Mysterious and elusive, the Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular natural shows on earth. With senior NASA scientists predicting the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, will be the best in a decade as the sun reaches its solar maximum in its 11-year cycle, more and more people are booking trips to the Arctic in hopes of seeing the lights dance across the sky like oil in lava lamp. But seeing the Northern Lights isn’t enough; witnesses to this amazing phenomenon hope to capture it forever on their cameras to show friends back home. We get it! We’ve spent countless nights waiting for the Aurora to dance and have been lucky enough to capture it several times in Iceland, Norway, and Finland over the last two years. We’ve already shared 5 Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights, and now we’re sharing these tips for photographing the Northern Lights:
1. You need a tripod, and preferably a sturdy one as when you’re shooting the Northern Lights it will be dark and probably cold and windy. Plus to get that perfect foreground you are looking for, you may not be on flat and level terrain and will more than likely be on unstable snow and ice. Since we are always on the go, we needed a travel friendly tripod. We recently upgraded to the MeFoto Roadtrip Carbon Fiber Tripod, it folds down to 16″ and can support 17lbs of lens. Previously we used the Slik Sprint tripod, it only weighs 2lbs and folds down to 18″ so it fits inside or strapped to my backpack, our current camera and lens set-up weighs a little too much for this little buy now though.
2. Keep your hands from being exposed to the elements. Weather in the Arctic during Northern Lights season, which is basically September – March, is not only cold, but often windy. You’ll likely be outside for long periods of time and you want to keep yourself from being exposed to the elements as much as possible. This includes your hands. Have you ever tried to work your camera while wearing thick gloves? It’s not easy and constantly taking your gloves off isn’t ideal. A pair of fleece gloves with removable fingertips like Freehands Photographers Gloves, only expose your index fingers while keeping the rest of your hands toasty.
3. Invest in a remote shutter release. Even just pressing the shutter button on your camera can jostle it, so invest in a remote shutter release that allows you to trigger your camera without touching it. A remote shutter release is also great for taking photos of yourself, so you’ll use it for more than just your trip to the Arctic. These are affordable at around $10 and we use the Amazon Basics Wireless Remote Control for Canon models. So you forgot to buy this before your trip, don’t worry just use the cameras self-timer. The 2-second self time does just fine and gives the camera enough time after you hit the shutter button.
4. You don’t need an expensive camera, but you do need one with manual settings. Set your camera on manual focus with an ISO of 800 or higher. Set the aperture to the widest setting (smallest f-number, i.e. 2.8 or whatever your lens can handle). The smaller the f-number the more light the lens lets in, this is key for capturing the northern lights. Investing in a quality wide angle lens like the Tokina 11-20mm will enable you to capture some great shots. Plus the wide angle is great for other landscape shots or in big cities to capture large buildings. Your camera probably won’t be able to focus at night, so you will need to manually focus the lens by picking out the furthest thing your camera will focus on, it may be that house in the distance with a light on or even the moon. If your camera has a live view setting you may be able to switch to it, then zoom in on that point to set your manual focus. Last, set your shutter speed to somewhere between 5-30 seconds. I usually start with 20 seconds and work up or down from there. If the lights are bright and moving fast, you may need a shorter time, if they are dim and slow then longer.
We have used a few cameras to photograph the Northern Lights: our Canon EOS 7D Mark II digital SLR and our new camera the Canon EOS 5d Mark III. For those not wanting a heavy camera, try the new Sony A5100 Mirrorless Digital Camera, compact and small but yet DSLR quality pictures.
5. Keep light pollution to a minimum. Keep in mind that, especially if you are on a Northern Lights tour, that light sources such as your LCD screen, accidental flash, and even iPhone or other smartphone screens can not only damage your Northern Lights exposure, but also the photographs of others on your tour. Set your camera on the proper settings before heading out on your tour.
6. When possible, include a foreground. Try to capture the Northern Lights reflecting on a lake, frame them with trees, or find an interesting subject to photograph them with. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a lot of different compositions! Scout the area around you during the daytime, so when you finish dinner and run outside and see the lights dancing around you know exactly the location you want to set-up in.
Have you captured the Northern Lights? What would you add for tips for photographing the Northern Lights?
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