A few things I’ve learned about photographing the Northern Lights this winter

Before we go any further I should state the obvious and tell you that I am by no means an expert in photographing the northern lights. I’m not an expert in any kind of photography (although my favorite thing is photographing people) but I’m always trying to improve my skills which is one of the only reasons I ever go out to “hunt” for the northern lights. When you live in a place like Iceland where you have all the possibilities in the world to see them you become kind of lazy. Oh, there are northern lights outside? Nah, I think I’d rather stay inside and watch Dr.Phil.

I’m not proud, by the way, of how many Dr.Phil shows I’ve seen in my life. It’s always on and it makes marvelous background noise for when I’m working. That’s the only reason. Honestly.

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The equipment

I have a Canon 70D, a fairly recent crop sensor DSLR, which I bought because of its awesome video capabilities (that I had big plans to use with little results) and because it was a decent camera for what I had to spend on one. Of course I wanted to get the 5D Mark iii but seeing that I didn’t have a job at the time and I was not going to work as a photographer I couldn’t justify spending all that money on a camera. Also – I didn’t have the money.

Basically to photograph the Northern Lights, the Aurora or whatever you want to call them, you have to have a camera where you can control the exposure. You basically want to use slow shutter speed and crank up the ISO to whatever level your camera is comfortable with. If your camera has poor ISO capabilities your photo is going to become really grainy if you use a very high ISO. In which case you’ll probably make up for it with slower shutter speed. It also probably helps to have a lens with a wide aperture because the wider the aperture the more light the camera lets in. I think. If I had to explain it.

The problem with that is that you loose the movement of the lights and instead of having tack sharp images where you freeze the lights you end up with a bit of a green mist or blob that doesn’t do the lights any justice. Although my 70D does pretty well with low light video it’s not great in low light situations on the photo side of things. This may be a case of a bad photographer blaming the equipment for their shortcomings but I’m starting to think that to be able to get really amazing photos of the northern lights you need full frame camera with better ISO capabilities. But I could be wrong.

All the photos in this post were taken with my 70D. They are about a 1000 times better than my first northern lights photos so maybe next year I’ll write another post where I tell you that I was completely wrong about this ISO business. Sometimes, only when they are quite strong, you can also take photos of the northern lights on your phone.

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Apart from a camera where you can control the exposure you also need a tripod or at least something to stabilize the camera. Not all tripods are created equal though so if you still haven’t invested in one I would suggest you spend a little more than you were planning to and get a good sturdy tripod that is easy to manipulate. Also make sure, before you go out, that you know how work your tripod so you don’t miss the perfect shot because you take too long setting things up.

Although my tripod is not the cheapest kind there are a few things that bother me about it which drove me nuts the last time I went out to shoot the lights. After that frustration I’m contemplating buying a gorillapod for when I just need something quick to work with (and the height doesn’t matter). I have one of those for my phone which I love.

The reason you need a tripod is the slow shutter speed but it basically means that the shutter is open for longer than usual and if the camera moves while the shutter is open it ruins the photo. Unless you are going for the blurry artistic feel that is. For the same reason many people will tell you that you also need a remote for your camera because when you press the button on the camera with slow shutter speed it causes a camera shake which again ruins the photo. However, even though I own two remotes (wireless and with wire) and I can use my phone as a remote I usually just turn on the 2 second self timer and take my photos that way. If the surface I’m set up on isn’t really unstable that usually works fine.

Finally I would also suggest you buy a head light because it’s dark outside and it really helps to have a light that you don’t have to hold when you are playing around with settings or adjusting your tripod. It can also help you with focus and such if you want to photograph people and the northern lights.

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Taking the photo

For all of the photos in this post I used a 28mm 1.8 prime lens (which I’m not sure I recommend, it’s not my favorite lens) and they are taken using combinations of these settings: ISO 400-800, f 3.0 – 3.5 and 1 – 13 sec.

As strange as it sounds it’s often best to take photos of the northern lights early in the evening before it becomes completely dark. It makes it easier to focus, you get more of the landscape in the photo and because you can still see what you are doing that makes everything a little bit easier to manage.

The biggest problem you have once it gets dark is the focus. You have to use manual focus because the camera can’t auto focus in the dark and if you don’t have anything in the foreground to focus on you are supposed to focus at infinity which I have to admit, don’t know how to do. Basically I think you just put your camera on manual focus and you turn the focus ring to the end on the left (there’s an infinity sign on your lens that should help you with this). Don’t quote me on this though.

I find northern lights photos with something in the foreground more interesting so I always try to think about that when I’m choosing a place to set up aurora camp. Reflective surfaces are also always popular like lakes and the ocean.

I find it helpful to find places that have a bit of light to help me with the focus. It can make it a bit more difficult to find the right exposure (because the light source might become stronger than you would like it to be) but this focus thing is something I have yet to master.

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Other things that are good to keep in mind

One of the things I always fail at is to bring adequate protection for my fingers. I don’t know what would be best here but maybe smart phone gloves (for the touch screen on my camera which is often better in the dark) or finger less mittens would be a good idea. All I know is that I almost lost all of my fingers when they practically froze off after sitting out there for a while taking photos. Most of the tourist shops in Reykjavík sell really thick finger less mittens with a hood for your fingers which should ensure that your fingers are only exposed to the cold when they really have to.

I should also mention the most important asset when trying to get good photos of the northern lights. If you just want snapshots with you and the green then you can skip most of this and just master the exposure. This would be patience. And lots of it.

