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Photographing Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

Photographing Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

Photographing Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights are great to watch. They involve the burning of atmospheric gases high above the earth as a result of solar winds from the sun. You stand on this planet and realise how small and insignificant we really are, how short our lives are and how beautiful this planet is. In essence it is Night Photography. Photographing them takes a bit of knowledge, but once you have it, it becomes as easy as taking any regular photograph.

Northern lights over glacier lagoon


Camera Equipment

This article discusses the use of digital SLRs (DSRLs) or modern Mirror-less bridge cameras, but a film camera is equally good and in some respects better. Whatever your camera, you need the ability to open the shutter for at least 10-30 seconds. If you have a bulb setting (B) and you have a shutter release cable, then you will have much more control. I have seen people use a two second exposure on a compact camera and they got a result, but not the kind of result we are going to try and achieve. For good control choose a DSLR with good high iso settings. This is more about dates, than makes. The powerful sensors that are good for night photography started appearing on high end cameras around 2010 and got much better again around 2014 and slightly better again 2016. Choose a full frame camera to get the most out of a wide angle lens.

A good lens is important. If you can choose your lens, go for a fairly wide angle (17mm – 24mm) and one with a large aperture f/2.8 is preferable. I always manage to capture a decent amount of the display with a 24mm on a full frame, but sometimes, I wish I had wider. 17mm is easily wide enough to capture a big light show without too much distortion of the landscape.

Next you will need a tripod or a way of keeping the camera perfectly still for long periods. I once forgot my tripod head and successfully shot with my camera resting on my camera bag. Choose a tripod carefully, not too heavy, but not too light. You don’t want to struggle carrying it over icy landscapes and you don’t want the wind to be able to jog the camera. Try and choose one where it is easy to set up with your gloves on. You certainly don’t want to be handling bare metal without gloves in Arctic conditions.

A spare battery is very important. The cold zaps your battery and on average you battery life will be cut in half. In cold climates, I would recommend not using a battery pack because this is keeping your spare battery out in the cold with little insulation. It is far better to have one battery in the camera and one battery in an inside pocket, so it keeps warm with you. When you swap your dead one over, you could restore some life by warming the dead battery. Remember to take plenty of memory or film, it is not nice to run out.

Clear Skies

The second consideration is the weather. If you are far north enough to see them, then you will probably have very changeable weather. The ideal conditions are very very clear skies. The moon plays an important role. It is a matter of taste, but I prefer not to have the moon in the shot. Having the moon behind you can really help to expose the landscape, but a full moon makes your shot look like a day time photograph. This is enhanced further if the landscape is covered in snow. The wind can be a challenge… the less wind, the better.

The most important weather consideration is space weather and you can check this on this site. If this site says it is good, then it will be good. The thing to look for (if you can’t see anything yet) is a feint green streak across the sky, this is a good sign that it is worth waiting around for an hour or so.

How high in the sky are the Northern Lights?

All that energy is going on 70-90 KM up where atomic gas particles glow.

Fjallsarlon Northern Lights

Fjallsarlon Glacier lagoon and a Northern Lights display.

Exposure Time

OK, you have perfect weather and you have all the equipment. What do you do next? If you have a digital camera you can take many exposures and judge from your viewer. Use these exposure times as a rough guide. They will give you a result in most Aurora conditions. Then adjust accordingly.

ISO800
ISO1600
F stop f/1.4
4 sec
2 sec
f/2
6 sec
3 sec
f/2.8
12 sec
6 sec
f/4
20 sec
10 sec

Thanks for Reading!!

The Moon
Photographing Northern Lights is possible during all moon phases. The moon is a source of light pollution which means that the sky wont be properly dark with a full moon. A successful aurora picture would require a very strong aurora display. Most pictures in anything more than a half moon will capture only green auroras because it is not dark enough to define the other colours. A half moon in the opposite sky to the Norther lights can be useful to expose the foreground without any tricks. A new moon is difficult to expose and process but gives a much fuller spectrum of Northern Lights colour.

Can you photograph the Northern Lights from a boat?

You can photograph the Northern lights from a moving car, so long as you are travelling in a straight line and keep the camera pointed in the same direction. The landscape will be a blur and there will be no stars, but the aurora will be in your photo. I have seen one photo from a ship with good stars and this was taken with a tripod on a very very calm ship. If the sea is rough, the tripod will at least give you a sharp boat and aurora.

Very dark moonless night meant using higher iso and destructive processing, but the colours are rare.

A half moon was useful to light up the glacier ice. The colours are mostly green with hints of red.

Composition

Of course, the sky is going to be a major part of your image, but carefully composing some of the land will help give you image a sense of perspective. Favourites of mine are perfectly still water… this can be rare in Iceland, but a reflection shot is a real prize winner. If it is very dark, then look for some interesting shapes on the horizon. You might have to wait a while for the lights to appear, but if you spend this time taking some long night landscapes, you will have a better idea of composition when they arrive.

An HDR image from Hafravatn lake

HDR Photography

Go for it if you have the patience. The image above was from two exposures: 30 seconds to capture the sky and 6 minutes to capture the foreground.

The downside is that you will miss out on a lot of Northern Lights exposures while you are exposing your foreground shot. For post-processing it is best to bring the original sky back into the image for natural looking stars (see comment below).

Magic Cloth

You can apply the Magic Cloth Technique in a similar way. As soon as you know the right exposure for the sky, just cover the sky and allow another 3 times the exposure for the landscape. More info here:
Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique This has the same downside that you will miss shots while exposing the foreground, but because it is a single exposure, you do save a bit of time over the HDR 2 exposure method.


Ice Beach Aurora

Ice Beach Aurora
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
ƒ/2.8 – 24.0 mm – 30sec – iso1600

VestraHorn Wash

The black sand beach has a very shallow gradient, so although the sea can appear calm and non-threatening you can be caught in a large surge that creeps slowly up the beach.

High Key Night Photography

This extraordinary photo was taken in the middle of the night in South Iceland. It was taken on a full moon night in October just before 1 a.m. Believe it or not, the post processing challenge was to darken the image to make it look a little bit more like a night photo. The moon was behind me…

Developing your photographer’s eye

Photography is a highly visual form of communication. In a sense your lens is your third eye, but how do you learn to see better and translate your visual skills to your camera? Having good eyesight helps, but understanding eyesight can help even more.

Landscape photography gear

by Amazon

3 Comments

  1. Rafal

    Hello Tony

    You write:
    “Go for it if you have the patience. The image above was from two exposures: 30 seconds to capture the sky and 6 minutes to capture the foreground.”
    But how you eliminate long trails of stars?
    I always have them, and when mere as HDR they’re still visible.
    Regards
    Rafal

    Reply
    • Tony

      Hi Rafal
      the star trails at 30sec will be very minimal with a wide angle. When your HDR is complete bring the original 30sec exposure in (as a layer) and adjust the curves so that it matches the tonemapped version. Then blend in the layers. Alternatively, blend the 2 skies together using colour or saturation function.
      Another way of eliminating star-trails – edit your longer exposure by selecting the sky area. Cut and paste (this will create a new layer) then set the blending to ‘Darken’ now use the ‘move’ tool and just click on the image and move it a pixels at a time using the up and down cursor keys (you may have to repeat this). When the stars have been eliminated, flatten the image, save and start the HDR process.
      Hope this helps.
      Tony

      Reply
  2. Rafal

    Thank you very very much Tony – this is awesome technique!

    Reply

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