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How to take great pictures of the Northern lights

How to take great pictures of the Northern lights

During the cold, dark months of winter, this has surely become one of the hottest Nordic activity tours no matter if you decide to opt for the self-drive hunt or take an organized tour.

I am not a professional photographer and I can definitely not call myself an expert, but I can share a bit of my photographic knowledge with you, based on what I experimented on my own while visiting Lapland, Finland.

Ok, so, first thing first, you need to be prepared to stay up all night and just press a button. For that you need active Aurora Borealis and a clear sky, to start with. Then the next important thing you need, several layers of warm clothing, some hot tea, loads of patience and obviously a camera. Without a decent camera, you can have all the others, but will not help at all.

Now, bear in mind that this is beginner guide since as I said, I have never done this before, I had a new camera, and I never stayed in -23 degrees for more than 5 minutes.

Northen Lights Lapland.jpg

Step 1: Tripod

You will need a tripod in order to take steady and clear photos. Mount your camera on the tripod and start with the settings.

I hear you, dear reader, why do you need a tripod? Well, it’s pretty simple, you need to be able to have the camera still for even 30 seconds, how will you do that? Will you hold your breath? Neah, it will not work, you will for sure move your camera even for a second or less and it will make all your photos blurry. Therefore, use the tripod!

Step 2: A Remote Release Shutter

Here you have multiple options, either invest in a remote shutter release, which can be somewhere between 10 to 50 EUR, either use the camera settings and set it up to 2 seconds self-timer, which will not guarantee not causing blur pictures and also, the third option, the one that I use, find a FREE app. Depending on the brand (of the camera), iPhone users have a few of these options, you just need a Wi-Fi connection with your camera and you are good to go.

Step 3:  Replacement Batteries

Normally not needed for a 3-4 hours night out Northern Lights hunting. But, if your camera is highly technical or if you will be using an app, you may be needing 1-2 extra batteries. Also, low temperatures, like the ones I had will make your battery just vanish after few pictures, so have replacements otherwise you will be sorry for not having enough pictures. Remember, this phenomenon is quite unique, you don’t want it to go to waste and not have it immortalized because you didn’t buy that extra battery.

Ok. Let’s talk camera now!

Northern Lights.jpg

Step 4: Setting Up Your Camera to Manual Mode

My Sony Alpha has Image Stabilization, which after a few tries I turn it off, and it made wonders to my camera, so if you, dear reader, have this option on your camera, please do the same. It will save you so much time and energy to try to figure it out, why the image is not crystal clear as you want.

Also, I do not have that, but, I can’t stress enough, please, set that Flash to OFF. That will not help your pictures in any way!

Ok, now, we are almost ready to get those amazing pictures. Again, with the why, dear reader? Yes, you have to set your camera to manual because will not be able to see automatically in the dark, thus having the camera setup other than manual is useless. Your lens will automatically and continuously zoom in and out in a failed attempt to find some focus in the dark.

Step 5: ISO Settings

Ok, now that we sort out the basics, let’s talk fancy photographic words. What does ISO do, is most likely the next question. Well, in my basic understanding, this is something that controls the light sensitivity from your camera. The higher ISO, the lower natural light you need to have when taking the picture. From what I noticed, the higher the ISO, also the lower the quality of the picture, so do not exaggerate. My camera goes up to 25600, so I wonder if I will ever get to use it! But, anyhow, for a good picture of Northern lights, I would suggest an ISO of 1600, which will provide sufficient lighting.

Step 6:  Aperture = f-stop

I already know what you will ask, so I will go ahead and try again to explain in my basic understanding of what I think aperture is. Also, called f-stop is the function which tells you how wide the lens will open and basically how much light you will get through your lens. It goes indirectly proportional to the lighting, so, basically, the lower the aperture is the biggest is the opening of your lens. Weird, right? At least this is how it worked for me, and while trying a few times, I noticed that f-2,8 is the perfect option in terms of shooting the Northern lights. In conclusion, the more ambient light you have, the larger the opening of your lens should be, therefore set the aperture low so you can manage to get as many details as possible since the lights are constantly moving on the sky. So, from f-2,8 to as low as your camera or lens can take.

Step 7: Shutter speed

This is basically the exposure time your lens are opened and absorbing the light. What I noticed is that during the night, I had to adjust a few times, but I would say 20 seconds it will be a good start. This one is not that complicated, just try it and adjust in time. If you keep it between 15 and 25 seconds when the lights are moving slow and up to 10 then they are moving fast, you should be good! 

Step 8: Zoom and Focus

Dear reader, I can hear you say, “my camera has auto-focus and I don’t need to worry about this”. I can only tell you, it will not work! Therefore, zoom out to the lowest mm setting your lens can go to. I would suggest pre-setting your focus during the day if possible. If not then just zoom in on the Moon or a star, set the focus and then zoom out. Some cameras, have the infinity option (∞), which is great, but don’t forget to test it in advance, it may not be exact. And always zoom out completely, as the Northern Lights take a pretty large part of the sky, and you would like to capture as much of it as you can.

Last Step. Step 9: Check the Aurora Activity

On the day you plan to start hunting check the Northern Lights Activity using one of the following resources. When checking aurora activity, you’ll want to look at the Kp-Index which ranges from 0-9 with 0 being low aurora activity and 9 being the greatest.

Space Weather Live OVATION Auroral Forecast provides some great insight on the current forecast; they also provide a multi-day outlook on their Aurora Forecast Page.

Ok, and now what?

Northern Lights Green.jpg

I would suggest not to do it like me, even though you think you are a fast learner, in theory, everything seems easy, but the practice is another story so try to figure out all your settings in advance. So, get to know your camera and your manual settings very well, once you start hunting the Northern lights, you can just set everything up and have some tests to see if anything needs to be adjusted. If the image is too bright, lower the shutter speed or ISO. If the image is too dark, put higher shutter speed or ISO. It’s not really complicated, but you want to have this knowledge beforehand.

Now that you know what to do, go hunt those amazing lights and don’t forget to tag me on Instagram or my hashtag #iamfoodietraveler, so I can see your amazing pictures.

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