Photographing the northern lights
Photographers are a very special group of people. We spend countless hours online researching camera equipment, invest large quantities of our hard earned cash into the latest and greatest gear and go to unimaginable lengths to look for that perfect light with one goal in common; to capture a moment in time that will never be seen again. One of nature’s most spectacular displays of light is the often elusive, and technically challenging, Northern Lights.
Aurora Borealis photography & tourism has gained a lot of attention in the last few years and this new interest has caused countless aspiring aurora photographers to contact me and ask for a few pointers to help them find success while chasing the lights.
Here is a quick sampling of my best advice:
- You need the right camera if you’re going to capture high quality images. Always use a modern digital SLR camera. Pocket compact cameras, even high-end models will not provide quality results. If you don’t have one, it’s worth checking if you can hire one from an online camera rental service or an aurora photography outfitter.
- Get familiar with the ISO settings on your camera. Because you’re shooting the aurora in low light situations you’ll need to use a high ISO. I generally recommend 800-1600 ISO for all exposures unless you are using an extremely fast lens such as an f1.4
- Just as your camera is important, so is using the right lens. If possible try to use a fast, wide angle lens. A minimum aperture of f3.5 will work but f2.8 or faster is recommended. An 18mm lens is a good minimum starting point.
- A stable tripod is a must! You will need to use a slow exposure to capture the lights and if you try to do this by hand you’ll only get blurry results. Forget about inexpensive, low quality tripods as they often fail under the extremely cold conditions present above the Arctic Circle. It’s worth checking if you can hire these on arrival.
- A relatively inexpensive pro-tip is to invest in a wireless release for your camera. This lets you take a photograph without touching the camera and works best when the camera’s shutter needs to stay open for a long duration and you want to eliminate all possibility of camera shake. I recommend a wireless remote control device, because cable releases can become hard and brittle in the extreme cold above the Arctic Circle.
- Be prepared for the effect that the Arctic climate will have on your camera equipment. You’ll need to bring several extra batteries as they will function approximately one third as long as they usually would under normal conditions. Also, invest in a high-quality memory card. All the prep of the right equipment will be for nothing if you have a cheap memory card, as they can become sluggish and fail in the cold conditions.
- A headlamp with the option of a red beam is mandatory. The red beam ensures that you’ll be able to maintain proper night vision while adjusting equipment and you won’t ruin anyone else’s shot.
- Pack a few sealable plastic bags that are big enough hold your equipment. Before you go back indoors after a night’s shooting session, put your camera gear in the sealed bag. This helps to keep condensation off your equipment.
- Never breathe on the front element of your lens while you are out in the cold. Ice crystals will form on the glass and cause blurriness, ghosting and overall image degradation.
- Infinity focus is of the utmost importance! In order to be 100% certain that your images are in focus you need to be sure that your lens is properly set to infinity. There are several ways to do this but I usually recommend that you use the digital zoom function while in live view mode to be sure that everything is perfect. Few things are more disappointing for an aurora photographer than to capture a once in a lifetime image only to discover that it is blurry !
Finally, before you book your trip, research your destination as some locations offer far better chances of seeing lights than others due to local weather patterns. If you want to capture the perfect photograph of the aurora borealis, then book on to a reputable professional photographer’s aurora borealis trip! The Arctic is an unforgiving location and a guide’s local knowledge can prove to be invaluable. It is also important to make sure your guide has experience so I highly recommend that you take a long look at their body of work. If the guide in question does not have an impressive portfolio of aurora images, it is likely that they will not be able to help you improve yours.