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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.