got my camera ready to catch the aurora. It was absolutely breathtaking and one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen!

Aurora Eruption – Tor-Ivar Næss

Lyngen Alps, Norway

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This image came from a night in the majestic Lyngen Alps, which are always a fantastic background when the Northern Lights go bananas. It was a clear night in February, and the Northern Lights started moving very slowly, but they kept building up, so when I watched what was happening on my LCD screen, the Northern Lights looked as if they were erupting from the mountain. Thanks to the moonlight coming from the left (south), the landscape was nicely illuminated and I got a decent balance with the overwhelming display of the Aurora Borealis. 

Flames in the Sky – Risto Leskinen

Pallas-Ylläs National Park, Finnish Lapland

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Satellite data indicated strong solar winds for the evening, and I decided to drive to Pallas Fell, where the landscape was ideal, with fresh snow on the trees. I usually concentrate on one composition per night, but this time, the aurora storm was exceptionally long, covering the whole sky, and I was able to get several images with various foregrounds. It was freezing cold, but flames like these make you forget the temperature.