Shooting the Northern Lights

Tips and techniques on how to achieve stunning images of the Northern Lights ....
Shooting the Northern Lights is on the top on many photographers wish list, it was for me and although I've had a few opportunities now, i keep wanting to go back and try it again....

In this blog I will share my work flow, this is intended to be a brief overview, showing my approach, camera settings and images I have taken using this approach. The images in this blog come from 2 trips to Iceland, 1 trip to Lofoten and 5 nights of Aurora activity.

Planning: To be honest the hardest part of photographing the northern lights is seeing them! You can be lucky and see them in the UK but more northern latitudes allow better viewing and a much higher chance of the sky filling displays. Iceland is an obvious destination. When in a suitable place use apps like Aurora combined with a decent weather app like Clear Outside, as for a display you need as little cloud as possible and a the right atmospheric conditions. The apps will let you know what you chances are for that night... With all techniques there are other techniques that different photographers will employ that will also give excellent result. This blog details my personal approach, I hope it gives some help tips ...

Of course sometimes you will just start to see them when it starts to get dark!

Part 1 equipment:

A tripod is essential. Yes you can balance a camera on a wall but really use a tripod!
A fast lens, F4 will work but f2.8 or lower is preferable
Any modern camera

To light paint or not to light paint? please don't, it won't look natural and will annoy all other photographers in the area!

Most images on this blog were shot with a sony a7r3 and tamron 17-28mm f2.8 lens

Part 2 camera settings and focusing:

Exact settings are impossible to give as the light levels will vary, this will change the length of exposure or ISO needed. The following is a guide:

sky: f2.8 iso 2000 13 seconds

I don't ever think you want to go longer than 13 seconds as stars will start to trail, others will disagree with me on this point but I don't believe the 500 or 400 or what ever rule, keep the exposure short and stars sharp, if you need more light up the iso! The Aurora can also move very fast and a long shutter speed will make it mushy! trust me a shorter shutter speed is better! The Aurora can also be very bright and can be blown out, so you will need to keep an eye on the light conditions and iso \ exposure time

Foreground f5.6 iso 2000 30 seconds

Focusing, to focus, lens on manual set to approx infinity. then in live view magnify to 100% find a star and adjust focus until it is pinsharp! Simple ... if you are planning a trip and haven't done this before I would recommend practising in your garden before you go! I also recommend being able to change settings in the dark, practice is the key here but it will help you to know where iso and shutter speed are without looking!

how wide....i use a 16-35 and recently a 17 - 28mm and have found these perfectly adequate

Simple scenes like this are achievable in one shot:

Grundarfjörður Habour, Iceland
iso 1000 28mm f2.8 8 seconds

more complicated scenes may require an additional shot for the foreground and one for the sky. This is done to allow a greater depth of field so a more detailed foreground will be sharper and can allow greater control over noise. As multiple foreground shots can be stacked for noise control....

Ramberg, Lofoten
Iso 2000 8 seconds f2.8 45mm
Iso 2000 f5.6 30 seconds 45mm
2 images combined, one for the sky, one for the foreground

Part 3 composition

The lights can look great on their own, just photographing the shape of them in the sky can really be effective. include a bit of ground to "weigh the image down" however this kind of image works because of the beauty of the lights so make these the main part....

Road outside Fudir, Iceland Grundarfjörður Habour, Iceland
iso 3200 16mm f2.8 13 seconds iso 1000 28mm f2.8 8 seconds

Ramberg, Lofoten
Iso 800 35mm f2.8 4 seconds

Grundarfjörður Habour, Iceland
iso 1000 28mm f2.8 8 seconds

If there is no logical land mark try to be creative and involve the surroundings as best as you can, think of this as any other form of landscape photography, normal train of thinking should apply. You cannot always be in the ideal place when the lights show. One my first trip to iceland the lights showed on possible the worst night, I was staying in a hotel in area I was completely unfamiliar with so had no clue where to head, so I just drove to where it was dark ....

Road outside Fludir, Iceland
Sky: iso iso1000 f2.8 10 seconds 19mm
Road: 2 shots stacked for NR iso 4000 f4 30 seconds19mm

Road Outside Fludir, Iceland
iso 2000 19mm f2.8 10 seconds i shot cropped to Pano format, same evening as shot above

Milky Way, Aurora and mountain tops, Snæfellsnes, Iceland

Mountain pass, Snæfellsnes, Iceland
Actually taken at a famous landmark (mountain rescue hut) with my back to it as the lights were sooo much better behind! Look around!!!
Iso 2500 17mm f2.8 8 seconds

Of course a landmark makes the process of composition easier!

Mountain rescue hut, Snæfellsnes, Iceland (lights weren't too bad this way!)
FGIso 4000 17mm f5.6 30 seconds
Sky iso 4000 17mm f2.8 8 seconds

Black Church, Budir, Snæfellsnes, Iceland
FG 2 shouts blended NR iso 6400 f4 30 seconds
Sky iso 4000 f2.8 10 seconds

Mount Kirkjufell Snæfellsnes, Iceland
FG 2 shots blended for NR each ISO 6400 f5.6 30 seconds
SKY iso 2000 f2.8 10 seconds

Mount Kirkjufell Snæfellsnes, Iceland
FG 2 shots blended for NR each ISO 6400 f5.6 30 seconds
SKY iso 2000 f2.8 10 seconds

Mount Kirkjufell Snæfellsnes, Iceland
2 image panorama each single shot
Iso 3200 23mm f2.8 10 seconds

Mount Kirkjufell Snæfellsnes, Iceland
single image iso 2000 21mm f2.8 15 seconds (i know ousting it!)
Clouds can be your friends, add drama and layers to the sky!

Part 4 post production:

Mount Kirkjufell Snæfellsnes, Iceland
iso 3200 21mm f2.8 10 seconds

As you can see the main issue in the RAW is the greens are way too green and the image is too warm, The main focus of my processing of Aurora images is to remove any orange colour cast from nearby lights and desaturate the green. My aim is to make the image as natural as possible. Shadows are raised and some clarify and contrast added. Thats it really! less is more!

And yes there will be noise in some shots but it doesn't really print, all these thumb nails are printable at A2 with no visible noise.

I hope you found this useful and it has inspired you to head somewhere to take your own images, its not difficult and the results can be awesome!
Grundarfjörður Habour