Photographing the Northern Lights

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Seeing the Northern Lights is a unique and exhilarating experience that, sadly, too few get to experience. So, when most people get to see them, they’re overcome with a rushing desire to share the experience with those not fortunate enough to be there with them. And, there’s no better way than through the magic of photography. But, photographing the aurora is unfortunately not as easy as pointing your phone towards them and pressing the camera button.

The best way to capture some stunning pictures of the Northern Lights is with a DSLR camera. You’ll need your camera, a tripod, a remote (not necessary if your camera has a timer setting) and a good lens that’s wide and bright (around 20mm and f/2.8 and under is superb, higher f/ratios can work).

When we go out to look at the Northern Lights, our eyes adapt to the darkness and we can see the stars and the aurora fairly well. However, they are far dimmer than we perceive them. Thusly, when photographing them, it’s all about gathering as much light as you can per second. That is to say, you’ll want to adjust your lens’s f-stop to its lowest value, and then it’s practical to turn your camera’s ISO setting to the highest value that produces noise free (non-grainy) images. This allows you to have the shutter speed as fast as you’d like, without having your pictures grainy, but still capture the most light as it can for the shutter speed setting.

What difference does the shutter speed have when photographing the Northern Lights, you might ask. Well, the Northern Lights are a rapidly changing phenomenon, so a fast shutter speed allows you to capture the crispest images of the aurora. Much like when photographing a water stream or a waterfall. The slower the shutter speed, the less detail you get.

Shooting pictures in RAW is always a good choice, but especially so when you’re photographing the Northern Lights. White balance plays an integral part in pictures of the aurora, and shooting in RAW gives you the ability to adjust the white balance as you please in any image processing software, like Photoshop. You can, of course, adjust the white balance on your camera to a value that you find produces the boldest and most vivid colors, and just shoot in JPEG.

The most crucial part of photographing the Northern Lights is to get the focus on point. Having the focus perfect fills your pictures with pinpoint stars and crisp swathes of aurora. First of all, you’ll need to make sure that your lens (and in some cases your camera it self) has its focus setting set to manual focus (MF). If your camera has a live view feature, the process of getting the focus right is fairly straightforward and harmless. You simply turn on the live view, point your camera to any bright, distant object you see (a star, a planet, the moon, a mountain, a city skyline, whatever) and focus on that object. Using the moon or any bright star is always best (I find). If there’s nothing around that’s bright enough for your live view display, then you’ll have to rely on other methods. Using the viewfinder is seldom easy, or even possible. Not to fear, for the solution is easy. You begin by focusing to infinity. To do so, simply turn the focus ring on your lens to infinity (symbolized as ∞), which will be on either end of the focus range. That is, the infinity focus point will be achieved by either turning the focus ring all the way to the right, or all the way to the left, depending on lenses. Once you’ve focused to infinity, you take a test shot. For this test shot, you can turn the ISO up high, and the shutter speed to about a second (this should capture a bunch of stars). You then take another test shot, but this time you turn the focus ring a little bit away from infinity, and you compare the two. You perform this repetitive routine until you’ve found your spot on focus point.

To get started, I would suggest you set your camera up with the following settings:

  • ISO 800-1600
  • Aperture as open as possible (e.g. f/2.8-4.0)
  • Shutter speed to about 10 seconds
  • Experiment till you find the right white balance, usually around 3500-4300K.

If a 10 second exposure time results in a picture which is too dim, you’ll need to turn the ISO up a bit. If a 10 second exposure results in a picture which is too bright, you’re in a good position and you can go ahead and lower the shutter speed until the pictures turn out just right. But, after all, this is just a guide to go by. These settings and what works best varies from cameras and lenses, and once you’ve gotten yourself started in photographing the Northern Lights, you’ll find that much of this is up to the personal preferences of each photographer.

So, take your camera, your tripod, your remote, a flashlight, some hot chocolate and head out. Set up your gear, adjust your camera and lens to the aforementioned suggested settings and see what happens. You should experiment with fiddling with the settings, changing this value and that value, seeing how it affects the results. This will eventually give you a good feel and sense for photographing the aurora.

Have fun!

Dressing for the Northern Lights

By | Northern Lights, Óflokkað | No Comments

Like most people are aware of, Iceland can get pretty cold. The winters here can be pretty extreme, and the weather can take near instantaneous turns from being pretty nice to absolutely horrifyingly bad. But, the key to surviving the harsh Icelandic winter is dressing appropriately. This is especially important when you’re planning on heading out to spend some hours marvelling at the Northern Lights.

So, what’s the dress code for windy, subzero temperature, snowy winter nights in the North Atlantic? Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the secret lies in layers, and there are a couple of layers that are the most important.

First of all, a good pair of thermal underwear is your best friend in Iceland. There’s nothing like having your first layer of clothing be one of soft, warm and comfortable wool. It makes a tremendous difference and helps you maintain your body temperature like nothing else (fashionable/comfortable) can.

The next layer should be some regular day-to-day-ish clothes; t-shirt, sweater, sweat pants. Articles of clothing fitting to that category. A t-shirt over your thermal sweater, and then another sweater over that, is a good move. You can’t go wrong with that. And then some nice, thick sweat pants over your thermal leggings, and you’ll have yourself some nice layers to add the final, and the most important layer.

On top of all your layers of warming goodness, you’ll need a thick, windproof layer. The most common combination is a pair of ski pants and a nice, thick parka. However, the best top layer (author’s opinion) is a proper snowsuit. They’re without a doubt the best solution to dressing for Icelandic weather.

But, that’s not it! Although all of the aforementioned layers are a must, it won’t take you more than about 5 minutes to realize that going out on an Icelandic winters night without a good hat, a scarf and some gloves or mittens. As thick and cozy as you can find them.

Last, but certainly not least, is keeping your toes warm. There are few things that are as miserable as having a nice, starry, Northern Lights filled night ruined, simply because you’ve lost the sense of feeling in your toes, and all you can feel is stinging agony, and you just want to go home and take a warm bath. But, fear not! This is easily prevented. Get yourself a nice pair of wool socks, preferably Icelandic ones, and bring your thickest snow boots, and you’ll be all set! There is, however, a little trick to keep your toes extra warm, that not everyone knows about. When it comes to toes, layers are not the key. You just need that one woolen layer, and then your boots.

And that’s it! You’re all set to go out and enjoy your evening looking at the Northern Lights. Just remember that you can never dress too much for Iceland. It’s always easy to undress a layer or two, if you get too warm, but it’s very hard to add layers that you don’t have. Keep that in mind.

 

 

Our Blogger

Adam Thor Murtomaa

Adam Thor Murtomaa

Star Expert

Adam has worked for Tuk Tuk Tours since the company started. He’s one of the tour guides, as well as being the author of this blog. He will be the coordinator of Tuk Tuk Tours’ Northern Lights tours, which will start in the fall of 2015. When he’s not on the job, Adam is a physics student at the University of Iceland.