As Birds Head South for Winter - Photographers Head North
A Lean & Mean Guide for Northern Lights Photography
Here in New England, we're entering that brutal "shoulder season" in between Autumn and Winter, when the trees are bare, and the days are getting depressingly shorter, but the snow hasn't yet arrived to turn everything into a brilliant white fantasy land. Our actual shoulders may not see the light of day for another five months at least, and we have some important choices to make.
Do we hunker down and wait for Spring, which seems like an eternity away, while our cameras gather mold spores at home; or do we embrace the best of what winter has to offer - going as far as to look for even more wintry destinations to photograph? I find that in photography, you will always thank yourself for enduring a small amount of hardship to make a better shot, whether it be staying up a little later, waiting out the weather a little longer, missing breakfast (gasp), or putting up with a little more cold than you're comfortable with. So for me, the choice is clear.
As a traveling nature photographer, my favorite winter theme for the past couple of years has been capturing the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights. The aurora has such an iconic, mythical status in our mainstream consciousness that even people who hate the cold are willing to put up with traveling to an even colder place, just for a glimpse of it. And every time you say you went to place like Iceland or Alaska, people will always ask, "Did you see the Northern Lights?"
Up until last year, like many people, I had gone my entire life without seeing the aurora, although it had been on my "bucket list" for ages. But since then, after making the effort to travel specifically to shoot the aurora, I have photographed them in four different places: Iceland (twice), Canada, Montana, and Alaska. The displays seem to get more brilliant every time I see them, and my technique and photographs get more polished and artistic with experience. These days, my images of the aurora are among the best-selling and most highly-regarded images in my portfolio.
Let me share with you what I've learned about photographing the Northern Lights.
Digital SLR or "mirrorless" camera
I prefer a camera with a full frame sensor, because it will generally take better pictures in low light conditions, but almost any modern camera will do a good job if you know what you're doing. My aurora images have been made with the Canon 5D MkIII (all-around dependable workhorse), and the Sony A7rii (the camera that may end your marriage and lead you to consider putting your pets up for adoption).
A wide angle, wide aperture lens
The wide field of view allows you to capture a large portion of the sky, while including the foreground as well. Some can't-go-wrong choices here are: The Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L ii; The Nikon 14-24 f/2.8; and the Tamron 15-30 f/2.8. Whichever lens you choose, I've learned that it's best to shoot with no filters over the front element - even a clear filter may lead to aberrations when photographing the northern lights.
Optionally: An EVEN WIDER, wide aperture lens, such as a Fisheye f/2.8
This has been my secret weapon for aurora photography this year. Sometimes, the aurora fills up so much of the sky that a regular wide angle lens isn't even enough. I have had neighboring photographers get jealous of my wide field of view.
A sturdy ball head tripod
This is not the place to be a cheapskate. A good tripod will serve you for decades, while a bad tripod leaves your camera face down on the ice with a cracked lens and you crying because you are miles away from the nearest camera store - which would be closed anyway, because it's nighttime. A ball head allows you to easily level your camera on uneven terrain.
A cable shutter release
This allows you to take a picture without physically pushing the shutter button on your camera. When taking pictures using long exposures in low light, it's important not to shake the camera at all. And I would avoid wireless remotes here. They always seem to fail when it matters most. In cold weather, electronics fail enough as it is, so it's best to not have yet another variable to worry about.
So you see, the gear needed for photographing the aurora is not particularly crazy or specialized, but it does have to be high-quality and reliable.
Once you've arrived at your destination, numerous websites can help you decide which nights are worth heading out for northern lights viewing.
I have consulted Spaceweather.com, and NOAA's Spaceweather Prediction Center. There are region-specific sites as well, for instance if you're heading to Alaska, or Iceland. It's important to check these forecasts regularly, since solar activity fluctuates regularly. For more up-to-the-minute information and notifications, you could check the Aurora Android app, or the Spaceweather app for both iPhone and Android.
If you're familiar with my rants from the past, you'll know I'm a huge advocate of being prepared for every shoot, and I make thorough use of all the apps and programs available to help me plan for landscape shoots down to the last detail of where to place my tripod. But there are certain details that only an in-person scout will reveal, especially in winter, such as which areas will be inaccessible due to snow depth, or which sections of a lake or river will be safely frozen enough to stand on. Please get these details sorted out in broad daylight, because no one will be around to pull you out of the water at night. If you have a specific composition in mind, daytime is when you nail down the locations where you will shoot from and mark them (either by map or GPS), so you can safely and easily navigate back to them at night.
If you've never seen the northern lights, you may or may not be aware that, with dimmer auroral displays, the image on camera looks much better, brighter, and more colorful than what you see with the naked eye. That's because the camera has a better sensitivity to color in low light than your eye does. Most auroras are dominated by shades of green which will also be what your eyes see more clearly at night, whereas the harder to find red and purple tones are usually visible more clearly to the camera, if it all.
On the other hand, if you are blessed with strong solar activity, resulting in a bright aurora, the show you witness will leave your jaw dropped for days, and what you see will be just as amazing as your pictures. With the brighter shows, you may even overexpose a few shots! So keeping in mind that auroras vary wildly in brightness, color composition, and movement, here are some general guidelines for camera settings.
Focus: Switch your lens to manual focus, set it to infinity, and leave it there. Your camera does not want to autofocus in the dark. Since most zoom lenses do not have a hard stop at infinity, it's necessary to find your true infinity setting ahead of time by focusing on the horizon, preferably in the daytime. And be aware that the focal length setting on your zoom lens will influence the location of the true infinity setting, i.e. the infinity setting at 16mm on your 16-35 mm lens may be slightly different than at 35mm. Many of the more obsessive aurora photographers I know will shoot at just one focal length, and use a piece of tape to secure the focus ring in the infinity position, because if you accidentally bump your lens out of infinity in the dark, it may be very difficult to find again!
ISO: A generally high setting, between ISO 2500 and 6400. Usually I find myself shooting at ISO 3200.
White Balance: Auto
Exposure Mode: Manual
Aperture: Generally wide open, which is f/2.8 on the lenses I own. With a very bright aurora, I can get away with stopping down to f/4.
Shutter speed: You'll generally want to keep this between 8 and 20 seconds. Auroras "shimmer" like a curtain in the wind, with varying degrees of speed, so you want a shutter speed that's long enough to capture the light vividly, but not so long that you lose the sense of texture. You'll have to do some experimentation with your aurora to see what looks the best.
Capture Format: RAW. This gives you the most flexibility to correct the brightness and color of your image after the fact, and preserves more detail in the highlights and shadows than shooting in JPEG. Shooting the aurora is not an exact science, so you'll want the maximum amount of forgiveness.
After all this exhaustive preparation and shooting, you'll be delighted to hear that editing aurora photos, if you focused and exposed properly, is very easy! Auroras are so spectacular in their own right, that human interpretation should be left to a minimum. With your RAW file, you can correct slight overexposures in the highlights, bring out more detail in shadow areas, and add a little vibrance to bring out more color.
The Final Output
If you've made a spectacular shot, don't waste it on just Facebook or Instagram. I've always believed that a photograph doesn't achieve its true potential until it's printed, even in the digital age. Treat your image with the tenderness and love it deserves by printing it on a metallic paper, or, for the ultimate wow factor, make it into an aluminum print.
Experience the Northern Lights for Yourself
Solar activity is usually at its peak around the equinoxes. For a crack at photographing the aurora for yourself, join us on our Iceland tour in September 2017. Click here for more information!