Northern lights photography – This blog is about the hunt for Northern lights and how to capture this natural phenomena. We will speak about what to wear, which gear to bring, which apps we use to prepare, and different settings on the camera.
1. What to wear!
FIRST A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT TO WEAR ON THE HUNT FOR THE LIGHTS:
This blog is for tourists traveling to Iceland to see the Northern Lights also known as the Aurora Borealis. I’m going to assume that some of you already know what to expect here weather-wise, but I will say a few things just in case any of you underestimate the Icelandic weather during winter. Before you go out hunting for the northern lights you should read this part very carefully.
- The weather here can change very quickly, so be prepared for anything. Many have made the mistake of thinking the weather will stay the same for the evening, we can experience all four seasons over a couple of hours. One minute its sunny skies and the next it can be 30m/sec wind and a snowstorm, then pouring rain and again sunny skies. You would think Iceland is bipolar. But the good news about that is the fact that even if it does not look to good at the moment, the conditions could be perfect in a few minutes, so you should keep an eye on the forecast. People have died underestimating the weather and overestimating their choice of clothing.
- Put on a lot more layers then you would normally in the same conditions. While you are photographing and even if you aren’t photographing them, you are not moving around much, you’re just standing around looking up into the sky, so the cold can get to you much faster then if you were going on a hike for example. Invest in a good Merino Wool Base layer to wear under all of your clothing. Best is to wear it under everything else. Most of the time though, you are not going to move far from the car to set up and start shooting. So before going out of the car, heat it up really well so it’ll be warm when you get back. That’s a free tip for you right there!
- The wind is a big factor once you leave the city, it can get so much colder then what the temperature meter says it is, so even though you dressed up really well, pack some extra clothes and leave in the car, it is always nice to be able to put on some dry socks and sneakers before the trip home if the boots get wet on the trip.
- Bring a headlamp or a flashlight. You can also use the light on your mobile phone and that is more then enough for me so far in all my northern lights photography trips but it’s good to have your hands free.
- There will probably be snow on the ground and very slippery. I can’t stress this enough, invest in crampons, you can get them in the supermarkets. I was going to shoot the northern lights at Kirkjufell mountain in the middle of the night, forgot my crampons and fell on my ass around 20 times. I was really lucky that my camera gear got out of there safe and sound.
2. What camera gear should I bring?
- The type of camera you have is important but its not the most vital piece of the puzzle. Most DSLR’s, full frame cameras and even some ”point and shoot” cameras today can capture the Northern Lights. But for the sake of what is the best camera to use, I’d recommend a full frame camera as the larger sensor allows more light in, which is really important when shooting at night. Examples of great low light full frame cameras include the Sony A7RIV, Nikon D850, Nikon D5, Canon 6D, Sony A7SII & Sony A6300. I own the D850 and it’s amazing!
- Use the widest & fastest lens you have (Fast = Low f-number) with more emphasis on widest. For example, an ultra wide (10-20mm) f2.8 or f4 lens will beat a 85mm f1.2 all day, every day, So its much more important to have a wide lens than a fast lens. But try to find one that is both.
Iphones or other phones for that matter are NOT good for shooting auroras.
3. Aurora settings
First of all let me teach you a little about the 3 pillars of photographing in manual:
- ISO: ISO is the measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light. ISO sensitivity controls the amount of light necessary for the image sensor to achieve a certain exposure. The ISO is indicated numerically from ISO 100 representing low sensitivity, to ISO 6400 representing high sensitivity. Light sensitivity decreases as the ISO number decreases, and vice versa. Setting the camera to a high ISO allows the sensor to capture images in low-light settings without having to use a flash. However, shooting in dark environments using a high ISO creates grain or “noise” in the photographs. Low ISO numbers (ISO 100 or ISO 200, for example) should be used when shooting outside on a sunny day. The camera sensor does not have to be very sensitive in these conditions because there is a large amount of available light that will reach the sensor during exposure. This results in clear, high quality images with minimal grain. Be careful not to set the ISO too high in bright environments to avoid over-exposing and washing out the images. When shooting the northern lights start with using 1600 and work yourself around that number, if you go too high, the picture will be horrible and grainy.
