OWEN HUMPHREYS - PA PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 06th Mar 2019
PA Staff Photographer Owen Humphreys has been burning the midnight oil to capture some extraordinary and rare shots of the Aurora in Northumberland
A staff photographer for nearly 20 years with the Press Association – the UK's leading multimedia news agency – Owen Humphreys is focused primarily on news in the week and sports at the weekend, including most of England's international football matches during their European and World Cup campaigns as well as all the local teams in his northeast England 'patch'. He has also been lucky enough to cover the London Olympics, Open Golf Championships and other major sporting events. He travels all over the world with PA, and has won his fair share of plaudits, including Barclays Premiership Photographer of the Season and the British Airways Olympics Sports Photographer at the UK Picture Editors' Guild Awards in 2012. But recently he's been making the headlines both here and abroad for images he has made very close to home – a series of breathtaking shots of the aurora borealis over Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland, taken with his new Nikon D4S…
I'd driven up to Dunstanburgh Castle to photograph the Milky Way with the D4S, on the first clear, moonless night we'd had for a long time. You sometimes get the aurora in Northumberland, although you're far more likely to in Scotland, and we knew there was a 20% chance of seeing it, which was an added bonus, but we never expected it to be so strong.
I'd caught it earlier that night when it was very faint, then it got a bit stronger after midnight. Then, at around 1.30am when I was just about to pack up, it went crazy – the best aurora I've personally seen for years. You only usually get the stronger ones like this in Norway, Iceland and northern Scotland, not this far south. The display lasted for two hours, by which time I'd been standing out there on the north coast for nearly eight hours in temperatures only just above freezing. I didn't get home till 4.30am, and I sat up editing the images till nearly 6am, so I didn't get any sleep that night. But getting results like this makes it all worthwhile.
The images were shot at 15sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600. The lower you can get the exposure the better, as it creates a good pillar effect of the beams going up in the air. 30 seconds I've personally found a little too long but have used when the aurora is very faint. I find you capture more detail at 15 seconds or 13 seconds. Obviously you have to use a tripod, and focus manually, which I did using Live View; it's ideal for all night photography. The D4S helps hugely with night shots, adding extra contrast, and as its colours are so vivid, it brought out the hues in the aurora really well.
I've only become very interested in photographing the northern lights in the last 18 months, as I've found it very challenging, especially catching a good aurora in Northumberland. It's a case of lots of time and commitment to get all the right components together, but when it does come off the results are hugely satisfying.
It can be difficult to get all conditions together to catch a good aurora on camera. You need it to be clear on the northern horizon, you need completely dark skies with no light pollution, and little or no moon – otherwise its light dilutes out the aurora. And, of course, you need a good aurora – that night there was a high solar wind speed southerly directed with a high density, creating an aurora of 4.33-5.00 on the KP index [a global geometric storm index with a scale of 0 to 9]. I personally wouldn't normally bother trying to shoot anything less than KP3 unless I was in the far north; however, I've seen good aurora pictures from as far south as Norfolk.
You also need to do lots of checking of aurora and weather forecasts – there are plenty of websites on the internet for doing this. It means a lot of late nights, and a lot of the time you may get nothing. As I've mentioned earlier, all these numbers and figures can change so quickly and I'm sure there are other elements I don't know about, so my advice is just to get out into the clear skies and have a go.
I now have a D4S and a D4, and I switch between the two, but I tend to use the D4S for landscapes. I got the D4S as soon as it came out. I always like to invest in the latest kit, and I really liked this camera from the off. For sport, it's incredibly fast, and I love the colour it captures. It's very sharp and then there's the high ISO, up to 25,600 [extendable to 409,600 equivalent]. I generally use the 14-24mm f/2.8 , 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8, plus the 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 for sports, as well as a range of Nikon converters. At PA we don't tend to use filters unless specifically asked to – so what you see is more or less what you get. The only adjustments I make in post-production are levels and sharpening.
I've been doing so many different things – at PA there's such a variety of stuff to cover, so one minute I'm doing the football, the next I'm standing outside court. But I do like to look for stuff that's a bit different, so the main thing for me over the last 12 months has been trying to find something a bit out of the ordinary, creating a real variety of work and images, including lots of nature and landscapes as well as my day-to-day news and sport.
Over the last 12 months people seem to have become increasingly interested in the weather, so I've been looking out for 'weathery' landscapes, which is where these aurora shots came in. I've just also come back from Bangladesh, where I'd been taking documentary photographs for PA of heart surgery on children from the slums by the charity, Little Hearts Foundation. As for the rest of this year – I really hope to be covering the rugby World Cup and also the up-and-coming election.