January 31, 2015
Over the past month I have been embracing another mission and am back in the glorious land of the Swedes, in the mix of snow, lots of dogs, cold cold temperatures and happy times. I have been taking husky tours up in the Swedish Arctic, snowboarding in the backyard, fighting frostbite and gazing at the Northern lights. Throughout our nightly Northern lights trips, I am surprised how many people try to photograph the northern lights with their iphone or have a great camera but no idea how to get the epic northern lights on screen, hence I have been providing tips to our guests on settings they should use. Hopefully, this blog post sheds some light on a few simple settings for anyone else heading out to view the Northern Lights and wanting to capture them forever.
Ramp your ISO, most cameras have great sensors that allow you to ramp your ISO up without comprising quality. Even so, you don't need to crank it all the way to the top, 1600 is good starting point and will fit most occasions when shooting the lights. If the night is really bright, you can lower the ISO for cleaner images so a bit of trial and error and knowledge of your camera's quality is needed.
Open up your aperture to the widest setting, this means dialing the F-stop down to the lowest number possible. I shoot the lights with a 35mm prime f/1.8 and typically have it dialed down to f/1.8. This enables the most amount of light through to your lens giving your camera the best opportunity to capture those green red and purple hues.
A slow shutter is essential, around 2 – 4 seconds is a good place to start and you can lengthen it up to 30 seconds if needed. Shutter speed requires some trial and error, depending on the strength of the lights and the brightness of the night. Keep in mind that shorter shutter speeds will capture individual beams, lasers and clusters of light whilst a longer shutter speed captures more action integrating the lights into a banner of green that stretches across the sky.
A tripod is an essential part of shooting the lights. A great tip for travelers or if you don’t have a tripod available, pack a bag of rice or pasta when you go out. You will be able to sit your camera on the bag of rice with the ability to angle your camera enough to frame your shot and let it stay there. Whatever method you use, the camera needs to be stable and able to sit still for the long exposure.
Most DSLR’s have an option to flip up the mirror. This tiny movement of the mirror flipping up when the shutter is released can cause enough movement to create a soft or blurred image.
Using a remote shutter release avoids having to touch the camera creating any unwanted movement.
Another tip, if you are unable to use a remote shutter release, set the self-timer for 2 seconds so the camera can settle after you press the shutter.
Taking photos of the night sky means you will need to switch to manual focus.
You need to focus for infinity to get the stars and aurora lights sharp, however, new lenses are actually able to focus past infinity and thus you can’t just simply turn your focus ring all the way to the end and expect to get a sharp image.
Two methods to focus for the northern lights are to pre-focus your camera using the autofocus by finding a light source in the distance, some street lights, houses etc. and once focused switch back to manual focus.
The second option is to use your live view and zoom right in on the moon or brightest start, then manually focus until you get a perfectly sharp image.
Northern lights come out at night, are best seen in the coldest parts of the world and will require some time standing around both waiting for your camera to work its magic, and for the lights to start the next show. Dress warm, take extra clothes, hot coffee, whiskey, anything to warm you up once you are out there.
Head out of the city, away from the major light pollution and get north. If the lights are weak you won’t want the light pollution being between you and the aurora. Even if your eyes can’t pick up a lot of green action, your camera is amazing at capturing the colors in the sky.
There is a bunch of science behind the aurora’s. Other than telling made up stories of what the arctic communities believe the northern lights are, quite simply put; they are energy charged particles emitted from the sun. These particles burn up and create light when they collide with the gases in the very outer parts of our atmosphere.
If you want to learn more about the science behind the northern lights, I found an easy to read an article explaining more. http://www.northernlightscentre.ca/northernlights.html
Keep an eye on the solar activity before you head out to capture the northern lights.
No matter what the solar activity, you need clear skies to see the lights so if its cloudy and snowing, your better off chilling out and waiting for the epic powder day that will inevitably follow.
Hope that helps anyone in need of some info. Lastly, print your epic photos nice and large for your wall.
Warm hands, Crisp Shots
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