How do you photograph the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)?
A lot of people travelling to Iceland, have asked me how to photograph the Northern Lights before. The aurora season has just started last week, so I thought it was definitely a good time to write this journal entry. When you get to see the Northern Lights, it would be a shame if you'd have to waste time on figuring things out with your camera.
Before we get started I want to make clear that this article is mainly about photographing the Lights. I won't go into details about what exactly they are or what causes them to appear. However, I will go over some facts about the Northern Lights, explain why some urban myths are horribly far from the truth, list what equipment you need and how you can best set your camera.
Ready? Let's dive right in!
What should you know about the Aurora before heading out?
Before explaining how you can photograph the Northern Lights, there are some important things to know and forget. I have heard the craziest urban legends & myths surrounding the aurora. Some people seem to think there's a connection between the outside temperature and Northern Lights activity, others believe the Lights appear at a certain time or even that they are visible when the midnight sun is shining bright. None of the previous statements are true but what is?
Some things you should know before heading out:
The Northern Lights are only visible when the nights are dark enough. In Iceland this means that it's possible to see them from mid August until the end of April. It is not possible to see them outside that period.
If it's too cloudy, you probably won't see the aurora because it takes place high above the clouds.
You can see the Northern Lights everywhere (no, you don't necessarily need to go on a special tour). It's even possible to see them from inside Reykjavík - if they are strong enough. Although having no light pollution around is always better of course.
Strong moonlight interferes with the ability to see the Northern Lights. If there's a full moon, you'll have a lot more difficulty seeing them compared to when there is no moon).
Even if the sky is clear, the nights are dark and there is no moonlight, there's no guarantee that you'll see them. It's always possible there's not enough solar activity going on during that night.
The Northern Lights are not active all the time, nor is the intensity of the light the same. They usually appear in spikes, increasing & decreasing in intensity.
There's no precise time when you will see the Northern Lights. I have heard this statement many times before, even to the point where people were waiting inside a building for a certain time while the show was already ongoing.
The Northern Lights strength is indicated by the KP index, which is scaled from 0 to 9 with 0 being no activity and 9 being exceptionally active. This index also points out how far south it will be possible to see them. For Iceland, KP2 is sufficient for them to be visible.
The most important one of all: be patient & don't give up after being outside for a short time!
Are there any tools that can help in your hunt for Northern Lights?
To make a good judgement on whether or not it is worth heading out, there are some things that can help you.
For example, on the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO), you can find a cloud coverage forecast that gives you some insight in the cloud coverage by the hour. On this forecast you can easily see if there will be a lot of clouds (or not) in the area you wish to photograph (dark green is really cloudy, white is clear skies). Additionally you can also find out when the sun sets and rises, when it's supposed to be dark, ... This page also points out what the forecasted strength of the aurora will be (with the KP index). In my experience this forecasted index is usually not very accurate and I don't really recommend basing any decision on it.
Personally I'm using the Aurora Forecast application on my phone (Android & iOS). It shows actual live measurements and also shows you the activity map as displayed on spaceweather.com. Not only do you get a lot more information (like solar wind speeds for example), it's also a lot more accurate and gives you push notifications on top of that.
If you combine both the cloud coverage map by IMO and the data from this application, you're all set to determine when it's a good idea to head out.
What equipment do you need to photograph the Aurora?
Now that you know what to look out for, what kind of camera equipment do you need?
A tripod - this is absolutely essential equipment since you will be taken long exposure shots.
A camera that allows you to set everything manually
A remote control - this is not absolutely necessary. It makes your life easier but you could easily use the delayed shutter for it.
A wide-angle lens (preferably with an aperture of F/2.8 or F/4) - this is not absolutely necessary but it's easier if you want to capture the scale of the Northern Lights. Also, a bigger aperture is always better but F/4 can also do the job.
Gloves, a hat and a wind-proof jacket - it can get cold waiting outside. Dress accordingly!
"So, that's it?". Yes, that's all you need! I shot my first aurora photographs with the cheapest tripod, the cheapest DSLR, with one of the cheapest wide-angle lenses out there. It's important to know that everything depends on the strength of the Northern Lights. If they're really strong, you don't need the best, most light-sensitive camera equipment. You only need to know how to use your camera.
So... How do you set your camera?
Step 1: mount your camera on your tripod, hook up a remote & choose a composition
It's really important to take your Northern Lights photos while your camera is mounted on a tripod. It's impossible to shoot long exposure photographs while trying to hold still. Even the slightest movement can result in a blurry photo.
After it's mounted you can hook up your remote control or set your camera with a delayed shutter. This will help in decreasing any possible movement.
After it's mounted & you hooked up the remote, you choose the widest angle you can get on your camera and make a composition of your shot.
Step 2: manually focus to infinity
The first thing you need to do, is set your camera or lens to manual focus and focus the lens to infinity. You can always try to focus, with autofocus, on the moon or a star but most cameras won't focus in such low light. A good thing to test is whether your lens' infinity marker is actual focused on infinity. Some lenses tend to not be fully focused on distant objects if you set it to infinity. Test this in a well lit area before making all your shots. It would be a huge disappointment if none of your shots were actually in focus.
Step 3: set your camera to manual (M)
Switch your camera to manual settings (usually marked with M). Set your aperture to the lowest number possible (this means your lens will be wide open), your ISO to 1600 and the shutter speed to 20 seconds. These are good settings to start with. I use these settings mainly to test how strong the aurora is and adjust the settings if needed.
Step 4: adjust your settings regularly
You will need to evaluate your shots and play around with the settings. If the aurora is overexposed, you want to dial down on ISO (lower ISO equals less grainy photos) and/or shutter speed (lower shutter speed will better freeze the movement). If it's underexposed you do the opposite.
If you can increase the shutter speed, you will "freeze" the movement of the aurora (depending on how active it is), this will result in seeing the stripes that appear when you see the lights more. If your camera is not really producing a lot of grain at higher ISO's, you can increase it so you can lower the shutter speed.
Depending on whether or not there is a lot of moonlight, you will need to adjust your settings accordingly. For example if there is a lot of snow, the moonlight will reflect a lot. This might mean you'll have to lower the shutter speed and/or decrease the ISO. Moonlight also limits the visibility of the aurora.
Don't forget that the Northern Lights increase & decrease in intensity. You will need to adjust your settings regularly!
Step 5: enjoy!
Don't forget to enjoy the show and look at up at the sky - not only through your lens!
If you have any questions about photography in Iceland or you want to see me cover another topic about photography in Iceland, let me know in the comment section below!