Photographing the Northern Lights is always a treat; no matter how many times you see them, it’s a thrilling experience and a great opportunity to get some very impressive shots! Looking up in to a clear, dark sky, facing north, a soft haze begins to form, getting brighter by the minute. Often the lights turn out to be the lovely green that we generally think of, but they can also be a white-grey colour, or a beautiful shade of purple. It all depends at what height the particles from the sun collide with the earth’s atmosphere. Sometimes the Aurora will be present but very hard to see with the naked eye, but we may be able to capture them with our cameras, a long exposure setting intensifying the light – capturing 20 – 30 seconds worth of activity in the images.
Photographer and Photography Tour Leader Renato Granieri has visited the Polar Regions many times and gives us his top tips below:
Wrap up warm!
The Aurora occurs at high latitudes with temperatures often well below zero, so make sure you are comfortable and able to wait for the lights to show themselves at their best. You are not likely to pop out for a quick photo and be back in side for a nice hot drink 5 minutes later!
Go to the right place at the right time and hire a local with expert knowledge. There are apps that offer Aurora forecasts and they can be useful, but I find there is nothing like real local knowledge and expertise. Not only are they able to use their experience to help you find the best spots for photographing the Lights, but their knowledge of the terrain and landscape can be invaluable to finding the best view points for a photo that has everything – the Northern Lights and something interesting in the foreground.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera will be needed to get the images quality required. You’ll also need a wide lens – usually less than 20mm on a full frame sensor is best. A sturdy tripod and remote shutter release are also a must and a torch may come handy to see what you’re doing!
It’s going to be dark, so you need to get as much light as possible to your sensor. A wide aperture will help with this, and it will enable control over the shutter speed. This needs to be anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. Anything greater than 30 seconds will see the stars start to blur as they move through the sky while your shutter is open but the longer shutter speed you can manage, the more time your sensor will capture the lights dancing across the sky. Try to keep your ISO at no more than 1600 to minimise noise.
The problem of focussing
You will get the best results by switching to manual focus and setting the focus-point to infinity. This should keep the stars sharp, but you have to be aware of any foreground interest that you need to be sharp too. In this case it may be more important to prioritise the sharpness of the foreground. It’s a good idea to take a few practice shots and zoom in on your camera to check you have the right elements sharp.
In this image, taken in Iceland, I wanted to include the rock formations as the main subject with the lights dancing in the background. I think that including the landscape makes the image more interesting, and the person in the hole in the rock give a sense of the immense scale of the landscape. My settings were f2.8 at 30 seconds with ISO of 400.