Photographing the Northern Lights
As you stand there looking up at the sky, pregnant with anticipation you don't want to be fumbling around ill prepared to capture the moment.
Firstly let’s talk about the equipment. A digital camera is going to be preferable as you can see results straight away and change the ISO when required. With a manual camera, unless you are well versed in low light photography, you could end up with a few rolls of disappointment. Any SLR mid range digital camera will do although there are few features you should look out for.
If you’re going out specifically to buy or hire a camera for the trip make sure it comes with the following features;
- Noise reduction mode - this will help reduce the amount of grain/noise in the images. In most cases this will double the amount of time an image takes to process (time before you can take another image) but it’s well worth it.
- Live mode - this mode brings what you would see through the view finder onto the camera display. It makes it easier to focus in low light.
- RAW mode - this will make post production of your images far easer as more detail is picked up. Be advised this takes up a lot more space on your memory card so make sure you take enough for the trip and then pack some extra just in case.
The wider the aperture and lens the better although this will make focusing a bit more challenging (discussed later), it will make for better images - the more of the nights sky you can cover the better. Also the wider the lens and aperture the more light is drawn into the lens and camera .
Often this piece of equipment is over looked but in many ways it’s the most important. You can be photographing the most amazing light show and think that your photos look sharp on the display. It won’t be until you view them up close that you will realise the images are blurred because of camera shack. Make sure that you invest in a sturdy well built tripod with a large leg span. Gusts of wind, especially when you are on top of a mountain or in the middle of a frozen lake, can cause motion blur or even knock the camera over.
Shutter release cable/remote
Although possible I don’t recommend using the shutter release on the actual camera. The risk of camera shack during the exposure is too great. If your camera has a short auto timer you could use that but I recommend a cable or remote shutter release. You don’t’ need to get a expensive manufactures own, a nonproprietary will suffice.
So you have found the perfect spot and the Aurora are dancing above you. Before you start acclimatise your camera to the cold, I suggest leaving the camera in the bag for 10 minutes once outside. Set up the Tripod so the legs form a solid base and attach the camera and the shutter release cable.
Turn on noise reduction (if you have the option). Next you will need to make sure everything is in focus by switching to manual focus. If you don’t have Live Mode (displays the view finder onto the camera display) then turn the focus ring to infinity (looks like a stretched 8 on its side) and take a picture. Review the image, if the picture is out of focus then turn the ring slightly (a few millimetres at a time) and take another picture, repeat the process until everything is in focus. If your camera has Live Mode then focus on the moon or something in the far background to obtain the correct focus. Sounds complicated but once you understand the method it's easy, see this video tutorial of live mode for a Canon for further guidance.
There is obversely a lot of different adjustments you can make dependent on the amount of ambient light available. I always start with an exposure of 10- 15 seconds with an ISO of 1000 using a lens aperture of 4. F, this normally provides good results. As with anything practice makes perfect. If you have a lens that has a larger aperture then decrease the ISO and/or shutter speed. Make sure that your exposure doesn’t exceed 25 seconds as you will start to see star trails in your images. If your camera can shoot in RAW then make sure this is on and that you are shooting in JPEG as well. This will give you scope to adjust your images postproduction as well producing images immediately that you can print or share. Even if you have no idea what RAW files are it’s going be better to have the files than not. Check Wikipedia for an explanation of RAW files.
If you’re interested in postproduction then I recommend Adobe Lightroom used by professionals to amateurs. Its intuitive to use and is a lot cheaper than Adobe Photoshop.
Painting with light & Composition
It’s easy to get carried away and focus your efforts just on the lights. My first few attempts were images of the top of some trees and not much else. Try to imagine if the lights weren’t there and you were trying to make the image as interesting as possible. Use the landscape around you - mountains, roads (light trails from cars can look good), buildings and people. This will help to put the Aurora into perspective as making the images interesting. If the buildings or people don’t have enough light (natural light might not be enough), then you can “paint” with light. It sounds complicated but it isn't. A good torch will do or an external flash. Once you start your exposure shine the torch on people, buildings or even trees that you want to illuminate. The longer you hover over a subject the brighter it will come out on the image. If you are using a flash a single burst should do it.
If physically possible back up your files to the cloud or computer/external drive. If your hotel/hostel is particularly warm (it will be, it's Sweden) and its particularly cold outside (it will be, it's Sweden) then your camera and lens can be subject to rapid condensation. As soon as you get in you will want to view the spoils of your photography, however you must resist the temptation and wait for your camera to become naturally acclimatised to the inside temperature. Leave the camera in the bag for 20+ minutes.