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Magical Aurora: <br class="br_visual" />Lucie Debelkova’s Journey to the North

Magical Aurora:
Lucie Debelkova’s Journey to the North

© Lucie Debelkova

May 2014

An assignment to Norway and Iceland to photograph the landscape and culture for a travel magazine rewarded Canon Explorer Lucie Debelkova with much more than just a strong set of pictures, as she reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield...

Lucie Debelkova is used to late nights and early mornings. Her preference for wide-angle landscapes, with the breaking sun gently peeping out from above a horizon or behind a cloud has given her a trademark picture style that blends rich colours and strong composition with stunning locations. She is living the dreams of many aspiring travel photographers, through sometimes-bleary eyes...

© Lucie Debelkova

Troms county, Norway. North of the Arctic Circle. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF14mm f/2.8L II USM lens; the exposure was 2secs at f/2.8, ISO 3200.

“My photography focuses on landscape and travel,” she explains. “I work on assignment mostly for travel magazines and shoot anything from people and architecture to landscapes and food – but it’s low-light that I love the most.”

“I am a product of the digital age and taught myself photography,” she continues. “If it wasn’t for digital, and the way it has allowed me to work as a professional I would probably still be shooting as a tourist. I started to travel seriously when I was 18, long before Internet and digital, but I had a film camera and I took some photos. That triggered my interest, and the rest is history...”

Lucie’s first all-digital photographic trip was from her native Czech Republic to Namibia on the western coast of South Africa. Armed with a small Canon digital compact, she took the biggest memory cards she could lay her hands on at the time – 8Mb and 16Mb – and filled them within a matter of days. “Now I wouldn’t be able to fit one photo on one of those cards!” she quips. “The pace of progress, you might say...”

Northern exposure

Fast forward to 2014, and a commission from a travel magazine to document life in the Northern hemisphere gave Lucie a great chance to travel to two of her favourite places: Norway and Iceland. She explains the background: “I was on assignment to Norway’s Lofoten Islands and the sub-arctic circle for one of the travel magazines I work for in the Middle East, where I now live. When circumstances allow, when I’m on assignment, I extend my trip to shoot some personal work, and in this case I wanted to photograph the Aurora Borealis, or ‘Northern Lights’, and chose to do something special for these rare moments. I decided to jump in the deep end and shoot a timelapse for the first time.”

“I’d never shot a timelapse before and even though I’m a technical person because it was my first time I had to learn the post-production from the beginning,” she laughs in recollection. “I looked at lots of videos on Vimeo and YouTube and was amazed at how the medium can really go beyond stills photography and give you a deeper understanding of a location. I knew that with the cameras I had – the EOS 5D Mark III and the EOS-1D X – that they were supremely capable of amazing timelapses.”

© Lucie Debelkova

Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland, during the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 30secs at f/2.8, ISO 2500.

Using a cabled remote control, Lucie was able to lock exposures on both of her cameras while the mode was set to continuous shooting to be able to capture one frame after another. That allowed Lucie to let both cameras work so she could return to the warmth for a hot drink if light conditions stayed the same and there was a warm place to return to. Which was rarely the case...

“That’s the main thing I realised,” she remarks. “First of all, it takes a lot longer! The dedication and the way you approach a timelapse is very different. You have to pick a spot where you have to stand for at least an hour, where you have no option but to do nothing except watch the camera. It’s not like you can wander around and change the composition or anything like that. You are there, fixed to one spot, and all the time you are looking for things like cars coming towards you with bright headlights that could ruin exposures, that sort of thing...”

Needless to say, all these challenges were to happen to Lucie during her three week trip to the northern skies, but she adapted quickly and learned on the job, as well as discovering the advantages offered by Canon’s flagship DSLR, the EOS-1D X.

“It was great to have the 1D X for this trip,” she reveals. “And this camera in particular was very useful as the sensor was so amazingly sensitive and made it just perfect for low-light work. But as I discovered, timelapse is a different beast to stills and the patience you need for it is twice as much as normal photography. Because I was in Norway I was able to shoot so many still images of the Aurora and managed to get that side of it out of my system, so by the time I got to Iceland I had mainly one thing on my mind: timelapse.”

Lucie spent a total of three weeks in Iceland, working mainly in the night and focusing her efforts on her timelapse project. “It got to the point that I was totally exhausted during the day!” she laughs. “I ended up with 150GB of images from just that one trip; I realised also that by doing timelapse you soon pile on the data with all the images you have to take!”

Research and resourcefulness

© Lucie Debelkova

A fishing village on Lofoten Island, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 20secs at f/2.8, ISO 1000.

Lucie wasn’t prepared for how busy Iceland would be at night, with the Northern Lights proving a magnetic draw for thousands of tourists. It posed something of a problem. “So many people came to see the Aurora this year, and it really took me by surprise on this visit!” she recalls. “There was one minibus after another when I was there, depositing these hoards of photographers and their tripods. It was like a zoo. It was horrible! I stayed away from the most popular location, the Glacier Lagoon, for this reason. I wanted to get something a bit more unique.”

“Norway was much better, on reflection,” Lucie states. “I prepared for the trip by doing my research by looking at lots of photo sharing websites, and I checked out locations and pictures people had taken before. It gave me inspiration and determination to do better. I used Google Earth and the TPE (The Photographer's Ephemeris) app to work out where the sun was rising and setting.”

“Everybody wants to capture a place differently, of course. But my advice to anyone wanting to capture a location in a unique way is to first of all get it out of your system. Do all the tourist stuff, and shoot the same as everyone else, but then let the location grow on you. And by staying somewhere a bit longer – as I always do after an assignment has finished – you will find that your eyes take in a different view.”

