The Aurora Through a Frozen Lens by Dustin Gienger

Photographer Dustin Gienger of Santa Rosa, California finds himself shooting in Abisko National Park, just north of Kiruna, Sweden. He had been traveling around Europe and finally made it to the Arctic Circle. He arrived in time for the aurora, which is particularly exciting as his passion is taking photos of the night sky.

If you are like Dustin, you are the adventurer who dreams of going into the wilderness with just a camera, knife, and toothpick and coming out on top.

When starting out his story he tells me, with a spoonful of self-mockery, that he has learned the difference between experience and knowledge. The Arctic Circle has it’s name for a reason and he remembers the biting cold and flurries of dry snow.

If you are a native Californian, you may relate to feeling lost in this scenario. Nonetheless, he set up camp, which consisted of photo gear, a +15C sleeping bag, an emergency blanket, and a backpack filled with food. Yes, a lot more than a toothpick – but not nearly enough to be comfortable in the -20C wind and snow.

“I set up my camera and tripod, focusing as I would for stars (to infinity and then back just a nudge). I adjusted my settings to wide open f/1.8 and found a 15-20 second shutter speed would work for the crop sensor I had at the time. Satisfied, I left to start my fire. That’s when many horrendous mistakes caught up with me. Frozen wood, as it turns out, does not burn well. Nor does frozen lighter fluid create a flame. It is also hard to drink your water when it’s a block of ice, and an emergency blanket makes a bad tarp/pad. Last and most certainly worst, a +15C rating is about as good as a napkin when it’s -20C with a wind chill.”

Dustin’s hopes perked up as the aurora shamelessly lit the sky in vibrant hues of green, red, and purple. Filled with the warmth of excitement he began shooting.

He stood in awe, but began to notice a strange tinge to each photograph. No matter what he adjusted it always appeared. Finally, too frozen to stand any longer he hunkered down in his sleeping bag and took photos from the ground.

Suddenly his camera shut off on it’s own. He then realized the reason for the strange tinge.

“My lens had completely frozen. Ice had crept across the glass and had shut down the equipment. No more photos.”

As it was, he still captured some beautiful pictures from his adventure, while learning some key lessons to carry into his career.

Dustin Gienger Northern Lights

Dustin Gienger Northern Lights

Dustin Gienger Northern Lights

If you’re a vagabond photographer who can’t afford the expensive equipment necessary to keep your camera from freezing, try out a couple of these DIY techniques from Dustin:

  • Use a tube wool sock and slip it over the lens, creating a jacket.
  • Use hand warmers, stuffed inside the jacket you have made for the lens.
  • Wrap the body of the camera in a scarf and keep it out of the wind.
  • When not in use, keep the camera close to your body.
  • Beware of possible condensation when coming back in from the cold weather.

One last piece of advice from Dustin?

“Most of all, prepare for your trip so you don’t freeze half to death.”

Check out more of Dustin’s work on his Instagram and Facebook.

Newsletter