- Aperture: The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens, which controls how much light enters the lens. The aperture is measured using ‘f-stops’, and can be adjusted by changing the ‘f-number’. A large aperture is indicated by a small f-number (f/2.8) , and lets more light pass through. A small aperture corresponds to a large f-number (f/16), and allows less light to pass through. The size of the aperture also helps control the depth of field, or the range of distance in an image that appears focused or sharp. A small aperture (large f-number) creates a large depth-of-field, meaning an overall sharper image in which the foreground and the background are in focus. A large aperture (small f-number) creates a shallow depth-of-field, in which the subject of the image is in sharp focus and the background is soft and blurred. In Northern lights photography its good to have a small aperture like f1.4 or f1.8. If you combine aperture and ISO, The smaller aperture number there is, the less ISO you have to use, meaning the photo won’t become as grainy as if you would use an f4 and a 3600 ISO the shot will come out much more grainy than the other one.
- Shutter speed: The shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter remains open when taking a picture. Shutter speed is measured in seconds and displayed in fractions of a second, e.g. 1/4sec, 1/60sec, 1/250sec, 1/500sec, etc. The length of time the shutter is open when taking a photograph determines the amount of exposure in the final image. The longer the shutter remains open, more light is able to pass through to the image sensor. Adjust the shutter speed depending on the image being captured. To freeze the motion of a moving subject, select a fast shutter speed (1/1000s, for example). Use fast shutter speeds when shooting sports events, performances and wildlife. But select a slow shutter speed when photgraping the Northern lights like for example 4 seconds (Displayed often as 4”)
Let’s start shooting!
- ALWAYS SHOOT IN RAW! RAW files are a lot easier to edit, later on in post processing.
- Always shoot in Manual mode! It gives you better control of what you want the end result of the photo to be.
- Use a tripod!
- Set the iso to 1600
- Start with a 4 second exposure time (Shutter)
- Switch the lens to manual focus and turn the image stabilization OFF (If there is a setting for that).
- Use a remote shutter if you have one, so you do not have to touch the camera to take the shot, if you don’t have one that’s OK, just set the timer on the camera to a few seconds so its steady when the shot is taken.
- Make sure the tripod is as sturdy as possible, hang your camera bag or something on it to make it more steady if you can and if it has a center column then try to have it as low as possible since on most tripods it is the weakest link stability wise.
- I like to remove the camera strap from my camera while doing long exposure to make it more steady if there is a small wind, but its up to you if you want to do that or not. If I’m in a hurry I just tie it to the tripod.
- Use live view to focus on something far away like a star, or if that is not possible then focus all the way to infinity and then just a tiny bit back, then take a photo and view it zoomed in afterwards to see if the focus is right then adjust accordingly.
- Try not to go over 20 second exposure time because then you start to get movement in the stars (star trails) unless that is an effect your are after.
Apps and websites
First of all, use extra caution if driving in the winter, it can become very tricky!
Here are links to important tools and a brief explanation of what to look for when planning to photograph the aurora. I normally have most of those sites open in tabs on my mobile phone while out hunting and check regularly over the evening.
Here you can basically find everything there is to know about the aurora. Its important to watch the cloud coverage, KP index and more. I’m not gonna go into details, frankly because I don’t pretend to know much about Interplanetary magnetic fields or Coronal holes…so I’m just gonna leave it to somebody else…
Here you can find all informations about roads, wind activity and more. It’s important to know the road you’re taking and if its safe. Here’s something you can find on their site.
- Location and time of last automated check
- Wind direction and speed in meters per second and temperature in Celsius
- Traffic for the last ten minutes: how many drove there
- Traffic since midnight: total cars since midnight.
If you have any questions for them, call 1777.
- Windy (Application)
Here you can see the cloud coverage and more, it’s a really accurate application. I just recently discovered it and it has helped a lot in my recent northern lights adventures!
- Aurora (Application)
Similar to www.auroraforcast.is but in an application. Really recommend having it with you.
Now you are ready to start shooting, the next step for you after you get on location is to do some test shots. You will quickly see if you need to adjust the time and iso but work your way around the settings I gave you to find a setting you really love.
I hope this northern lights photography tutorial can help you get the best photos you can on your trip here in Iceland and to witness the amazing lights. But don’t forget to take a moment to really take it all in as well while you are there so all your memories of the Northern lights aren’t through a viewfinder!
Thank you so much for reading and don’t forget to tag @roadtoiceland.is or @lost.in.iceland in your amazing photos!