Taking photographs of the Northern Lights is, actually, easy. Its more about having the right tools, than being a skilled photographer. Follow these easy steps and your Aurora photos will be as good as it gets.
Before I started to work for Xwander Nordic, I had only dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights. I have never had any ambition to be a photographer so, upon hearing that I was being sent to photograph them, I had to learn from scratch. Google failed me, not for the first time in my life (anyone who has used Google Translate can testify.) So it came down to my own intuition and good old trial and error.
Where this story begins
Anyone following this Blog will now know. I had recently and quite fortunately been ‘recruited’ to work for a company called Xwander Nordic. My first challenge was to guide a pilot tour around northern Lapland for a week. The main focus of the tour was the Northern Lights. My main focus was predicting and photographing them. As a typically confident “youngish” man I accepted this task, full in the knowledge that: 1. I had no idea how to photograph anything, least of all Aurora Borealis. And 2. I struggle to predict what I’m having for lunch, never mind this magical, Solar lightshow. This story is about photographing the Northern Lights, so I’ll focus on that rather than the forecasting. Maybe in a later blog I’ll tell you about my troubles with the forecasting apps available.
Making things worse
Google is an incredibly powerful tool, fondly used by pretty much everyone. Yet it is not perfect. Sadly, the only way to find out whether or not the information found through Google is any good or not is, “the hard way”.
I searched for: “Photographing + Auroras + How to” and to my utter astonishment Google returned about 1 million pages “relating” to my search. Thinking, there can’t be a million different ways to take a photograph, let alone photograph the same thing. I clicked on the first result (as do we all) and began to read. “5 Easy steps to the perfect Aurora shots”. As it turned out, it was 5 useless steps to getting your new boss to roll his eyes at you. But, as I said, one usually finds out the hard way, just how useless Google can be.
So, my first attempt was not great. I had captured the Auroras but they were very dark. You couldn’t make out anything other than this green blur across the screen. Some of the clients on the tour had taken better photos with their smartphones. Here I was with this 1500€ camera and my photos were rubbish.
Figuring it out
And so back home after the tour, equipped with my dismal attempt of photographing auroras on my memory card. I suddenly recalled a conversation with my father from when I was a child. We were talking about cameras and he told me of photograph films (this was back before digital cameras) and how some were good for taking pictures outside when it’s sunny and some were good for taking pictures inside where it’s a bit darker. He then told me about films that quote: “could capture an image of a black cat, sleeping on a pile of coal, in a dark cellar, in the middle of the night.”
And that got me thinking: What is the digital version of those different film types?
I still wasn’t speaking to google at this point, so I visited the website of the camera I use and found the instruction manual and… “Vuala”, ISO.
Since then, I’ve been blessed with several opportunities to photograph the Auroras that have been progressively more and more successful.
And so, I would like now to compile a list for you. Please use this as your own instruction guide to help you nail your Aurora photoshoot.
Before I do, there is one piece of equipment, without which none of this will work; that is, a stand for your camera. Photographing Auroras requires upto 20 seconds of exposure time. During which ANY movement of the camera will ruin the image. If you don’t have a camera stand, go get one.
Also, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. Make sure you have a full battery. If you’re planning on staying out all night take a spare with you. I have been out in -30C for well over 2 hours and I only used a couple of bars of battery-life. But, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Prepare your camera as much as possible, indoors:
If you’re in a place where Auroras are readily visible then, chances are, it’s cold outside. You want to be doing as little fiddling with your gloves off as possible.
- Manual mode:
The first thing to set is full manual mode. Manual focus, manual aperture, manual sensitivity, manual everything. I’m assuming you know how to do this, if not, check your camera’s user manual. (Remember, we don’t want to rely on Google anymore). Also, your camera may have different manual settings. Check that all parts of your camera are set to manual mode. For example my camera lens has a manual-mode-switch which deactivates the auto focus in the lens. This is situated on the lens itself. I prefer to switch all components to full manual, that way I can guarantee I have full control of the camera.
- Set your camera’s focus:
Whilst nice and warm inside your cabin or hotel or house. Take a look out the window and look for something about 20 to 30 meters away. (That’s about 65 to 100 feet for our American cousins). Use this to set your camera’s focus. You can set your camera to ‘infinite focus’ but this doesn’t work for all situations. I’ll explain later.
- Set the ISO:
ISO setting is the camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive. However, The highest settings generate a more “Grainy” image. Typical manual settings go upto 3200. For Auroras, 1600 is a good sweet spot to begin with. If the Auroras are dancing all over the place the 3200 with a faster shutter speed will do the trick. If they’re slower, then an ISO of 800 with a good long exposure is the way to go.
- Shutter speed:
The shutter speed depends on movement. For Auroras that are dancing all over the place, a faster shutter speed is needed for a clear image. Anything from 3 to 8 seconds will be enough. Any longer than this and the image will be blurry and grainy. For the ‘steady-state’ green streaks across the sky, a nice long exposure is needed. Using an ISO of 800, setting a 10 to 20 seconds exposure will suffice to capture any detail. Any longer than this and the stars will be “streaky”, anything less than about 10 seconds and the image will be very dark with not a lot of detail.
- Set the Aperture:
General consensus is to set the aperture low. Something like 2.4 to 4. I too find this works well.
- Why not set the focus to infinity?:
Sometimes it’s nice to be in the photo yourself. “Playing statue” I like to call it. If the camera’s focus is set to infinity, the Auroras and stars may be in focus. However, this blurry human shaped smudge at the bottom of the image could spoil the photo. Setting the focus manually will allow people to be in focus as well as the Aurora. Just make sure they are a similar distance from the camera as the thing you used to set the focus. (Accuracy here isn’t too important, as the focus at this distance will have a very wide range)
- Being in the photo yourself:
Not quite a selfie, as you shouldn’t be holding the camera (see the warning preceding this list). Being in the photo is simple.
1. Make sure you have a flashlight available. The flashlight on your smartphone will suffice.
2. Set the flashlight about 10 meters (30 feet) behind the camera (leave it lying on a hat or a glove to protect the battery from the cold).
3. DON’T shine it directly towards where you’ll be standing. Instead shine it off to the side slightly, so you are still illuminated but not so brightly.
4. If you can sit down, do so. Depending on the shutter speed needed for the Auroras behind you, you might be standing still for a while. Any movement will make for a blurry face.
5. Set the timer or use a remote.
6. Practice. If you have plenty of time take as many ‘statue’ shots as you can. (Someone always blinks).
What makes me confident to write an instruction manual on photographing Auroras, isn’t that I’m an expert photographer (I’m really not). It’s that I tried different things to see how they turned out. Mostly it’s just wasted memory space. But every now and again I captured something that blew my socks off. I’m sure you’ll manage this too.
The above list is a guide. If you follow these instructions I promise you’ll get a good image of the Auroras that you can show off to your friends. However, it’s just as much a science as it is an art. As I said, feel free to experiment with your camera. Be creative, you never know what will come out of it.