14 March 2018.
Seeing the northern lights, that ethereal thread of brilliant green dancing across the sky, is an event that sits on almost every traveller’s bucket list. Its ephemerality and unpredictability make it a phenomenon sure captivates us all.
But capturing the aurora borealis on camera as a perfect whisp of colour rather than a blurry smudge isn’t always easy.
We’ve been above the Arctic circle twice now in the hopes of capturing this intriguing natural spectacle and while we still haven’t gotten the perfect shot, we’ve learnt a lot about how to capture the northern lights.
These are our top tips for photographing the northern lights for beginners.
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A tough lesson to learn – and we learnt it the hard way – even on a night with high solar activity, if the sky is overcast, you won’t be able to see a thing.
In a region not exactly known for its good weather, few trips to the Arctic can guarantee clear skies. In fact, you could very well spend a week in torrential downpour simply hoping for the smallest window. There’s always a chance they may appear.
So, be patient, check the weather radars vigilantly and don’t set off into the freezing cold if the weather forecast shows constant cloud cover.
The northern lights occur when charged particles dispelled from the sun hurtle towards Earth’s and collide with gaseous particles in our atmosphere. This means that the aurora borealis is only visible when solar flare activity is high.
Luckily, we are able to able to predict when aurora activity will peak, and helpfully, there are a number of northern lights apps that show the movement and intensity of the solar activity, though their accuracy is somewhat dubious. A KP index is used to measure the possible intensity of the northern lights on a scale of 1 to 9 of geomagnetic activity.
We use two apps to track the aurora activity. While both are free, they also offer a paid upgrade that allows you to set alerts for when the aurora activity reaches a certain level.
AuroraNow. A great way to see real-time updates on northern lights activity at your exact location.
Aurora Forecast. A great little northern lights app to see the aurora forecast for upcoming days.
The ideal scenario for northern lights viewing is a high KP index and a clear weather forecast, though realistically, anytime the sky is clear you have a chance of seeing them so be sure to go out anyway.
Now that we’ve dealt with the conditions, onto some gear talk.
While you can take pictures of the northern lights with an iPhone, for a natural phenomenon as special as this, you’ll want a decent camera setup to really do it justice.
These are the bare minimum essentials for northern lights photography.
A decent camera body. If you’re hanging out in the Arctic circle in mid-winter, chances are it’s going to pretty darn cold. A weather-sealed camera is a good starting point to combat the icy sub-zero temperatures. We used the Olympus OMD EM 1 mkll which is weather sealed and (after this adventure) has been tested in -30ºC conditions without a problem.
A wide lens. The wider the lens the better. Preferably one with a large aperture, like f/2.8 or bigger. Our favourite for photographing the northern lights is the M Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO (14-28mm full-frame equivalent) which is also weather sealed so perfect against the freezing temps.
A tripod. A solid tripod is crucial for shooting the northern lights. As you’ll be taking most shots using a longer exposure time or possibly a timelapse, a sturdy tripod which ideally has a bit of weight behind it to remain steady in the wind is essential. We use this Manfrotto BeFree Tripod.
Spare Batteries. In freezing temperatures, your camera batteries will get zapped much faster than you’re used to. Bring a few spare batteries when shooting in the cold and keep them as warm as possible inside your pockets or the inside of your jacket to maximise their longevity.
To get the best results when photographing the northern lights, you’ll want to choose the right location – somewhere with an open sky that ideally faces north and has little to no light pollution.
In the Arctic regions, frozen lakes make great vantage points for the aurora as they are devoid of trees. The fells which scatter much of Lapland are also ideal and on a night with low lying clouds, you may even be lucky enough to see them from above the cloudline when going to a higher elevation.
Having the correct camera settings are really what will make or break your northern lights photography.
Firstly, set your camera to full manual mode and use the following settings.
Shutter Speed. Adjust your shutter speed to 10 to 20 seconds depending on the intensity and speed of the lights.
Aperture. f/2.8 or as high as your lens will allow.
ISO. This is a big point of difference between cameras. Setting the ISO to 1,600 is a good starting point, but generally the lower you can keep this value the better your overall image quality will be.
Photo timer. Turn on a 2-second timer to avoid camera shake from pushing the button and remove your hand from the camera as soon as you press the shutter.
Next, make sure your flash settings and image stabilisation are turned off. Set your lens to manual focus and turn it all the way to infinity and then a back a little.
Now, take a test shot and check if the stars in the shot are in focus – they should be as small as possible. If they are out of focus, you’ll need to adjust the focusing on your lens. The easiest way to check whether your shot is in focus is to zoom in on the stars in camera. It can be a bit of trial and error before reaching the exact settings that give the best results.
Once your shot is in focus, set your shutter speed to around 15 seconds and take another test shot. From here, adjust the exposure time based on how fast the lights are moving to get the perfect shot.
Gear and tech talk aside, some of you may be armed with nothing but a smartphone. If you’re wondering how to photograph the northern lights with your iPhone, it is possible but you won’t have as much control over the shot or be able to get the same quality as a camera in such low light.
On a smartphone, you’ll need to download an app that allows manual control of your phone’s camera setting – Northern Lights Photo Taker and NightCap Camera are two that are recommended online. Choose similar settings to those you would use on a camera – high ISO, large aperture and slow shutter speed. Using a tripod or phone stand (like this GorillaPod) to get the shot will definitely give you a clearer image when used with a 2-second timer to minimise camera shake.
In general, you’ll only spot the northern lights when nearing the upper latitudes. At night, it can get bloody cold out there, especially when you’re standing still for hours at a time. Cloudless nights also tend to be the coldest.
If you’re heading out for a photo mission, wear as many layers as you can, particularly on your hands and feet, and use pocket warmers if you have to. We waddled out like Michelin men with 6 layers and 3 pairs of gloves each and were almost warm enough.
We hate to burst the bubble, but we feel it’s important to say – seeing the northern lights is never a sure thing and even if they do appear, they may not be as colourful as Instagram may have led you to believe.
Our first encounter in the Faroe Islands was a vague greenish glow behind a thick layer of clouds, an experience we decided didn’t quite count. Then in Finnish Lapland, we were lucky enough to see an aurora show, but the beautiful whisps were colourless, translucent swirls that appeared and evaporated quickly like thin clouds moving across the sky.
Ultimately the colours are there, it’s just that your camera is far more adept at capturing them than the naked eye. At night, our ability to discern colour fades and so unless the solar activity is very high, it’s normal that the northern lights will appear far less vividly coloured than you may be expecting.
As a celestial event that we so rarely get to experience, it’s understandable to want to capture the perfect shot. But don’t forget to take a step back and simply enjoy it.
This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the mesmerising lights twirling across the sky, and we suspect you won’t want to miss out on it by being glued to your viewfinder.