So with such a classic subject as the Aurora Borealis, how did Lucie choose to record it and steer clear of all the usual visual clichés? “Digital photography is great in one way because it allows people to take many more photographs,” she reflects. “But it’s getting more difficult to be different. But that said, not all cameras are as good as the EOS-1D X for example, so a technical advantage – which in my case meant being able to shoot in very low light with minimal noise – was really helpful. I’m not the kind of person to study the quality of files, like in a studio for instance, but I could see straight away that it was super high quality. The size and weight of the camera, from a travel photographer’s point of view, when lightness is everything, would prevent me from using it every day but in this job it was the perfect tool and it’s bigger size actually was useful in giving me more stability when shooting longer exposures.”

Lucie also took with her the EOS 5D Mark III, an upgrade to her trusty 5D Mark II. “For years I shot with the [EOS 5D] Mark II and so the Mark III was a very intuitive camera to get to know. Most of the functions and buttons were in the same places, so I could pick it up and use it almost straight away. It is, to my eyes, the perfect travel camera: well-built, supremely reliable, great autofocus and with a fantastic sensor for the ultimate quality.”

Challenges and solutions

Having had previous experience shooting the night sky for star trails, Lucie already understood the basic principles of what it takes to shoot a timelapse, and headed to her chosen location to begin work. “The initial challenge was the time it took!” she jokes. “You need so many shots, and in the freezing cold Nordic landscape it’s not a nice process waiting for hours! You have to think ahead all the time, especially if you are shooting water with the tide coming in and out. Will it work? Will it not? All these questions are going on in your head while you are freezing your butt off!”

© Lucie Debelkova

Moskenes, Lofoten Island, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 32secs at f/18, ISO 100.

She already knew that a few basic camera settings needed to change in order to get the perfect sequence of images. AF had to be switched off, for example, to stop the lens from hunting in the dark, as did Auto White Balance. Setting it manually gave the consistency to her images that she needed. The whole point of shooting digitally is to create the perfect ‘digital negative’ so by shooting in RAW mode, it allowed Lucie to achieve the optimum set of images which she would later stitch together after batch-processing in Adobe Lightroom for levels and exposure.

“Photographing the Aurora is a bit like shooting fireworks,” Lucie jokes. “You don’t know if it’s going to be subtle or a really powerful blast as it is constantly changing. You might have an overexposed shot while it dances for three minutes or it might last for a second. So you are constantly adjusting exposure. You are like a watchdog while the camera is working.”

After watching the magic in the skies, more magic happened in post-production. Lucie explains: “I used Adobe Lightroom 5 to batch process the images in terms of exposure and framing and then put the images together as a series of sequences in GoPro’s Studio Edit software, which I had downloaded. I then added the sequences together with rights-free music, which I sourced online. The whole process was actually very easy and it taught me to look at stills photography in a totally different way.”

Never stop learning

Lucie picked up many new techniques and tips along the path of her timelapse journey. “My technical knowledge and understanding for post-production has definitely increased,” she admits. “I shoot on Manual mode all the time anyway, but for timelapse it is vital just so you are in complete control of exposure settings.”

“You are never too old to stop learning new tricks,” she smiles. “Before I started on this whole timelapse journey, I was just a travel photographer obsessed with the perfect still image. I still am, of course, but now I have a new string to my bow, if you like. I have seen how it is possible to add an extra dimension to the work you can do as a photographer. The only thing is; it takes a lot longer. But as the saying goes, all good things come to those who wait!”

© Lucie Debelkova

Please click the arrow on the image above to play Lucie Debelkova’s stunning timelapse video of the Northern Lights, photographed with EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs.

Lucie Debelkova’s top tips for shooting timelapse

  • Once you have chosen a suitable location, mount your camera on the tripod and lock it down so it’s as stable as possible. Weigh the legs down with your camera bag if you can. Anything to stop it moving.
  • Once you have composed and focussed on the subject, turn off AF. If there is no source of light, try to use your torch or even light from your smartphone on a foreground that needs to be sharp. This will save battery on your camera, and prevent shots from not being taken if the lens is struggling to focus.
  • Make sure your camera is not set to Auto White Balance, as this can create flickering.
  • Try not to use Live View all the time as it can drain the battery faster, especially in the cold night air unless you have several fully charged extra batteries, which is always a must on such a journey.
  • Pick a shutter speed which best suits the environment you are timelapsing. For example if you are timelapsing the stars, you will need a long exposure to capture as much light as possible. Ideal exposure is up to 20 seconds to make star movements least visible.
  • For a fast changing environment (for example, with lots of people moving) it is best to use minimal interval times. You can adjust how often the camera will take a shot with the intervalometer.
  • The most important thing is to know your camera by heart, as you are shooting in complete darkness. You need to blindly find all the right buttons to adjust the exposure, so familiarity is key!


Lucie Debelkova’s timelapse kitbag




EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM

Biografía: Lucie Debelkova

Lucie Debelkova

Lucie Debelkova was born in Prague, Czech Republic, and regularly travels to all corners of the world on various photo assignments. She covers subjects such as special destinations, ancient or modern cultures and food features for a variety of clients. Her philosophy is to take positive photographs highlighting the best a place has to offer, whether it’s the vibrancy of the landscape, the architectural grandeur of ancient monuments or modern architecture or the warmth and friendliness of the people. Lucie’s work has featured in many publications around the world including The Sunday Times, The New York Times, Wanderlust, Lonely Planet, Digital Photographer, What Digital Camera, Outdoor Photography, Vanity Fair, Saudi Voyager magazine, East & West as well as several in-flight airline magazines.


Jökulsárlón, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland.  Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 30secs at f/2.8, ISO 3200.