The number one spot of my bucket list has always been photographing the Northern lights. As a child, I dreamt of seeing magical green lights illuminate the sky in person. Last October, I spent 21 days chasing the Aurora Borealis in Iceland and finally got to cross it off my list. If this is a dream of yours, book a ticket and go. It was truly a remarkable experience and one you will never forget.
Essential Gear for photographing the Northern Lights
When I was in Iceland, I spent a lot of nights out shooting the Aurora and found a formula that worked like a charm. I was going to write ‘patronus charm’ but then realized it’s pretty passé to make Harry Potter references, but that epic Harry vs Voldemort wand battle always reminds me of Auroras, so I feel it has some relevance here. Back to the photography –> Here’s what you’ll need:
A nice tall one so you don’t have to crouch, unless you want to work out your thighs. The photographer’s squat has been known to tone and strengthen one’s posterior. A stable ball head also helps.
2. Remote Timer.
You may be a ninja, but you can’t always be on your game and camera shake is everybody’s enemy.
3. Wide Angle Lens.
A 14mm, 15mm or 16-35mm work best. I used the Rokinon 14mm, Canon 15mm fish-eye & Canon 16-35mm. I felt that the 16-35mm gave me the sharpest images.
Contrary to popular belief and that wascally wabbit, no matter how many carrots you eat, you cannot see in the dark. Go buy a headlamp right now (one with the red light so you don’t burn your eyeballs) and keep it in your camera bag. Learn from my mistakes and avoid falling into a swampy hole or down a rocky hill littered in sheep poop.
Tips for photographing the Northern Lights
There is no real magic involved in shooting the Aurora. It’s all mother nature. You basically just have to set up your camera, stand there and push the shutter button. Well, maybe there is a little more to it, but I know you can do it! You just need to dance a little with your settings.
1. Focus to infinity using Manual focus.
Set your focus to this symbol –> ∞. I find that each of my lenses is slightly different as to the exact point where my image is the sharpest. Some I set to slightly before infinity others right on it. Play with this and over time you will find the money zone for your lens. Set this up while you are in your car in the light. It can be such a pain to fuss with once you are on location in the pitch black.
2. Set your Aperture to wide open.
Let in as much light as you can! I used f/2.8 in all my photos. This is a default for any night or star photography, so remember it. There is a test later.
3. Set your ISO from 800 to 1600.
This is another general setting for night stuff and it works for shooting Auroras too. I started with ISO 1600 for most of my shots. On those magical days I got a really bright Aurora, I set the ISO to 640 – 800 to reduce a bit of the noise. Noise isn’t a huge problem at ISO 1600 for a shot like this anyway, but if you can take the shot at a lower ISO it is always better. If not, it’s nothing the old noise reduction slider in Lightroom can’t handle.
3. Set your Shutter speed from 5-30s.
This is the setting you will be constantly changing depending on how bright the aurora is and how much movement you want to capture. I changed the shutter speed constantly, averaging around 10s. With weaker Auroras (barely visible to the naked eye), you will most likely need a 25-30s exposure to see the lights (see the 25s photo below from Jökulsárlón). For badaboom Auroras, (aside: does anyone else miss Tony Soprano?), you might only need a 5-10s exposure (see the 6s top image in this post.)
Auroras move very quickly and if you use too long of an exposure, you can lose some of the definition of the streaks. If you have enough light, shorter exposures capture the movement a lot better.
All the above settings are a starting off point. Make sure you continually check and tweak your settings as the sky changes. Auroras move around and change intensity all the time and if you aren’t watching you will end up with areas of over exposure.