Colors of the Far North, Iceland, 2015

Being a night sky photographer since 90s this was the strongest most colorful aurora I have ever photographed pole to pole when the northern lights dressed in pastels. In March 2015 I was finishing my annual photo workshop in Iceland when I noticed a major solar eruption is heading our planet. The particles take two day to arrive. Being near the Arctic I was well located but the challenge was to find clear sky.

The weather forecast took me to Snaefellsness peninsula in the west. The night of March 17th began with a blast. The aurora storm level was so high (Kp 9) that the northern lights started in twilight, over the south! It turned out to be the most intense geomagnetic storm on Earth in about a decade. At 2am I was at Kirkjufell (church mountain) and its miniature waterfalls, one of Iceland’s most iconic landmarks, waiting for the next burst of colorful rays when this view came to existence.

Storm level aurora illuminates the landscape, cast shadows, and dominates the entire sky. However it is much less colorful to the eyes as our color detecting cones need more light to activate. Green is the first you would notice. The intensity varies in each person while red and purple are the next colors most viewers recognize. Blue is the last, which was visible on some moments of this night.

National Geographic editors selected this image for the cover the Hidden Earth special issue and also in the best 2017 travel photos. Hanging on our living room wall my one year old son see this print every day, now recognizes the words Iceland and Aurora!

Location: Kirkjufell Volcano, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland
Photograph Date: 2015
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200

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About the Photographer

Babak Tafreshi

When Babak Tafreshi was 13 years old growing up in Tehran, Iran, a neighbor lent him a telescope to look at the moon. That moment changed his life. He has gone on to become one of the world’s most lyrical and technically proficient documenters of the night sky. He is the founder and director of The World at Night, a group of photographers who seek to reclaim the natural beauty of the night sky. He is also a board member of Astronomers Without Borders and a regular contributor to Sky & Telescope magazine. He lives in Boston but spends most of his time chasing the stars across the world.

Q & A

You were born in Tehran—tell us a bit about your childhood and how you became a photographer.

I got into photography via astronomy. One night, I was up on the rooftop of our house in Tehran. I borrowed a telescope from a neighbor who never used it. Looking through a telescope at the moon is stunning for the first time, especially when you're young. And that moment changed my life. After a few months I got a Russian Zenit camera, a very bulky, low-cost camera. It was good for two purposes: shooting the night sky and protecting me from wild animals because it was very heavy [Laughs].

There are several ways to do night sky photography. One is to shoot with a telescope, which we call deep sky or astral photography. Another is to combine it with landmarks to create nightscapes. My main interest is to combine land, Earth, and sky as art—to bridge art and science by combining Earth and sky images in a single photo.

Your main focus is taking pictures of the night sky. What do you love about that?

The night sky is my second home. Though, according to my wife, it’s actually my first home [Laughs]. Sixty to seventy nights of the year I am doing night sky shooting, for one complete night. That’s twice a week on average. The night sky is very calm and peaceful. Places that are packed and noisy in the daytime have a completely different atmosphere at night. You are connected not only to nature but also to the universe, and that’s a very unique feeling to me.

Every photographer with National Geographic is also trying to heighten awareness about something that is in danger, and my mission, besides merging art and science, is to claim back the night sky from modern life. Two-thirds of humanity—over five billion people—live with light pollution under a night sky that is bright enough to obscure the Milky Way. They don’t have access to natural night sky anymore, so this part of our nature has been forgotten. I try to deliver the message that the night sky is not only an astronomer’s laboratory. It’s an essential part of life.

Tell us about your initiative, The World at Night.

Over the years, I realized there were many other people doing this kind of photography, and I was inspired by many of them, like David Malin in Australia, who was a pioneer of photography using large telescopes. I realized it would be great to bring all these pioneers together in a project with the mission of preserving the night sky and showing that under one sky we become one family of humanity. That’s why we use the slogan “One People, One Sky.”

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Babak Tafreshi By Simon Worrall

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