The aurora is a natural phenomena and you can’t turn it on and off when it suits you. Sometimes the forecast is amazing but you still only see green mist that is hardly visible to the eye. They also often come in waves and if you miss one you might have to wait a while for the next one. So this is not an activity for impatient people. It’s also worth mentioning that if you are very serious about this you should probably consider going on a dedicated photography tour or at least not go on a bus tour with 50 other people where you can’t control your own schedule.

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Another thing that is probably important to mention is the fact that all of these photos were taking in RAW and processed in Lightroom and Photoshop. I haven’t mastered the editing, I’m much better at making people in daylight look good, but slowly but surely I’m getting there. I hope.

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17 thoughts on “A few things I’ve learned about photographing the Northern Lights this winter”

  1. Danielle says:

    Some good advice – this about the level I’m at and would love to go on a workshop guided tour for some better photos. I’m reasonably happy with the photos I got in 2013 but there a lot of things I would do different but utter excitement and awe got the better of me! I have a head torch too and I didn’t use a remote, the 2 second thing worked perfectly well. I am going to buy a remote tho and get a proper canon one as the cheapo one I bought actually only wkred from 1inch from sensor which was dumb.

    If you want to go full frame maybe a 2nd hand 5d mark ii might hit the spot – I’ve never bought any of my SLRs brand new, I went from 350d, 40d to 5dmark ii – around the time the mark iii came out so lots of people were selling to get money for the new model & I doubt I will upgrade for a long time (350d was 2006 (& was the main reason I first came to Iceland – to test it out on pretty things!, 40d was 2010 and this one was 2012) – the iso capability is pretty feckin awesome (did alot of gig photography in London) & can’t justify the other toys on newer models so I think I’m good for a long time. I would like to buy a 24-70mm f2.8 lens but can’t justify that so I’ve been renting (for 2013 and this trip just gone). The 5d mark ii must be cheaper than I paid in 2012 and I’d recommend it.

    I’m looking to get a 35mm canon SLR (that will be older Than me!) Soon as I fancy trying to remember what it was like to shoot film!

    Anywsy, how boring am I??? Great post, hope I get to shoot the lights again one day…

  2. Trudy says:

    I am an amature photographer. I have a Canon EOS 700D Rebel T5i and am learning a bit about manual settings. When at Iceland in February 2014, my Super Jeep tour guide set my camera for photographing the Aurora. The lens I used was a Canon EFS 10-22mm. The settings used that evening were 8 seconds, with an F 4.0 and an ISO of 1600. I had the camera set for a 2 second timer. And I had my camera on a tripod. The pictures turned out great. I’m hoping to go back there for a 3rd time in the future to get more pictures of the Aurora.

    Thanks for the post with your tips.

  3. One way to help stabilize your tripod is to hang your camera bag from the bottom of the center post (if there is a hook there) or simply drape the bag around the legs. The 2 sec self timer is definitely the way to go when triggering the exposures.

    1. Danielle says:

      Good call on the stabilisation – especially as it could well be windy.

      Only need a remote if you want to take a photo with you in it & you’re alone

  4. Danielle says:

    In case you’re wondering, good 2nd hand 5d mark II seem to be around the £700 mark. Was wandering about on a photography forum and noticed a few in the classified (in my search for a 35mm SLR).

    I wish I knew more about editing too. I wing it far too much, prob explains why I always end up disappointed…

  5. Queenie says:

    Do you know if nikon D3300 can take good pictures of the northern lights?

    1. mm Auður says:

      If you can control the exposure, your camera has decent ISO qualities and you have good lenses you should be able to get good photos of the Northern lights.

    2. K says:

      I’ve taken some quite good shots. It depends more on the tripod, the settings and location than on the camera itself, when we are talking about new-ish cameras, I find. I use Manual, 5-20 seconds of exposure time and ISO 100. Have no idea if it’s the best way to do it, but damn it works.

      1. mm Auður says:

        The camera can matter – the full frame cameras are much better in low light situations that crop sensors. That’s just a fact 🙂

  6. Hendrik De Rycke says:

    Focusing is really easy. You put the camera on a tripod, you let the image appear on your camera screen and you zoom in on the brightest star of planet you can find. It’s so much easier to focus on that star…

    1. mm Auður says:

      That’s good advice. However, for me personally sometimes the screen is completely black and I can’t even see a single star. Maybe I would need to crank up the ISO to use this method?

      1. Hendrik De Rycke says:

        Indeed, that’s a good idea. Afterwards you can put down the ISO value again, as long as you don’t touch the focusing ring. But can’t you really see any star or planet at all? Not even in a direction where there is no aurora?

        1. mm Auður says:

          I haven’t tried this so I haven’t really been paying attention. But sometimes the screen is just black and I can’t use anything to focus. But I tend to keep the ISO low because I hate grainy photos and my camera is not great in low light.

          1. Hendrik De Rycke says:

            Of course, I understand. I don’t want the ISO to be too high myself. But I mean this: you put the camera on Live View, so you have an image on the LCD screen. You should be able to find a bright star somewhere. You zoom in on that star and you focus. Ready.
            If you can’t find a star, you could rise the ISO temporarily, only to focus, and put it back to the old value before you make your photo.

  7. Nancy says:

    what lens would you recommend for a Cannon 70D?

    1. mm Auður says:

      A lot of people use a 10-22mm lens with crop sensor cameras for landscape and northern lights I think.

  8. Willem says:

    Thank you for sharing with us! Much Appreciated!

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