How To Photograph The Northern Light

Hopefully after reading the previous article you’ve checked the weather forecast and solar activity and are getting ready for a night of aurora hunting!

Getting Ready

Before leaving the light and comfort of your cabin you’ll want to make sure that both you and your camera equipment are prepared for a (possibly cold) night out.

Your basic aurora photography setup is going to be: a camera with a wide lens – 14-24mm, and fast aperture – f/2.8 or faster is best. A tripod is necessary for the long exposures required. A cable release/remote is also useful to avoid touching your camera when shooting.

It is a good idea go get familiar with your camera and tripod during the day – you don’t want to be trying to find out what buttons do what in the dark. Ideally, you will want to photograph in M (manual) mode, giving you the best control over your exposure. So you’ll need to know how to change shutter speed, aperture, and ISO on your camera – preferably without having to turn on a headlamp or other light source. 

It is also important to know how to review your photos on the camera’s lcd screen, how to zoom in on the image (important for checking sharpness), and how to view the exposure histogram.

Make sure your camera battery is fully charged and you have several spares available; during winter, the cold can greatly reduce normal battery life. Check that your memory card also has plenty of space available and take a couple spares if necessary.

Tip: If you have a large photo bag, it is often unnecessary and will become burdensome after several hours of standing around. You can put a some spare batteries, memory cards, and lens wipes in your jacket pocket and you’ll generally be good to go for the night. 

On Location

If you show up on location and the aurora are already dancing overhead, it is easy to feel overwhelmed as you rush to setup your camera and it’s possible to forget some critical setting, like focus. No matter what the sky is doing, it is always best to be slow and methodical with setting up your camera. Think of it as going over a flight-checklist like pilots do.

Focus

The first critical element is focus. You need to focus your camera at infinity. Often there are some city lights in the distance that you can use to focus on. Newer cameras might be able to do so with autofocus, while with slightly older cameras, this is best done manually; zooming in on the lcd screen to help focus on a distant light source. 

No matter which way you have focused, switch your camera/lens to manual focus, as you will not need to re-focus again.

…The next important step before you begin shooting away is to take a test image and zoom in on the lcd screen to make sure you have focused correctly! Stars or the outlines of mountains against the sky are the two best places to check if you have focused correctly. If in doubt of how sharp the image is, re-focus and try again.

Tip: Be sure to periodically check the focus of your images throughout the night. If you are frequently moving the camera around or wearing thick, it is easy to accidentally bump your camera out of focus without knowing. I suggest to always use your right hand for grabbing the camera, by the camera grip, and using your left hand to adjust the tripod. If you grab the camera with your left hand, it is much more likely you’ll touch the lens and perhaps adjust the focus accidentally.

Exposure

There is no single correct exposure for northern lights. The brightness of the aurora itself, amount of moonlight, snow or no snow, and time of night will all have an influence on your exposure. 

However, as you need to begin somewhere, a good starting point is: ISO 3200, f/2.8, 8 seconds exposure time. 

I strongly recommend shooting in M (manual) mode to give you the best control over exposure. As the aurora fluctuate in intensity and brightness, you will need to adjust shutter speed or ISO as needed.

On active nights, the brightness of the aurora can change by 2-3 or more stops of light. And this can go from being dim to bright, or bright to dim. Usually, the aurora ebb and flow in intensity throughout the night, so you’ll always be wanting to keep an eye on your exposures. 

If the aurora is somewhat faint and inactive, often times appearing as an arch across the northern sky, then longer shutter speeds of 10 or more seconds are fine, and sometimes necessary. As the aurora gets brighter, begins to move, and has more defined shapes, you will want as fast as shutter speed as your camera will allow, ideally under 4 seconds. This is to (hopefully) capture the shape and detail of the aurora, and help keep it from just turning into a green glow without much form.

Tip: Do not trust your eyes to see that you have a proper exposure on your camera’s lcd screen, as they’ll have adjusted to the darkness of the night. What might appear to be bright green northern lights on your camera’s screen while standing in the dark on an empty beach, can potentially look dull and dark once you return to the normal lighting conditions of your cabin. Always check the image’s histogram, and keep the exposure slightly away from the left so that the image is not too dark. 

Nordlys
Nordlys (Alex Conu)

Composition

The northern lights come in all shapes and sizes; everything from a low arch glowing above the northern horizon, to the entire sky filled with so much light, you simply don’t know where to look! Luckily, Lofoten´s landscape offers a wide variety of locations to photograph the northern lights however and wherever they should appear. And while there there are near endless mountains, my favourite images often come from Lofoten´s spectacular white sand beaches, many of which offer fantastic reflections of the aurora in the wet sand, creating dynamic compositions and images full of light. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, it is the smaller, slower moving aurora displays that are easier the photograph and find a nice image composition. This is mostly because they tend to remain in the same position for a longer period of time, allowing you to refine your composition. When the auroras are dancing high overhead and the coronae are raining down in chandeliers of light, it can actually become overwhelming. Sometimes this is when I simply watch and enjoy the show.

For all but the faintest auroras, the moon will have no affect on their visibility. In fact, a quarter moon or more can greatly enhance most locations by helping to illuminate the landscape. Combined with fresh snow, a full moon can allow you to greatly reduce your shutter speed or ISO, improving the quality of you images.

To help yourself compose and image, pretend the northern lights are not northern lights, but clouds. How would you look at the scene if it was simply clouds in the sky? And how would you then photograph them with the location you are at? This can help you focus on the image, and not the dancing lights overhead. Though admittedly, this is often easier in theory than in practice!

Tip: Although you cannot control when the northern lights appear, the beaches are best visited on a mid to low tide, preferably an outgoing tide. This provides the largest amounts of clean sand and the best reflections.

Working in the dark

Aurora photography is a much more active experience than normal night photography. The northern lights are often moving across the sky in regular intervals and you will accordingly be changing compositions and moving around much more frequently – all in the darkness.

I recommended above to avoid carrying your camera bag if possible. If you do however, be very cautious of putting the bad down on the beach. It is easy to lose track of time and not quite pay attention that the tide is coming in, until a wave suddenly washes across your feet – and your camera bag beside you! Always store your bag on some rocks or elsewhere far out of danger from an incoming tide. 

If other photographers are around or you are in a group, it is also important to move slowly in the darkness. It is easy to be looking at the sky and unknowingly knock over someone else’s tripod that is setup in the darkness beside you. 

Tip: Don’t forget to take a moment to enjoy the northern lights as they are. No photo can come close to actually seeing the aurora dance across the sky above you in a symphony of light. It is spectacular!

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