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Seeing the green of the aurora dancing in the sky above the snowy wilderness is an extraordinary experience that you will never forget. However, if you’re like most travellers, you won’t be happy with just seeing it — you’ll want at least one or two photos so you can show people at home and make them incredibly jealous, right?
Well, unlike many travel experiences where you can simply pull out your camera and snap a shot (or pull out a GoPro and blindly aim), it pays to be prepared when it comes to photographing the northern lights. Even as an experienced photographer, I found taking good photos of them harder than expected. These tips will help you be prepared for what the aurora throws at you, and hopefully you’ll come home with more than a few shots that make you smile every time you see them.
Just make sure you don’t spend all your time looking through the viewfinder. I found that it was sometimes best just to lean back and stare up at the sky in awe rather than fiddling with settings and missing what was happening above me. I recommend you do the same; you won’t regret that uninterrupted time at all.
You may not know this, but there are actually daily aurora forecasts (just like there are daily weather forecasts). There are plenty of apps (such as Aurora Forecast for the iPhone) that show you these forecasts, but my favourite source has always been SpaceWeather.com. In one glance, you can see if there have been any recent CMEs (coronal mass ejections from the sun which create geomagnetic storms in the atmosphere), when they will arrive, and what the current Kp level is.
The Kp level varies between 0 and 9, with 0 meaning it’s very unlikely you’ll see anything to 9 meaning you’ll probably fry your electronic devices if you go outside. The biggest storm I experienced was a 5, and the auroral map (displayed above) showed the aurora covering the entirety of Finland. It was the best night of my trip.
It’s also important to watch the weather forecast. If it’s cloudy, you may see a bit of green peek out from behind the clouds occasionally, but it won’t be quite the show you’re expecting.
It is absolutely crucial that you have a reliable tripod that you know you’ll be able to operate in the cold. Without your tripod, your camera will be useless at capturing the aurora because it always requires a long exposure, even during strong storms. You should practice extending and shortening the tripod’s legs with your gloves on at home to see if you’ll be able to do so in the snow; the last thing you want to have to do is remove your gloves and touch cold metal in the middle of a freezing night.
Another important thing is familiarising yourself with your tripod head. I thought I knew everything about mine…but I didn’t know that it had a “torque limit” button on it that, when pressed in firmly, would lock the grip on the ballhead. I came to know it as the self-destruct button.
Unfortunately, the self-destruct button locked the grip in the off position when it accidentally got pushed in during one of my late-night aurora excursions, leaving the ballhead to flop back and forth and rendering it completely useless. I actually ended up having to buy a new tripod for the rest of my trip because I couldn’t get it unlocked until I’d had a long conversation with their tech support team.
It’s worth practicing using your camera with gloves on as well. You’ll need to get used to fumbling with dials in the dark with the least dextrous hands possible. I also recommend that you wear a thin layer of gloves inside your thick gloves/mittens so, if you get desperate and just can’t get the ISO or some other setting changed, you can take off your outer glove without risking exposing your hands directly to the cold.
Light pollution — whether it’s natural or man-made — is your enemy when you are taking aurora shots. You want the sky to be as dark as it can be so the colours contrast against the sky as much as possible. That means you’re best off getting out of the city and once you’re out, you should face away from any nearby cities.
It’s also best to photograph the aurora at new moon rather than full moon; while it will still be visible, long exposures will turn the sky blue (as though it’s daylight), which doesn’t contrast well with green.
Don’t worry — if you’re in the city or only visiting during full moon, there’s still every chance you’ll see the lights, but the more external light sources you can cut, the better.
You will need a camera that has manual mode, meaning you have the ability to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. All dSLRs and mirrorless systems have this option, as do a select few point and shoots.
It’s usually best to take the widest possible lens you have with you for aurora photography. Why do I say this? Well, there’s a rule called the 500 rule that tells you when stars will begin to trail (as they are constantly moving across the sky due to the earth’s rotation).
This rule says that the amount of time stars will take to trail is 500/the length of your lens (or, for a non-full-frame sensor like in the Canon 7D or the Nikon D7100, 300/the length of your lens). For instance, a 24mm lens will trail after 500/24 = 20s, whereas a 16mm lens will trail after 30s.
As you can see from the photo above, you don’t always have to pay attention to whether the stars will trail, but I find that star trails tend to make your eyes feel like the sky is out of focus, even if the aurora is perfectly clear.
The other reason a wide angle lens is best is the fact that it lets you take in as much of the sky as possible. Composition of shots with the northern lights is difficult due to the fact that they are constantly moving (more on that in point #7 below), so the more sky you can see at any one time, the better.
You should make sure you remove all filters (including UV filters) from your lens beforehand, otherwise you will get some weird artifacts in your photos. I also recommend taking a cable release so you can use it to operate the camera. This will stop you from introducing camera shake.
