Photographing The Auroras

If you enjoy nature and natural phenomena there are few things as exciting as tracking down and viewing the auroras weather the aurora borealis (the northern lights) or the aurora australis (the southern lights) in the flesh.  Whilst seeing them is amazing it is something which everyone also strives to take a photo of allowing them to cherish the memory…  And to be honest they look even more spectacular in a good photo, when you can expose the image to levels of light you cannot see with your own eyes!

Iceland Northern Lights 3

Location:

The first thing you need to do of course is be in the right place to see the auroras…  They cannot be seen everywhere in the world!

If you want to see the southern lights they can be seen in some parts of Australia (especially Southern Australia and Tasmania), New Zealand and Antarctica.

If however you want a much better chance of seeing the auroras the Northern Lights can be seen in many more locations in the Northern hemisphere including Canada, Northern parts of the USA, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, some northern parts of Siberia and Scotland (sometimes even Wales & England in the northern parts).  However it is often stated that the best places to see them are Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

Iceland Northern Lights 5

Timing:

Technically there is a chance to see them most times of the year (as long as the nights are dark) but there are periods where it is far more likely – generally from August to April.  However the further away from the magnetic poles you are the more intense the lights need to be, so in areas such as northern England, Wales and Australia there are very few days of the year where it is possible, and the vast majority of people living in these areas will most likely never experience the auroras in their own back yards…  Location and timing work fairly hand in hand!

Environment:

Once you have got the right country and the timing is perfect you need to make sure that everything else is working in your favour.  The first time I caught a glimpse of the northern lights was while I was staying at the Reykjavik Lights hotel on the outskirts of Reykjavik, Iceland.  They were very weak and hazy because you need to find yourself a spot with as little light pollution as possible.  To do this you can either use a tour which will have their favourite sights in mind (however if you want photos be weary of boat tours as you will not get a steady shot due to the swell), stay in a remote hotel / camp site or make the decision to hunt them yourself by going for a drive or hike.

It is great to see this phenomenon with as little interference as possible however if you want a great shot its ok to just point the camera straight up in to the sky – however if you can incorporate some beautiful scenery as well you will be on to a winner of a photo.  I cannot speak from experience for many of the countries however Iceland is littered with just these types of scenes.  I am aware of beautiful northern lights photos taken at þingvellir National Park and over looking some of its majestic waterfalls…  One location I would love to one day return to would be to photograph the aurora with Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes peninsula as a backdrop…  Imagine this with the northern lights:

Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes peninsula BW

The final and most crucial environmental factor however is the weather.  You cannot see them if you have a high amount of low cloud cover, with medium level clouds also interfering with them, but often still giving you good if slightly hazy breaks to see them in.  High level clouds are however often not such a huge problem.  Sometimes it can be difficult to see clouds in the sky – a tell tale sign that it is a good night for seeing the aurora is if you look up and see a full sky of stars – no stars mean clouds!

Iceland Northern Lights 2

A great tool for seeing what your chances of seeing the aurora are is an aurora forecast:

Setting Up Your Camera:

If you want a good photo of the lights, this is your most important step!  You will need some basic equipment (besides a decent camera – generally speaking  simple compact camera isn’t going to cut it – the photos on this page were taken with a Nikon D3200); a tripod, a shutter button (preferably wired as they usually work quicker and are cheaper), plenty of space on your SD card(s), plenty of battery life and maybe a flask of coffee!

Iceland Northern Lights 1

Now to get YOUR perfect photo it is important to know what you like and what you are after so use the following advice as a starting point and play around – especially with exposure time:

  • Set your camera mode to “manual”
  • Set your aperture to 3.5 or lower
  • Set your ISO to 800
  • Set your focus (also in manual mode) to infinity
  • Experiment with exposure times… 5 seconds can capture some images, but the higher you go (I have had mixed results anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds), the more colour and background you will get

Add Some Life:

To capture the whole spectacle with a little extra life why not press the shutter again and again every time an exposure completes, processes and your camera allows you to click again.  When you get home you can string them all together for an animated gif file.  This is a simple and fairly well compressed file format.  The quality after the compression is not great but it does allow you to make a very simple moving image with a smaller file size than a true video file, making them better for website usage.

northern lights iceland

Making an animated gif is not expensive or difficult.  The one above was made by uploading all of the images to http://gifmaker.me – You are able to choose a variety of different settings, with my one being made at 50% size, animated at a rate of 100 milliseconds with the repeat number set to zero which means it is on an infinite loop.  To give it a little bit of flow I chose to then re-upload the photos numbered in reverse to allow the animation to flow back and forth, however this is not to everyone’s taste.

Just remember!

Don’t get caught up with just trying to get that perfect shot or sequence of shots (and this applies to ALL photography whilst on holiday or at home)!  When you see the aurora, the beauty of it is all around you and you need to keep your eyes on them…  Sometimes they don’t last long.  Whilst a photo can last a life time – it’s no good if you spend all your time setting up and miss them altogether as you are not focussing on what’s important.  Get your camera ready – test it – and point it where you want to shoot… the joy of the shutter control remote is that not only does it keep your shot steady but it also leaves you to watch on as your camera does all the work!

For most people this is never seen or is a once in a life time opportunity – seize it!

Markus

A lot of people enjoy going abroad without any real plans about what they will do whilst out there – however I am very much of the school of thought which says plan as much as you can and leave yourself some time for exploring (however make sure you always give yourself a chance to explore).

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