How to Photograph Northern Lights and where to photograph Nothern Lights

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The spectacle known as the northern lights is something I promise you will never forget, and if you are prepared to photograph them, you will be able come home and share your photos you are proud of with friends and family.

The Aurora Borealis occurs in the Northern hemisphere.  It can be experienced in locations further from the Arctic circles, but to improve your chances of seeing them you need to spend some time on or near the activity zones. Iceland, Norway, Yukon and Alaska are just some of the places famous for the Aurora Borealis in the Northern hemisphere.

How to Photograph the northern lights

Let’s first look at the gear you need to have in order to maximize your chances of capturing the northern lights.

BASIC EQUIPMENT:

A good sturdy tripod. I use a Manfrotto 290 Series carbon Fibre tripod. Like the rest of the 290 Carbon range, the 294 carbon tripod is built to be transportable without compromising on stability. To achieve this, it uses a “next-generation” carbon tubing: an innovative composite tube derived from Manfrotto’s experience in professional supports with optimized fibre angles that provide consistent advantages over aluminium tubing in terms of rigidity, lightness and stability. 294 tripod legs use a 3-section construction with larger diameter carbon tubing than the 293 models, in order to maximize camera stability and minimize vibration, ideal for zoom lenses that amplify any camera shake. Durable tension-adjustable aluminium leg locks can be tightened to suit your preference and to counteract any effects of wear and aging, keeping the tripod fully functional throughout its long life. Two-position leg angle settings make low-angle shooting possible, while a rapid center column adds flexibility and extends the min-max height range. The disk at the top of the center column is compatible with any Manfrotto head, ideal for photographers who want to put together a custom support, fine-tuned to their own specific preferences or to the demands of their photographic style.

A remote trigger so you don't have to touch the camera.

A DSLR camera with the capability of  BULB mode so you can manually control exposure times. Digital cameras will need to have to be manually adjustable focus with ISO ranges that exceed 1600

A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights. If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it as well. A lens that I would suggest you look at is the new Sigma 24-105mm F4 of the Sigma 24-70m F2.8.  

The Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM Art lens is a premium lens designed for full frame cameras and will also work with APS-C sensors with an effective increase in focal length. The 24-105mm F4 is a highly versatile focal range and staple everyday lens. With the increasing resolution power of new sensors, it is designed to bring out the true potential of evolving camera technology. Sigma’s 24-105mm f4 includes proprietary Sigma technology including our Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) which ensures fast, quiet and accurate auto focusing as well as our Optical Stabilizer (OS) which compensates for camera shake. A 9 blade rounded diaphragm creates beautiful background blur, while FLD and SLD glass elements compensate for various aberrations, distortion and curvature. The use of Thermally Composite Material (TSC) reduces size and weight and as part of the new Global Vision design, it is compatible with the Sigma USB dock for further customization and the new Mount Conversion Service.

Sigma's 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM is an updated version of this focal length developed in response to the needs of serious photographers asking for hypersonic motor for fast focus response. Also included is the full-time manual over-ride allowing instant control in low-light situations. Whether you're shooting in fast paced situations or low light situations this lens can handle it. Approximately 30% smaller and lighter than its competitors from the major camera manufacturers, it's a dream to handle and carry on your camera all day long. Its price is surprisingly affordable for a top flight professional lens of this caliber. Finally, its outstanding optical formulation makes it a great performer when used for scenic views and landscapes.

TAKING A PICTURE:

You generally will not be able to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with short exposure times. Good exposure times for this are anywhere between 5 seconds and 40  seconds per picture (this is where the shutter release and the tripod will help you eliminate shaking of the camera - you can't hold the camera by hand.)

A sample exposure time for a photo of the northern lights would use the following settings… ISO 800 with an aperture of f/2.8, and shutter speed times would be 10 to 20 seconds depending on the brightness of the lights.

LOCATIONS & TIMES:

It can be hard to predict the Northern Lights so you may be in for a few hours of waiting during a cold night.

The best times generally are after midnight and range from October to the end of April each year.

You should head out of the city and get away from light pollution to obtain maximum quality of photos.

Tips:

1.Batteries don't last as long in cold nights. Bring spare batteries and keep them in your pockets or inside your coat.

2.Try lots of different exposure settings; night photography is challenging. Test your setup first.

3.Include a part of the landscape to make the photos more attractive and as a visual reference for size.

4.Do not use any filters, as they tend to distort the beauty of the Northern Lights and degrade the image.

5.Turn on "noise reduction" and the white balance can be set to 5000K or set to auto on digital cameras.

TECHNIQUES

To increase your chance of a successful aurora hunt, you need to be aware of the weather.  If it is cloudy, your chances of seeing the aurora grow weaker.  If you have a clear sky you have a much better chance.

You also need to check the space weather for the northern lights forecast. Please not, even if the space weather forecast is weak, it may still be worth venturing out if you are up north in the areas that I previously mentioned… Iceland, Norway, Alaska and the Yukon.

So you are in an active zone and you have a clear sky and the space weather is a bit uncertain. You can increase your chances again by eliminating light pollution. 

The moon can also work against you.  If you are planning a trip to an Aurora zone, try to book it as I do when there is a new moon.

Get your camera set up so that it is easy to handle. Using a flash light make sure your cable is connected, your lens is set just short of infinity and the camera is level to the ground. Then turn off the flash light and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

You can use the waiting time constructively.  You can practice with your bulb and find a good composition.  Set your camera to f/2.8 (or as wide as possible) iso 800 and take some test shots for 30 seconds.  Do this in all directions but mainly due north (Aurora Borealis).  You may start to see a green hue on your pictures near the horizon. This is a good sign and this is the part of the sky you need to watch.

As the aurora starts to get brighter you need to start adjusting your settings accordingly.  Start by bringing down your iso. 

Important note… Always check the brightness of your image on the histogram and never rely on the camera preview screen.  Your eyes have adjusted to the dark so an underexposed image will look fine – until you get it home! Speaking from experience… the back lit LCD screen in the dark makes photos look brighter than they actually are.

If the whole sky explodes and the Aurora casts a shadow, you need to be quick to adjust your exposure times.  The best Aurora shots occur during these brief moments.  A faster shutter of 8-20 seconds will preserve some of the details of the light display that separates the great photo from the average photo.

Star trails

The added bonus… Sometimes you cannot avoid star trails if you don't trust iso 800 and your lens stops at f/4. If this is the case, you might be exposing for 2 minutes with a weak aurora.  Generally it is preferred to expose for less than 30 seconds to prevent noticeable star trails.  Stars begin to move over 20 seconds… so if you want fixed stars you will have to increase ISO to 1600 or 3200 and keep exposure times under 15 seconds… but, sometimes star movement adds an element to the images you take.

We run aurora workshops every year in some of the best locations around the world. In 2014 and 2015 we will be in Iceland,Northwest Territories and in the Yukon to photograph the northern lights amidst some outstanding landscapes.

Please visit, www.northof49photography.com to learn more about these workshops in Canada and Internationally.

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Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com