Unlike you have for subjects like the Milky Way, there are no magic settings that will give you a well-exposed shot. That’s because the aurora is an amorphous subject that can be so dull that its colour can’t be seen with the naked eye or so bright that it makes the snow underneath it look like it’s radioactive.
I recommend keeping your aperture as wide open as possible — that is, one of the smallest f numbers. For instance, if your lens is f4, I recommend keeping it at f4 or f5.6. If your lens is f2.8, try to keep it between f2.8 and f4. This will allow your camera to gather more light for a set shutter speed without having to increase the ISO, which increases noise. It will also help the stars behind the aurora appear brighter.
The reason I don’t always recommend that you use the widest aperture possible is because some lenses are sharper at slightly narrower apertures than they are wide open. If you can, you should test this out before you head north.
Shutter speed and ISO are the two settings that will vary immensely. My shutter speeds varied from about 4s for the biggest storms to more than 30s for the slow-moving, less colourful shows. 15-20s is a good starting point, but it’s important to adjust this based on what you’re seeing. If the lights start to move quickly, creating waves all across the sky, you should decrease your shutter speed. If you don’t, the lights will turn the entire sky green with little to no definition. While green is a nice colour, it’s much better to have textures and signs of movement in your photo.
Your ISO will usually vary between 800-3200. Because a larger ISO will add more noise to your photo, it’s best to start as low as possible. If you decide you need to shorten your shutter speed to get more definition in the aurora, you will need to increase your ISO to maintain the same exposure. The reason you’ll adjust the ISO rather than the aperture is because your aperture cannot be adjusted to let any more light in as it is already as wide as possible.
So in short, a good starting point is around f4, ISO800, and 15s. If this is too dark, lengthen your shutter speed or increase your ISO. If this is too bright or gets rid of the definition you can see with your eyes, decrease your shutter speed.
Composition is an important part of taking any photo because it can turn an average shot into a fantastic shot. The same is true for photos of the northern lights. Try to avoid just taking photos of the sky; even a few trees in the corner will help to set the scene.
However, you should make sure you don’t get stuck on one specific composition. As nice as it would be to get the aurora square between the mountains rising up around a fjord, they may not actually appear in that part of the sky. Look all around you when you first arrive to find multiple compositions, even if they just involve a few trees.
As for focus, it’s quite difficult to do in the dark. If you have live view on your camera, you can actually zoom in on a star or other source of light (for instance, a nearby house) and focus on it. If you don’t have live view, you’ll need to either have a friend to hold up a torch between 5-10m away from you that you can then focus on, or you’ll need to know where infinity is on your lens (since the camera will always consider your sky to be at ‘infinity’ distance).
All lenses are different and their ‘infinity point’ may be smack on the infinity label on your lens, or it could be slightly off. I recommend testing during daylight by auto-focusing on items in the distance, then checking where your lens to see the exact distance it has focused on. To do this, check the ring that looks like the one below:
Once you’ve got your focus sorted, make sure you choose manual focus on your lens. Otherwise, the next time you try to take a shot, your camera will try to autofocus and you’ll have to go through this whole rigmarole all over again.
Your camera is not designed to work in temperatures below zero. I know Canon and Nikon only rate their cameras down to that temperature; other manufacturers may have a slightly lower threshold, but not by much. You shouldn’t take this to mean that you can’t use your camera in these temperatures — I used mine for 28 days in below-freezing temperatures with only a few small issues — but you may notice some sluggishness that isn’t usually there.
Your batteries will be the main part of the camera that functions significantly differently. They will not hold their charge for nearly as long, so I highly recommend you take backups with you. In extremely low temperatures, you may only be able to fire 20 or 30 shots before the battery claims to be dead and the camera shuts off (you’ll notice the same thing with your phone as well — mine took to shutting down at around 50% battery).
However, the battery isn’t actually dead — it’s just too cold to be of any use. If you put it in an inner coat pocket while using your spare battery, it will warm up enough to give your camera more juice.
One last — and very important — thing to remember about camera care in the cold is how you take it inside after shooting. The camera body will be very cold by this point, and if you introduce it directly to a heated room (or even the relative warmth of a camera bag), it could form condensation inside the camera body or lens. Not only will this be an irritation if you want to use your camera quickly, but it could also cause harm to the internals of the camera.
To avoid this, I recommend sealing your camera in a ziploc bag and leaving it there for at least 15 minutes after going inside. This lets the condensation form inside the bag rather than inside your camera. If you want to look at your photos before that, you should remove the memory card before sealing the bag.
I can’t guarantee that, even if you follow all of these instructions to a T, that you’ll get perfect photos. Aurora photography is not that exact of a science. Hopefully they will give you a good starting point so you can adjust accordingly and get some fantastic photos to make all of your friends jealous of your trip to the Arctic north.