Ok, so I’ve already discussed how to find the aurora, let’s now assume that you’ve been lucky and you’ve found it. How do you capture the moment?
On the one occasion that we went on a Northern Lights tour out of Reykjavik on our second night, I felt sorry for most of the people on the coach who were trying unsuccessfully to take picture after picture on their phones and cameras only to get a black sky or at best a slight green blur. This happened to be the first time I’d seen the aurora myself, but below is the very first picture I ever took of it. Not too bad, huh? I’ll show you how to do the same (and much better, too!).
I’ll caveat this by pointing out that I’m no photographer, however I did some serious research before heading to Iceland, and as a result I took some beautiful pictures that I’ll treasure forever. All it takes is having the right equipment and settings to capture the show, and then you are ready to play.
The first thing you need is a good camera, preferably one with decent sensors and the ability to take multiple lenses. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend large sums of money on a massive DSLR camera, as there are thankfully smaller, cheaper options that do a great job.
What I would say, is that if you are planning on buying a good camera to improve your photography then I would not skimp on researching your decision. Don’t just walk into a camera shop and buy what a sales assistant tells you to buy (but by all means take the advice and go home and research those models). Read lots of online reviews, and then read lots more. As you start to piece together your requirements, write them all down and make sure that the camera you end up getting either satisfies them all, or that you know the limitations you are agreeing to with your purchase.
I spent a long time looking and asked a lot of people before I finally committed to a Sony A6000, and I could not be happier. It’s a mirrorless camera, which in layman’s terms basically means it’s small and lightweight unlike a DSLR, yet has interchangeable lens functionality, and awesome specs that can stand up to many DSLRs. It’s a winner for me, and I’ve been so impressed with what it can do. It’s also not too expensive at around £450 with a 16-50mm kit lens (and good news now that the newest model, the Sony A6300 has been released, meaning the price may go down on the A6000 soon!).
One thing that will massively help you when photographing in low light settings (such as the conditions needed to see the aurora) is a good lens with the right specifications. The specs needed to capture the aurora are not dissimilar to those needed for astrophotography (although maybe less essential). Firstly a wide angle will fit more of the sky into the shot, and as the aurora tends to dance across the whole sky the more you can fit in, the better. What counts as a wide angle confusingly depends on the type of camera that you have (full frame or four thirds), but essentially if it’s less than 16mm then you’re winning.
The second aspect that is good to have is a low F-stop. F-stops are how ‘fast’ the lens is, or essentially how wide it can open in order to let in as much light as possible. If your lens is opening wide and capturing lots of light, then it can take in all of the light required to see the aurora or the stars more quickly, meaning you have to compromise less on other aspects of the picture also used for gathering light that might have drawbacks, such as a longer exposure or higher ISO. A low F-number means more light, so a lens with as low an F-number as possible is best (f 2.8 or below, ideally).
I personally own the Rokinon 12mm f2.0, which is an awesome lens! I bought it for astrophotography and capturing the aurora specifically, but once you start seeing the world through a wide-angle lens you stop being impressed by regular lenses – or at least I did! I ended up using it for basically the entire of our Iceland trip and the pictures it took were phenomenal, day and night. When you’re in a country that has beautiful landscapes in every direction for as far as the eye can see, then a lens that can capture a larger portion of the landscape in a winner every time. I love love love this lens. It’s also a steal (compared to the price of most lenses – a very expensive business!) at only £200.
A tripod is essential. Even if you have a super fast lens you’re going to need to do a long exposure, and even an exposure of 1 second will come out mega blurry and wobbly if the camera is hand held or so much as placed on top of a stationary object. The way to guarantee a stable camera with good results, plus an angle you actually want (rather than the angle from the top of that rock/fence/car bonnet) is to put your camera on a sturdy tripod. Plus, your camera and lens are expensive, placing them precariously on anything at night time in possibly windy conditions is a stupid idea and a quick way to break your equipment. That goes for a cheap nasty tripod as much as the above-mentioned rock!
I personally found a tripod to be the hardest thing of all to choose, mainly because there are so many and at some mega crazy price ranges, and I essentially wanted an excellent one for a budget price. You get what you pay for and tripods are no different. If you want a sturdy tripod with all the adjustable parts and angles under the sun but which packs down small enough to fit into a rucksack and barely weighs a thing, then prepare to say goodbye to several hundred pounds. I went on a friend’s recommendations in the end and spent £25 on this tripod. It doesn’t quite fit in my rucksack, but it definitely does the job and does it well, and for the price it is amazing!
