In our previous installment of this series, we talked about how the Aurora was traditionally painted or drawn in the Renaissance and the Early Modern period. Today we will look at the way people represented the Aurora through Analog Photography.

While analog photography has been around since the early XIXth Century thanks to French inventors Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, Northern Lights photography is a much younger phenomenon and has only really been around for less than 125 years. One reason for this long gestation period was simply that, back in those days, photographic equipment was still quite expensive and very fragile. Most cameras used delicate silver-coated-plates to imprint the original photograph and the much more convenient and relatively inexpensive films were not invented until the end of the XIXth century. Until then, drawing pictures was still a cheaper alternative than photography and popular illustrated newspapers, often filled to the brim with drawings and lithographies of all kinds were very much symptomatic of this phenomenon.

For the longest time, drawing and painting simply gave better results than photography when it came to Northern Lights. It was also a much cheaper process.

Photography kept on evolving and improving throughout the XIXth Century and year after year and decade after decade, the photographic process became more reliable and more faithful than before. Towards the end of the century, photographic technology had gotten to a point where it finally became possible to attempt to photograph the Northern Lights! The very first Northern Lights photograph was allegedly taken by the Danish photographer Sophus Tromholt in 1885 near Nowadays Oslo. In order to achieve this feat, he exposed the photo for as long as 8 minutes! However, this specific picture was never published by the renowned photographer, potentially because he wasn’t satisfied enough with it. As a result, the first published Northern Lights photography was taken by the German photograph Martin Brendel in 1892 near Alta in North-Norway. While this picture is far from being as impressive as those taken today, it clearly shows the Aurora in all its beauty, thus ushering in the era of Northern Lights photography.

The very first preserved Northern Lights photograph, taken in 1892 in North-Norway.

The location of this very first Northern Lights shot was also significant: For almost a century, between the XIXth and the XXth century, the North-Norwegian town of Alta was at the forefront of Northern Lights research. It was there that the French expedition ´La Recherche´ observed some incredible Auroras in 1838 and produced some incredible drawings. It was also in Alta that the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland researched, and finally discovered the nature of Northern Lights at the end of this century. Interestingly enough, his team made intensive use of photography in their research: they took Aurora pictures from various locations at the same time and used triangulation methods to find out where exactly in the sky the Northern Lights were situated. Using this groundbreaking technique they were able to establish that the Auroras happened high up in the atmosphere and were created by the solar winds. Northern Lights photography was thus, from the get go, a critical tool in our understanding of the Aurora.

As technology progressed, Northern Lights pictures became better and better, but were still Black and White.

As photography became more and more widespread, taking Northern Lights pictures stopped being a privilege of scientists and professional photographers. Still, one big issue concerning Northern Lights photography was location: international travel was still extremely expensive and took a lot of time so few people could actually afford traveling to the land of the Northern Lights. As a result, it was people from these nordic lands who took the majority of Northern Lights photographs in those days. In particular, Alaskans and Norwegians produced a significant share of Northern Lights photography during the analog age. In the fifties, as technology advanced further and further, the first color Northern Lights photographs were shot. To the delight of many, it was finally possible to see Northern Lights in all their colorful splendor. Such photography wasn’t all that simple though: finding the perfect focal point and exposure time was the result of trial and error and even in such cases, the colors were almost aways off due to the fact that film was primarily designed for day-time photography. Still, photographs from all over the north soldiered on and produced some amazing pictures. Little would they know though, that as the XXth century gave ways for its XXIst counterpart, this cumbersome process would become much simplified by the means of digital technology. We will find out how exactly next week with the third part of our series: Visions of the Northern Lights Pt.3: Pixel Bonanza!

Pro tip: The best place to see Northern Lights all year round is space: this location is the only place where clouds never cover the Aurora!

Pictures Sources:

  • (I) J. L. Nerlien A/S (1939) Northern Lights in East-Greenland. Courtesy from the Digital Museum.
  • (II) Fridtjof Nansen (1910) Self-Portrait under the Northern Lights.
  • (III) Harald Moltke (1900) Aurora over Iceland.
  • (IV) Martin Brendel (1892) Northern Light over Alta. Courtesy from the Digital Museum
  • (V) Severin Worm-Petersen (1910 – 1925 ?) Northern Lights over an undisclosed landscape. Courtesy from the Digital Museum.
  • (VI) NASA (1994) Southern Lights viewed from the Spaceship Endeavor. Courtesy from the Astronaut Tom Jones’ Blog.