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Photographing The Aurora Dancing Above the Iconic Dutch Windmills

Last weekend I experienced a once in a lifetime event, and took a once in a lifetime photo. With this article I want to share this photo story. For you, the reader, and for myself - to relive the moment many years later. Let's get started.


Last Friday I was able to take photos I only thought were only possible in my dreams. As a professional landscape photographer I have seen my fair share of beautiful northern lights in the arctic. But I’ve always dreamed of seeing a strong aurora display in the Netherlands. With he current solar maximum cycle I knew there were chances, but most of the time when the aurora shows itself in the Netherlands, its just a green glow on the horizon.


I have always wanted to photograph them on a strong way above the iconic Dutch windmills. Yes, people that know me know I have a thing for windmills. I have photographed them from every possible angle. Countless of mornings with beautiful morning fog, the Neowise comet in 2020, the milky way rising above them and of course capturing them every year as a backdrop for the Dutch tulips. Some of them can be seen in my 'the Netherlands Gallery. But let’s get back to the aurora.


Last year, February 23, There was an extremely strong aurora display as well that reached the Netherlands. I was lucky enough to capture that as well on the North coast of the country. Up until last weekend, that was my most spectacular aurora photo from the Netherlands.

Aurora on the Dutch Northern Coast, February 2023
Northern lights as seen from the north coast of the Netherlands on February 23

Last week


But that all changed since last Friday night. Earlier that week there were already very optimistic forecasts with high KP values predicted for the days that followed. But I didn’t get too excited yet. These forecasts are often not super accurate, meaning that the activity can be less, at the wrong time, or most often in the Netherlands: clouds that block the skies. It was only up until the day itself, Friday the 10th, that I was getting more excited.


The forecast now showed massive KP values from CMEs that were about to hit earth. KP8 was predicted with a G3 or G4 geomagnetic storm, which is massive. This is quite rare and doesn’t happen often. And then there was the cloud forecast, which was quite optimistic for a change. Yes, high clouds were showing, but from experience up north I knew that if the aurora was strong, high clouds are not really that much of a problem. I was hoping to capture something like February 23, or maybe even better with a bit of luck. But nothing prepared me for what was coming.


That evening


aurora map
Aurora Map from the Aurora Alerts App
aurora oval
Aurora Oval

That Friday the KP values skyrocketed during the early evening already. It was still bright outside but KP values were showing KP8 with an aurora oval I had never ever seen in my life. The bright red part stretched almost until all of Europe, which is absolutely insane. The earth was being ‘attacked’ by this extremely strong geomagnetic storm. These were values that were almost never seen before. 


Geomagnetic storm index showing Extreme Storm
Geomagnetic storm index showing Extreme Storm
SpaceWeatherLive resource showing KP9 and G5
SpaceWeatherLive resource showing KP9 and G5

It even surpassed the original forecast and went above KP9 (highest ever) with a G5 geomagnetic storm. This was absolutely crazy.


I was now getting extremely hyped and when it was getting dark I quickly drove out to find a spot with windmills to shoot from and already prepared several options. I first drove to the famous white windmill ‘de Vlinder’ (literally translated: The Butterfly) were I also captured Neowise a few years ago.


‘De Vlinder’ with the Neowise comet in July 2020
‘De Vlinder’ with the Neowise comet in July 2020

I didn’t like the orientation of the windmill. Yes, that’s a thing. Windmills rotate towards the wind and this one was rotated in a way not to my liking. So I drove to another one nearby, but the aurora orientation was off here and I couldn’t find a position. I was with 2 friends Ronald and Klaas, discussing which ones to go next. The location we ended up was about 15 minutes away in a little village Hei- en Boicop. It’s a location we have shot before, with 2 windmills: a little baby and a big one. And we knew that with a bit of luck, we could get both in the frame with the aurora.


Planning and options for these kinds of shoots are the most important part to success. We were on time at the windmills, set up our gear and simply waited. At first, there was just a big green glow in the sky. This was already spectacular as I had not seen such strong green glow in the Netherlands. But the strong pinks were not there yet. We were just waiting and chatting when suddenly the spikes appeared in the sky and within no time the whole sky was full of moving aurora curtains.



dutch windmills with strong aurora
Iconic! Strong Aurora Curtains Above The Classical Dutch Windmills

I have been to Iceland, Norway and Greenland so many times and have seen so many auroras in my life. But I would never think I would be able to see something like this in my own homeland, let alone above our beautiful windmills. I was absolutely in awe. I just kept shooting and enjoying the moment, and I later found that on the above photo the spikes were the most intense. Not only in detail, but also colour: pinks, blues and greens. A rainbow of colours.


Some technical info about the photo:


Taken with a Sony A7RV Camera with Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens. This lens is build for night photography with its fast aperture. Settings of this shot were shooting at f/1.8 with just a 1 second exposure at ISO 1600. Why the 1 second exposure only? To capture as much detail in the pillars as possible. If the aurora is moving, you want to use a shorter shutter speed to capture details. If you lose a long shutter speed, the aurora will be washed out. This is no problem when it’s not much much, but in this case, a fast shutter speed was required for an optimal result.


I took some different shots with slightly different compositions in the same spot as well:


Dutch windmill with aurora
Dutch windmills with aurora

The right photo is a panorama of 3 images where the aurora went high up in the sky.


Sometimes the aurora got so strong that I would see a complete overhead aurora. You can see a realtime video of this on my Instagram


This is something you can normally only see within the polar circles. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my photographic career and absolutely unreal. Even when writing this, I still have a hard time believing I experienced this.


And I was not the only one. The internet was flooded with aurora photos that night and the following morning from all over Europe and the US. I had never seem something like this in my life and it was great to see so many people were able to enjoy the aurora that night. In the end, it was even seen from some parts of Africa!


Since posting the original photo with the 2 windmills on Saturday, lots of people around the world saw the iconic Dutch windmills with the aurora above. On Twitter alone it already has a crazy 100k likes on my own profile alone, which are statistics I didn’t even come close to before. Not to mentions the thousands of reposts everywhere.


I will remember this night forever and I have no idea if I will ever see something like this again in my lifetime. At least we have the photos to remember it for! And the photostory, to make this a timeless moment. Because that's what photography is about: creating timeless memories.


Thanks for reading! And if there are any questions, feel free to ask them right here :)


Albert


3 Comments


Amazing images and beautiful write-up. Thanks for sharing your story! Sadly I missed this spectacular event and was left with little hopes for the following night. I am curious how you manage to keep the foreground so bright, clean and sharp from front to back. Did you focus stack several long exposures at f/1.8 (or even something like f/4)? It obviously wasn't shot prior during blue hour. Would you mind sharing some information on that? Your blendings are always so seamless and natural. Big fan!

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Albert Dros
Albert Dros
2 days ago
Replying to

Hi Manfred, thanks so much! No blending or focus stacking. I did take several shots for focus stack, but didn't use it in the end :) About the foreground being bright: It had quiet some ambient light there. Also the DR of the camera is very good at ISO 1600.

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Beautiful! I missed it the first night and there was cloud cover the second night. You got a magnificent photo!

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