Travelling to Iceland for the first time this year prompted me to learn how to photograph the Northern Lights. I’d heard from friend that they’re difficult to capture (at optimum times, there’s only a 50/50 chance of seeing them), so I clued myself up before heading out there.
During our week there, the Northern lights were only visible for ten minutes or so. Knowing my setup and preparing beforehand allowed my to capture some greats shots in the short time I had available. This post is a starter guide to photographing the Northern lights.
1) Where to photograph the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are best visible north of the Arctic Circle, although they can be seen as far south as Scotland. Most popular destinations to photograph the Northern Lights include Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greenland. I use a great app called My Aurora Forecast. It shows a map with the most likely areas to see the Northern Lights. It also gives a percentage chance of seeing them in the area you’re in.
Another useful website is the Dark Site Finder, which will show you the light pollution in any given area. The less light pollution there is, the better your photos will turn out.
2) When to photograph the Northern Lights
In theory, the Northern Lights are visible all year. They can only be seen or photographed when the sky is relatively dark. The winter months are much suited to this with less hours of daylight. If you’re planning a trip to see the Northern Lights, I would advise to go between September and March. September and October are the optimum months, with a higher percentage of clearer skies giving you the best chance to see them.
Cloud cover can ruin any chance of seeing the Northern Lights but a little cloud cover can also add drama to your photos. Anything up to 30 – 40% cloud cover can still work well. More than that an it’s a bit of a struggle. The app mentioned above gives you a cloud cover forecast, which is very useful in making your decisions on whether or not to stay out in the cold!
3) How to photograph the Northern lights
Here’s the main question. How do we photograph the Northern Lights? To get started, you’ll need a fast wide-angle lens, a DSLR with a good high ISO and a tripod. My setup consisted of a the SAMYANG 14 mm f / 2.8 IF ED UMC Wide-angle Lens lens, Canon EOS 6D DSLR camera and Manfrotto Befree tripod.
Although I use a DSLR, most modern digital cameras are quite capable of shooting clean pictures at high ISOs. Generally, cameras with full frame sensors such as the Canon EOS 6D DSLR will give you the best quality at high ISOs though the latest breed of mirrorless cameras are catching up.
One things to note though, is that lens choice is greatly impacted by type of camera you use and because you need a fairly specific lens for Northern Light photography, it’s worth thinking about.
Any fast lens is usable but the wider angle lenses are best as they capture more of what’s going on in front of you. My personal choice is the Canon EOS 6D DSLR. This is the Canon version. If you use a Nikon, check out this Rokinon lens. The Samyang and Rokinon lenses are actually the same, just different branding. The 14mm range captures a huge amount of the sky and the f/2.8 aperture allows enough light in to shoot in very dark conditions. So much so, that this is a great lens for all astro photography, such as Milky Way shots or star trails.
One other tip; If you’re using a lens filter, it’s best to remove this for photographing Northern Lights. Filters that filter out light, such as UV filters, may affect your final result.
Most serious photographers probably already have a tripod but it’s worth making sure you have one suitable for travelling great distances. Also, one that can be setup quickly is very useful. The Nortern Lights can appear in an instant and disappear just as quickly. Therefore a smaller, yet functional tripod is a must.
I use a Manfrotto BeFree tripod. It’s small enough to go into my hand luggage on a flight but heavy enough to stand firm in high winds. It’s very quick to setup and has a great 360 degree head for locking your camera into position very quickly. It won’t break the bank either!
Start off by setting your lens to it’s widest aperture. On my lens that’s f / 2.8. Set your ISO to about 1600 and shoot an exposure time of 5 – 10 seconds. You can set and trigger this on your camera, or a more prefferable way is to us an intervalometer. The intervalometer is small hand held gadget that plugs into your camera via a wire or wirelessly, that allows you to trigger the shutter remotely. This eliminates any camera shake caused when touching the camera to fire the shutter. Finally, you want to set your focus to manual and to infinity. This will bring everything in the shot into focus.
Allowing a long exposure of about 5 – 10 seconds will let a good amount of light in, even in the darkest of skies. If your first shot is too dark, try upping the ISO or exposure time. Upping the ISO will reduce the quality of the photo and increasing the exposure time, will create more smearing as the movement of the Northern Lights is captured over more time. Choose whichever option creates the best photos. There’s no exact rule for this, just trial and error until you get a shot you’re happy with. The trick is to have the ISO and exposure time as low as possible for optimal photo quality.
As with any photo, it’s important to consider your composition. One technique is to have something in the foreground to give the shot context. This could be a mountain, trees or a lake. Even a person in the foreground can work well. The foreground will be darker but will give a great silhouette against the lights in the sky.
Finally, shooting in RAW, rather than JPEG, will allow you to make better adjustments in post-processing.
Once you’ve taken your photos of the Northern lights, the hard work is done. The next part is post processing. Upload your image to whichever software you use for post-processing. I use Adobe Lightroom for my post-processing. It’s quick and easy with some very powerful tools.
This part of the process is personal to the photographer and allows creative license. Play around with the different settings until you get something you like. For Northern Light photos, I tend to darken the foreground and bring out the green of the Northern Lights. This makes the photos really pop. There’s no right or wrong here, everyone will have different ideas of how they want their photos to look.
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