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Seeking the northern lights was a family affair for this AP photographer

BRUNSWICK, Maine (AP) — Robert Bukaty has covered nearly every type of story and event for The Associated Press in his 30-year career, from the somber to the exhilarating: a mass shooting, COVID-19, presidents, political campaigns, ski racing — a lot
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The northern lights flare in the sky over a farmhouse, late Friday, May 10, 2024, in Brunswick, Maine. Brilliant purple, green, yellow and pink hues of the Northern Lights were reported worldwide, with sightings in Germany, Switzerland, London, and the United States and Canada. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

BRUNSWICK, Maine (AP) — Robert Bukaty has covered nearly every type of story and event for The Associated Press in his 30-year career, from the somber to the exhilarating: a mass shooting, COVID-19, presidents, political campaigns, ski racing — a lot of ski racing — Olympics, and everyday life in Maine as staff photographer in Portland. With a little nudge from his daughter and a solar storm, he has now even shot the northern lights. Here’s what he said about capturing this extraordinary image.

Why this photo

My photo of the northern lights in the sky over a farmhouse in Brunswick, Maine, came about less because of my role as a photojournalist and more because of my role as a father.

I was half-asleep late Friday night when my 15-year-old daughter, Béla, barged into my room to report she heard from friends on social media that the northern lights were out. Then she ran outside to look.

My expectations were low. Most of my searches for the colorful lights in my 30 years with The Associated Press were disappointing. Usually, it was too cloudy or all I could see was a faint reddish glow near the horizon. Our small house is surrounded by tall pines, so I was surprised when Béla shouted that she could see them.

How I made this photo

When I joined her on the front yard, we saw what looked like pink see-through clouds drifting in front of the stars. She showed me a picture she took on her iPhone. The colors were much more impressive than what we saw with our eyes. I joked that if I was a photographer I’d be working this like crazy, trying to make pictures. Then it dawned on me that maybe I should grab my professional DSLR and a tripod.

My fancy camera is amazing at focusing on a fast-moving athlete, but it was a challenge to focus on the dark night sky. Béla’s cell phone, on the other hand, seemed to have no trouble, even without a tripod. After a few minutes the celestial show suddenly came to an end.

I was ready to go back to bed when Béla asked if we could go somewhere that had less trees and more sky. I mentioned a nearby farm road where I had previously photographed the stars. Before I knew it, we were standing on the shoulder of that road.

It was a good decision. There were patches of color in the north and a nebula-like display directly overhead. The best light, however, was in the east where the flares of the aurora borealis reminded me of stage lighting at a rock concert. That’s when the photographer in me finally kicked in. The sky alone was dramatic, but the picture needed was something to anchor the scene to earth.

We got back in the car and drove slowly up the road towards a farmhouse that was silhouetted on a small rise. I asked Béla to look out the window and let me know when the house lined up with the brightest part of the sky.

If you’ve read this far hoping I’d share some technical advice on lenses or shutter speeds, I’m sorry. I shot the photo with my iPhone. About all I did was steady my hands on the roof of my car. Before taking the picture, I tapped on the screen and dragged the exposure slider bar down a tiny bit so that the brightest part of the sky was not washed-out.

Why this photo works

I think the photo works because the image is the combination of striking light and a simple, uncluttered composition. The aurora’s angled light draws the viewer’s eye to the quiet, rural home, while the dark landscape and sky frames the colorful display.

While I’m pleased with the photo, I’m even happier to witness my daughter’s excitement over the natural phenomenon.

“I’ve been wanting to see the northern lights since I was 3 years old,” she said.

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For more extraordinary AP photography, click here.

Robert F. Bukaty, The Associated Press

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