Good memory card
You’ll want to take lots of pictures at as high a quality as possible (and preferably in RAW format) so that you can bring the best out of them once you get them on a PC. Shooting in RAW means capturing the most data within the image that you possibly can, and it makes a better finished picture. To be honest, with the aurora you wont always feel the need to edit the picture in any way, but there will be occasions when you’ll want to play around (if people are included in the shot for example, they’ll appear very dark until you expose the shadows a bit). A good memory card with a relatively large memory size is a useful thing to have, especially if you’re on a longer trip where you will be taking lots of other pictures too before you get the chance to load onto a PC. This is the one which I use.
Iceland at night tends to be much like Iceland at any other time of day; really really cold. Taking long exposures of the aurora on a camera requires standing still in the middle of the night for long periods. Do the maths, and bring thermals.
I already explained why I think a car is helpful to have on your hunt for the aurora. However whilst it’s not essential to get away from the city lights to see the aurora, you definitely need to get away from light pollution to photograph them. Whether you do this with a tour or in your own car, make sure you do it if you want to get some good shots.
This can be really helpful for framing shots, especially if you want to get people in. Trial and error works well too (trust me there will be lots of trial and error involved no matter what you do!), but looking through your camera’s viewfinder won’t show you too much during the night; you’ll have to wait till the long exposure has been taken to see what you’ve got. You might see the aurora if it’s bright enough, but if you want to see where your friend is standing in the foreground then giving them a small led to shine can avoid making them stand very still for 15 seconds only to find that you only caught the top of their head! Plus, once the aurora has gone away if you’re not thoroughly cold you can then have fun light painting!
I’ve already touched upon camera settings above, and the following will vary depending on all sorts of factors of where you are shooting, what time it is, how bright the aurora is and how fast the aurora is moving. Whatever you do, make sure you play around with settings (something I didn’t do enough of – basically because I was way too distracted by the beauty of the northern lights!) to get the best from your shots. The following however, is the basic starting point that you can’t go wrong from.
As low as possible, as discussed above. My lens is manual so I turn a dial to set it to f2.0, but it might also be a setting on your camera depending on the lens/camera combo that you have. I would say that it’s a fairly safe bet to always use the lowest f-stop that you can when shooting at night, because this allows you the flexibility to play around more with the other settings, but by all means play and find out for yourself (plus correct me if I’m wrong in the comments – I’m still learning after all!)
I would say an exposure of 5-15 seconds depending on how bright and fast moving the aurora is. The brighter it is and faster it moves, the shorter you should set the exposure. I was bad at doing this to be honest (again, massively distracted!), and most of my pictures are 15-second exposures. Take the below picture for an example; the sky was on fire with bright activity dancing everywhere. 15 seconds of the camera taking all of this light in and you have a crazy green mess. I still love the image, but it would have been improved with a shorter exposure time.
This one is definitely one to play around with to get the best setting, but 400-1200 is a good range to start off in. The lower ISO you use, the less noise there will be in your image (noise makes pictures look grainy). You shouldn’t need a crazy high ISO in order to shoot the aurora and so noise shouldn’t really be an issue, but it’s worth noting.
To get yourself in a shot
If you can, use the led tactic I already discussed with a friend to frame the shot, set your camera’s timer function for 10 seconds, get to where you need to be (carefully! No breaking an ankle on a bit of lava in the middle of the Icelandic countryside in the dead of night – a very unique yet surprisingly real risk) and then stand incredibly still! If you can’t frame it first, be prepared to do the above and then repeat several times until you’re actually in the frame and where you want to be! I talk from freezing cold experience.
So that’s it! Everything you need to know to find and photograph the aurora. I hope you’re as blessed as I was, and you’re able to get some amazing shots along the way.
Finally, something to remember: the pictures may be a lasting memory but they don’t do justice to the moment itself. Make sure you spent plenty of time enjoying the once in a lifetime experience before you, and don’t spend it all looking through a lens! So it’s ok to repeatedly take overexposed pictures by accident, because you were too busy running around like a mad person pointing at the sky and screaming in awe to actually pay attention to your camera, or not take pictures at all because you just want to watch the show. It’s best that way, I think :-)