Wild Photography Holidays - Photographic Adventure Travel: Aurora Photography – Photograph the Northern Lights

Snæfellsjökull Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights Tapovan Chinese fishing nets, Cochin

Aurora Photography – Photograph the Northern Lights

Martin Sammtleben, 21. January 2018

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis with their changing shapes and colours have fascinated people through the ages. They’re an electromagnetic phenomenon caused by the sun storm entering the earth’s upper atmosphere.

Luckily capturing the aurora has become a lot easier with todays cameras, that have increasingly better low-light performance. Here are few tips in brief…

  • You will need a tripod and cable-/remote release, although instead of the latter you can employ your camera’s self-timer.
  • Watch the weather – you will want a clear night.
  • Follow the aurora forecast on sites such as spaceweather.com and Alaska’s Geophysical Institute
    The Aurora can show up any time during the dark hours.
  • If possible find a nice location in advance during daytime and take note of interesting spots that provide some foreground interest. Especially reflective surfaces such as water or ice are perfectly suited as foregrounds since they can provide amazing reflections of the aurora.
  • Keep yourself and your spare batteries warm, because you will spend a lot of time standing around waiting. Bring a flask with a hot drink.
  • As the lights can stretch across the entire sky, you will in general find wide-angle lenses, fixed or zooms, more useful than longer lenses. Fast, fixed-focal length lenses are a very good choice, but also a zoom with a modest f/4.0 can be used with good results.
  • It’s very important to remove any filters from your lenses, even protective ones.This is very important: 
NO FILTERS AT ALL! They will cause circular interference patterns that can’t be removed afterwards.
  • You want to make sure that the stars turn out sharp in your images. This requires precise focus on infinity. The auto-focus usually won’t work in the dark, so you need to set your lens manually to infinity and tape down the focus ring to prevent knocking it inadvertently. This is best worked out during daytime by using your camera’s live view at maximum magnification and focusing manually on something contrasty in the far distance like mountains, trees etc. With a bit of practise this can be done successfully, even in the dark: point your camera at the brightest star and adjust focus until the star appears as a small point of light.
  • Unless the aurora is very bright use the following camera settings as a starting point: aperture f/2.8 – 4.0, 15 seconds exposure, an ISO of 800–1600. Adjust these values if the images turn out too dark or bright.
  • The lights can move quickly. In that case aim for shorter shutter speeds around 5–10 or less. Turn your camera’s ISO up to the highest value, that will still produce images without excessive noise and open up your lens’s aperture to let in as much light as possible.
  • Shooting RAW is highly recommended. However if you prefer to shoot JPEG make sure to enable long-exposure noise reduction in your camera. Note that this function should be turned off when shooting RAW as it has no effect on RAWs. Instead use the noise reduction features of your software.
  • Experiment with the white balance of your images. Northern Lights often look rather greenish straight from the camera and they can change appearance dramatically as you adjust the colour temperature and tint controls. I found the following values to be a good starting point…
    
temperature: 3500 to 4300K, tint: +30 to +50
    
In the end this is very much a question of personal taste and best is always what looks best to you!

Free iBook: A Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

Much more information on aurora photography can be found in our free iBook A Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights. If you own an Apple iPad or a Mac, check it out!

If this has sparked your interest, why not join us on one of our northern lights tours such as our Northwest Iceland – Northern Lights, Wild Beaches and Fjords or Iceland’s Northern Lights, Coast and Ice Workshop departing February to early April and September to October?