NORTHERN LIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Nordic Vision offers several photo tours to destinations where chances on photographing the Northern Lights are very good.

Aurora Borealis Lofoten - ©Jan SmitAurora Borealis Vesterålen - ©Marten Bril

Aurora Borealis Iceland - ©Theo Bosboom

 

 

 

One of the most amazing and beautiful visual phenomena in our atmosphere in the northern regions are the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Many people have the desire to ever witness the Northern Lights. Seeing Northern Lights is in itself already spectacular, but it is definitely interesting for photographers. On this page we will inform you on the phenomenon of Aurora Borealis and the photographic possibilities it gives. Obviously there is much more to tell about the photographic opportunities of the northern lights, like making a time-lapse movie.
We then would like to invite you to join one of our photo tours and make use of the knowledge and experience of our photographers on site.

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis - ©Marten BrilThe origin of this often moving and colourful phenomenon is associated with an unexpected event on the sun, a few days before. The sun has quiet and active periods during approximately 11-year cycles. The last active period was 2001 and so the next most active time was expected to be in or around 2012. Although we experienced some wonderful northern lights last winter, scientists of NASA  do expect even better chances during the winter of 2013/2014. To see the auroras an active sun is needed. When the sun is going through a quiet period, then the northern lights are only to be seen in a small area around the magnetic pole, called the auroral zone. During an active period of the sun so called coronal holes are often present and these coronal holes cause the northern lights. Electrons and protons in the solar wind, which collide with rarefied gas molecules and atoms in our atmosphere, cause the Aurora Borealis. Solar wind is always present, but speed, variations in density and magnetic polarity in combination with our own Earth magnetic field are responsible for the visual effects. Auroras can be static as in an arc on the northern horizon or dynamic in the sense that they dance in the air with vertical structures and patterns. The aurora season near the Arctic Circle runs from about September to April. During the other months, the nights are not dark enough to see the Auroras. At the top of the cycle, when the sun is very active, it is possible that even in southern Europe Northern Lights can be seen. If you want to be able to experience the northern lights, conditions must be good. In addition to the active sun, a clear sky is a very important factor. Our aurora destinations are located in coastal areas. The advantages of these areas, especially for photographers, are that clear skies will be reached easier due to Atlantic winds and overnight temperatures are much more favourable compared to Finnish Lapland or other places of the coast. An excellent place to get information about the natural phenomenon Aurora Borealis is the Polarlightcenter in Laukvik in Lofoten. During our photo tour to Lofoten a lecture by initiator Rob Stammes is included (in English).

Northern lights over Jokulsarlon Icelanc - ©Theo Bosboom

Photography and Northern Lights (thanks to photographer Jan Smit)

Any digital SLR is suitable to photograph the northern lights. For photographing the northern lights the possibility of shooting at high ISO’s, and thus the quality of the camera, is of great importance. The latest models of almost all camera brands have good high ISO’s with in-camera noise reduction and long shutter noise reduction. If you only shoot in RAW some settings will have no effect. ISO settings between 400-1600 generally give excellent results, although the lower the better. The length of the exposure depends your lens.

Tripod
Using a sturdy tripod is essential for Aurora photography. A high tripod is preferred because generally you will be photographing upwards. Leg covers of foam will help against the night chill.

Lenses
These are some qualities in lenses that turn out well at Aurora photography:
– wide angle
– fast (large aperture, F/2.8 or larger)
– sharp
– minimal vignetting

Remote switch
This is an essential part in order to create a sharp image. Pressing the shutter ensures vibration and this will surely shake your camera when using slow shutter speeds.

Hand warmers
Since it is always difficult using gloves while photographing, hand warmers come in very handy to warm up your hands.

Headlamp
A headlamp is very convenient to bring. During the night, even with Northern Lights , is will obviously be very dark. With a headlamp you can operate your camera with two hands and still see what you’re doing. Just be aware of photographers standing next to you.

Remove filters from your lens
When photographing the Northern Lights it is important to take of any filters of your lens. Filters will cause rings in your images.

Aurora Borealis Iceland - ©Theo Bosboom

Focusing
With the old lenses this was easy. You set the focus to infinity and you got good results. But the new lenses have some more difficulty with this and therefore we give you these steps:

– Set the camera to single point focus
– Before it gets dark, you can focus on a distant point such as a mountain far away
– Provide for a border with good contrast in order to be able to focus with autofocus
– Set your camera to manual focus
– To ensure that there are no buttons or settings changed in the middle of the night, you can put some tape on your lens
– If you have not done this, you can focus on the moon if there is one to be seen, otherwise you can use Live-View

This is a convenient method when using the Live-View option:
– Put your camera manually to infinity
– Search for a light spot in the sky and put it in the middle
– Place the camera on Live-View and zoom in on the object
– Rotate the focus ring until you have the desired result. Sometimes this is difficult.
– Turn off Live-View and start shooting

Batteries, cold conditions, memory cards
– SanDisk has a line of memory cards created specifically for cold conditions
– Camera batteries: Make sure you carry spare batteries
– Store them in a warm place (inside pockets) to avoid your batteries from draining very quickly
– Using slow shutter speeds will drain the batteries faster
– You can also keep your memory card and battery in your pocket and wait for the Northern Lights to appear

Histogram, exposure, file format
With the digital age some new opportunities have arisen with which you might consider.

Histogram: Read your histogram. Seeing your photos on the back of the camera will give you a good idea of the image. But an LCD screen can make you think your photo is lighter than it actually is during a dark night. Therefore it is good to know how to use the histogram.

Good exposure: Good exposure is important. If you shoot in RAW, you may think you can straighten the exposure in post-production, but this also affects the amount of noise in the picture. It is therefore very important to expose as accurately as possible.

File format: Shoot in RAW. Even if you do not know how to deal with RAW files, it still is better to shoot in this file format. One day you’ll be grateful to yourself. It will give you more possibilities afterwards during post-production. Optionally, you can shoot both in  RAW and JPG if your camera supports this.

On automatic mode or …
– If there is much difference in intensity of the Northern Lights, and you have a fast lens, you can set the aperture priority mode. Otherwise you can use bulb or the manual mode. This all depends on the circumstances, but it is good to check with your histogram.
– Set your camera to Aperture Priority
– Put your lens at its maximum aperture
– generally a little bit over exposure will give a good result (1/3rd or 2/3rd stop +)
– When using Bulb mode, at least use a remote switch. The Bulb mode gives you the possibility to make exposures beyond 30 seconds, just as long as you want (note that noise in your image will increase).

Check list

Aurora Borealis - Vesterålen - ©Marten Bril1. Shoot in RAW
2. Turn noise reduction on for long exposures
3. Set the brightness of your LCD screen on low
4. Remove the filter from your lens
5. Focus your lens in advance or use the live view function
6. Use your histogram
7. Take spare batteries and memory cards with you
8. Use a large tripod
9. Use a remote switch (preferably not wireless)
10. Check the aurora forecast
11. Find a suitable location during daytime
12. Do not breath on the eyepiece of your camera
13. Use the lens hood to prevent frost on your lens
14. While waiting for the Northern Lights it is best to point your lens downwards to avoid frost on your lens
15 Use a micro fiber cloth to remove frost from your lens

Websites:
www.spaceweather.com (with ‘current auroral oval “and sunspots)
www.auroraskystation.se (webcam Abisko Sweden with photo every 5 minutes 24 hours a day)

We are very much looking forward to welcome you on our photo tours!