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Interview with Aurora hunter Jim Henderson

Interview with Aurora hunter Jim Henderson

They were named after the Roman goddess of dawn - the shimmering Aurora who flew across each morning sky and who dared to fall in love with mortal men.

For 26 years, photographer Jim Henderson has captured the haunting dance of the Northern Lights.

His images of the phenomenon hint at what the ancient world saw centuries ago - an emerald glow flying out like a cloak of light from the shoulders of a god - before a backdrop of cold sparkling stars.

Since his first Aurora Borealis image was taken in September 1989, Jim has witnessed the night sky dance more than 350 times.

And every single moment was captured within just a few miles of his cottage in Scotland.

Based in Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire, Jim's career has included landscape and property photography, as well as work as a press photographer at the Deeside Piper.

His most well known shot of Dunnottar Castle was turned into a postcard and has sold over 200,000 copies so far.

  (Dunnottar Castle: by Jim Henderson)
via STV via STV

But it is his history of hunting the elusive Northern Lights which holds a special place in his well seasoned photographer's heart.

"Like any fisherman I’m always hoping for the really big one," said Jim

"I’ve seen so many of them now and there’s never any the same - but there's always that element of not knowing what to expect.

"And I still go out there hoping for the 'wow' one."

  (Aurora over Tomnaverie - copyright Jim Henderson)
via STV via STV

Times have changed since the 66-year-old first began scouring the skies as an Aurora hunter.

His very first view of the lights was as a ten-year-old boy in Banchory.

Later on, when he first went out with his camera in the early 1990s, he was often the only photographer out there among the sporadic keen astronomers.

Jim even co-authored a book on the Northern Lights with John MacNicol, president of the Aberdeen Astronomical Society, because they were both concerned that not enough people knew that they could see the Aurora Borealis in Britain.

"There seemed to be a myth that the Aurora could only be seen from places like the North Pole," explained Jim.

"People didn't seem to know that the Aurora is actually like a big elasticated dough ring that circles the pole - the best locations for seeing it are actually around the ring area.

"The lights follow an 11 year cycle which rises and dips. The last really big one I remember was 2003/2004.

"The Aurora comes right over the top of us because it’s so powerful. It looks like you’re standing under a huge umbrella."

  (Aurora on the Crathes/Harestone Road in Banchory at the Ley Tree.)
via STV via STV

This season is predicted as being one of the best times of year for those wishing to search out the elusive lights alongside Jim.

"It’s totally based on what happens on the sun," he explains.

"If we get massive eruptions of energy from the sun, it collides with the earth, but some of the charged particles manage to break through that, creating the colours and movements."

Tips on how to photograph the Aurora

As Jim confirms, we are all able to capture fantastic photographs.

The first thing to do is track down when and where high activity might be predicted, such as in the North of Scotland or above Galloway Forest which currently has Dark Sky status.

Jim uses websites like Spaceweather.com and Aurora Watch for regular updates.

Edinburgh based BGS Aurora Alert also runs a live Aurora Twitter map.

Anywhere free from light pollution is best. Remember, the light from the moon will also affect your shot.

As Jim suggests, winter time is best as there are long dark nights and usually a clear night comes with sub-zero temperatures.

That means you'll need plenty of spare batteries though and someone to cuddle to keep warm!

Once in position, almost any camera - either digital or film - will work for photographing the Aurora, as long as you can adjust it manually to take time exposures of 10-30 seconds or longer.

An average of 20 seconds should work suitably well to capture the levels of light that you need.

As Jim said: "My work generally has been around a 20 second exposure, with f2.8 lens and at ISO of 1600.

"Many modern lenses are slower f4.5 type of speed so I would suggest a 800-1600 ISO at a minimum. The problem with longer exposures over 30 seconds is so called star trail-stars become lines because of spin of the earth and can look unattractive."

Nearly any kind of lens will work for aurora photography but, since the aurora can cover huge areas of the sky, a wide-angle lens is preferred.

A tripod is a very good call, as any slight camera movement will have significant impact on your shot.

For those with a DSLR, Aperture should be set at as low an f-stop as possible, adjusting the ISO accordingly - around 400 is advised.

Good luck Aurora hunters! And be sure to send in your photographs here to STV Aurora Watch so we can feature them or through our STV App available on Android or iOS.

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