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Aurora Photography – Capture the Northern Lights in Iceland

Martin Sammtleben, 6. February 2016

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.
  • Monitor for news on sun spot activity and solar flares promising increased aurora activity.
  • Watch the weather – you’ll want a clear night.
  • Follow the aurora forecast on sites such as 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. Some might even want to 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 zoom – more useful than longer lenses.
  • It’s very important to remove any filters you might have on your lens! They cause circular interference patterns that are impossible to remove afterwards.
  • 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. Note that the infinity setting usually doesn’t align exactly with the infinity mark ∞ on the focusing ring. This is best worked out during daytime by enabling auto-focus on the centre point and focusing on something contrasty in the far distance or the horizon. If your camera offers live view you can zoom in to the max and focus very precisely. With a bit of practise this can be done successfully even in the dark: just 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 wide open e.g. f/2.8–4.0, 15 seconds exposure, 800–1600 ISO. Adjust as necessary.
  • The lights can move quickly. In that case aim for shorter shutter speeds around 5–10 seconds. In order to do so 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. Fast, fixed-focal length lenses are ideal, but also a zoom with a modest f/4.0 can be used with good results.
  • 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 when developing your RAW images.
  • 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 always ‘cool down’ my images quite a bit to get a good separation of the aurora’s colours against a deep blue sky. The following values provide a good starting point…
    Temperature: 3500 to 4300K, Tint: +30 to +50
    In the end this is very much a question of personal taste, so best is what appeals 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 in Iceland such as our Northern Lights, Glaciers and Ice Workshop or Iceland’s Northern Lights, Coast and Ice Workshop departing February to early April and September to October?