Behind the Image: David Clapp on luck and light painting the aurora borealis

Behind the Image: David Clapp on luck and light painting the aurora borealis

Sometimes a spectacular image happens when you least expect it, allowing you to see a familiar photo location with fresh eyes. Professional photographer David Clapp explains how one of his most popular photos to date materialised out of thin air.

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Behind the Image: David Clapp on luck and light painting the aurora borealis

Sometimes an image comes together and completely surprises you. Sometimes the unexpected arrives, unannounced and understated, as conditions and moments collide to create something that far exceed what it initially appears to be.

The correct term for this is holistic, ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. Two guitars, a lead singer and a drum kit don’t make the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, for instance – there’s something far more magical and unexplainable going on that just cant be defined.

Rather than concoct a building and descriptive narrative about the minutes that led to this moment, I’m going to play this another way. It was in fact nothing that marvellous at all.

I’m used to fighting for my images, but I have to say that only some are the crescendo of planning and decision making, leading to air-punching elation. Despite all the drama, this was quite the opposite, like the quiet patient fisherman, fishing the rivers of possibility.

I was actually running a workshop at the time when I took this image. Standing on the banks of the waterfalls opposite Kirkjufell in Iceland, there’s no originality here. This is far from an original composition.

Low bands of green, far from the enigmatic aurora I was waiting for, were wafting over the sky. As soon as the aurora started to build, it would fade back to where it came. I have had my senses rescaled by displays under the Norwegian sky, but this was far to become one of those.

Instead I just stood and waited, ate a Mars Bar, chatted and, slowly, as this band of aurora started to build, something special seemed to happen. I had been playing around with light painting, eliminating the foreground and then gently, as this soft green arc enveloped the distant mountain, it all came together without me knowing, slipping in the back door.

I pressed play on the back screen to check my image composition and smiled. Something magical had happened without me knowing. The camera had revealed all manner of shadow detail that was otherwise unnoticed.

It was simply astounding, transfixing, as there glowing from the LCD displayed something very unexpected, a technological masterpiece, a gift you could say.

The image was taken on a Canon EOS-1DX using a 24mm f/1.4L, a camera that I was trialling over the winter months. What makes it so remarkable over other camera systems, is its ability to resolve shadow detail, literally in the pitch dark. All that research and development has worked in a different way for nocurtnals like me.

I have little use for 14 frames per second. What this camera does is something very different: it opens doors to a world unseen. Its massive dynamic range extending inconceivably into the higher ISOs. It has redefined what I am capable of, giving ideas room to ignite.

This harmony, this holistic combination, of photographer and technological achievement, is calling me on to greater endeavour.


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