Photographing northern lights.

Where

The best areas to see and photograph the northern lights are the areas that lay around 70 degrees latitude. With other words, places like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia are the best countries to see this weather phenomenom. Lofoten is a paradise for this kind of photography because it's not that cold in winter, and some great photospots are laying towards the north.

When the northern ligts are very active, it's also possible to see them in other countries, for instance in the Benelux (place where I live). However, I think that photographing the northern lights in the Benelux (or other countries that lay more to the south) is bullshit. You will never see those awesome structures, and you will never see it dance in the sky! The only thing that you might see is a faint red/green glow that doesn't look impressive. So go north if you want to see it!!!

When (period)

They say the chances to see it are the highest around the new moon of october and around the new moon of march. My favourite month between those two is march. Because in march, the chances of snowy landscapes is much bigger in the northern countries. Why snow? The Landscape you are photographing will be much brighter with snow, and this brighter landscape works perfect with lady aurora. So around new moon in march is my favourite! But in general you can see the northern lights in each night that it get's dark. This means you can see it from the end of august untill half april.

I prefer to shoot the northern lights around new moon, because you can also see weak aurora. Shooting with moonlight is also possible off course, it can be great to light up your landscape, but it can also be a pain in the ass by creating shadows.

When to go out

In theory, between 9pm and 1am chances are the biggest. But it's also likely to see them before and after those hours, as long as it's pretty dark! So don't limit yourself to these hours...

There is only one thing you have to keep in mind before you go out! How much clouds are there? I prefer weak northern lights and no clouds instead of strong northern lights and clouds. Clouds disturb the curves and structures of the aurora, making your picture less impressive! If the sky is full with clouds, don't go out because you will not see the aurora. So instead of watching and following the kp-index online, you could better follow a weather website!

Off course, when you are going to one of the northern countries to see the northern lights, you want to see it strong and dancing in the sky. Don't get disappointed when you only see it in a weak form. Weak northern lights are much more static, so it is much easier to get a good composition with it (because you have time!). A lot of times weak aurora is also much nicer on a picture!

How

Weak aurora:

  • First thing you have to do is set your lens to manual and focus near infinity. By doing this your background, the sky and most of your foreground will be sharp.
  • Second thing you want to do is get a good composition! For finding a composition I use ISO 6400 or higher, f2.8 and a shutterspeed at around 5 seconds. The shot will not be good (lot of noise and probably to dark), but you get an idea of the composition, and you only lose 5 seconds a shot, so after a minute you have a perfect composition!
  • Third thing I do is change my settings to ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 (if it is really dark), f2.8, 30 seconds and start shooting. If the aurora becomes stronger I shorten my exposure time.

Strong aurora:

  • First thing you have to do is set your lens to manual and focus near infinity. By doing this your background, the sky and most of your foreground will be sharp.
  • Second thing you want to do is get a good composition! Just look through your viewfinder to set a good composition!
  • Change the settings to ISO 2500 or ISO 3200, f2.8, 10 seconds. If the aurora is really strong and you lose the nice curves and structures, shorten your exposure time untill you see those nice curves on your camera!

Panorama

When you are shooting the northern lights, and the aurora disappears for a while or is less strong, use that time to level your tripod! So that when the light becomes stronger again, you can take panoramic pictures! It's easy when aurora is weak, but also try it with strong aurora! Photoshop does an amazing job stiching these images! Also when the aurora curves doesn't match exactly...

Gear

As a canon photographer, I use a canon 6D with a samyang (Rokinon) 14mm f2.8 lens. This is a relatively cheap set-up. A second hand 6D and a new samyang lens can be bought together for 1000 euro. If you want better stuff, I suggest buying the Sigma 14mm f1.8 lens (1600 euro). I honestly think that's the best lens for astrophotography at the moment. The best camera at the moment for astro is the Sony A7 III (2000 euro). You can also check that on a website called www.dxomark.com!

Tips

  • It seems obvious, but waiting on location is the best way to increase your chances to see and photograph the northern lights. Sometimes the aurora will be only visible for a very short time. If you wait on a popular location, you will be there before a lot of other people arrive! Lots of people means lots of flashlights and lots of ruined shots.
  • If you wait untill march, you can see the milky way bow at the end of the night. An awesome combination with the northern lights!
  • One thing I recently learned! Set up your white balance manual to 3200-3300. An auto white balance will make everything too yellow, and it's not that easy to find the right colours afterwards.
  • If you don't have an interesting foreground, just use yourself! Who doesn't want a selfie with northern lights.
  • One of the easiest compositions, definitely at night is a reflection shot! Big advantage of a reflection shot and northern lights is that you see a double amount of green light in your shot!
  • When the landscape is really dark, use the time when aurora isn't great to make an extra long exposure for the foreground with BULB mode. This way you can make a combination of 1 shot with a good exposed foreground, and 1 shot with cool looking northern lights.
  • It's probably cold when you are shooting, with thin gloves you can still work with the buttons on your camera.
  • Never trust the Kp-index. I have shot beautifull northern lights with a Kp < 1. And also saw nothing with a Kp = 4. The only thing you have to keep in mind is the clouds!

 Combination of weak northern lights and the mily way bow!

Thanks for reading this article and let me know what you think of it!

sven broeckxComment