An extraordinary photo: The Northern Lights as seen by an AP photographer

BRUNSWICK, i. (AP) — Robert Bukaty has covered nearly every type of story and event, from the dark to the exciting, in his 30-year career for The Associated Press: a mass shooting, COVID-19, presidents, political campaigns, ski races — and many more Ski racing – Olympics and everyday life in Maine as a staff photographer in Portland. With a little push from his daughter and a solar stormHe has now even photographed the northern lights. Here's what he said about capturing this extraordinary image.

Why this photo?

My photo of the Northern Lights in the sky above a farmhouse in Brunswick, Maine, came less from my role as a photojournalist and more from my role as a father.

I was half asleep late Friday evening when my 15-year-old daughter Béla burst into my room and reported that she had heard from friends on social media that the Northern Lights were out. Then she ran outside to investigate.

My expectations were low. Most of my searches for the colored lights in my 30 years at The Associated Press have been disappointing. Usually it was too cloudy or all I could see was a faint reddish glow on the horizon. Our little house is surrounded by tall pine trees, so I was surprised when Béla called out that she could see them.

How I took this photo

As I joined her in the front yard, we saw what looked like translucent pink clouds floating in front of the stars. She showed me a photo she took with her iPhone. The colors were much more impressive than what we saw with our eyes. I joked that if I were a photographer I would be working like crazy trying to take pictures. Then I realized that maybe I should grab my professional DSLR and a tripod.

My fancy camera is great at focusing on a fast-moving athlete, but it was a challenge to focus on the dark night sky. Béla's cell phone, on the other hand, didn't seem to have any problems even without a tripod. After a few minutes, the heavenly show suddenly ended.

I was just about to go back to bed when Béla asked if we could go somewhere with fewer trees and more sky. I mentioned a nearby dirt road where I had previously photographed the stars. Before I knew it, we were standing on the side of the road.

It was a good decision. There were patches of color to the north and a mist-like display directly above. However, the best light was in the east, where the lights of the Northern Lights reminded me of the stage lights at a rock concert. That’s when the photographer in me finally came into play. The sky alone was dramatic, but the image needed was something to anchor the scene to the earth.

We got back in the car and drove slowly up the road to a farmhouse visible on a small hill. I asked Béla to look out the window and let me know when the house coincided with the brightest part of the sky.

If you've read this far hoping I'd give you some technical advice about lenses or shutter speeds, I'm sorry. I took the photo with my iPhone. The only thing I did was rest my hands on the roof of my car. Before taking the picture, I tapped the screen and pulled the exposure slider down a little so that the brightest part of the sky wasn't washed out.

Why this photo works

I think the photo works because of the image's combination of striking light and a simple, uncluttered composition. The slanting light of the aurora draws the viewer's eye to the quiet, rural house, while the dark landscape and sky frame the colorful display.

Although I am happy with the photo, I am even happier to witness my daughter's excitement over the natural phenomenon.

“I’ve wanted to see the Northern Lights since I was three years old,” she said.


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Anna Harden

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