How to photograph the Aurora
How to photograph the Aurora
When and where
Tromso County offers everything you could wish for landscape photography: fjords, mountains, valleys, frozen lakes and snow-covered trees. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination. Winter season in Northern Norway can give you the perfect chance to photograph the majestic Northern Lights!
“There is no more uplifting natural phenomenon than the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Visible throughout the long night of the Arctic winter from October to March, they dance across the sky in green or white curtains of light, shifting in intensity and taking on forms that seem to spring from a child’s vivid imagination. While there’s no guarantee that the Northern Lights will appear at any given time, if you are lucky enough to see them, it’s an experience that will live with you forever.” (Lonely Planet, Norway in detail)
Places North of the Arctic Circle are defined by polar day and polar night throughout the year. In summertime, the sun will not set for about three months (June – July – August) so there is no darkness at night: Polar Day.
In wintertime, the sun will not rise above the horizon for about three months (November – December – January) so there is no direct daylight at daytime: Polar Night.
In this period, from autumn (September) to springtime (March), you can photograph the Northern Lights.
Preparation equals experience
Observing the Northern lights might be the most incredible experience of your life time, so we want you to enjoy it to the fullest and also be able to capture some great photographs of the incredible phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis.
Before going out into the dark, cold winter night, it is important to prepare both yourself and your camera on a few important matters. As it is important to both chase and witness the Aurora throughout the whole night, as you will never know for sure when it will appear, it is a challenge to endure the cold winter nights up in the Arctic North (often temperatures below -25℃).
Basic advice on setting up your camera
Northern Lights are best photographed with a digital camera put on a tripod, in manual mode (both lens and body) in order to change several settings such as shutter speed, diaphragm, ISO, lens focus and the shutter-release.
Tripod & stability
If you are in possession of a tripod, be sure to bring it along with you. If you do not own a tripod yourself, try and find out if you could borrow one from a friend / if the company you are joining provides them / if you can rent one at an outdoor shop around town. A tripod will provide you the stability you need for photographing the Lights in manual mode.
If you use the automatic mode (marked as A or ) your camera will try to measure the incoming light continuously in order to automatically give you the right settings. In case of night time photography (darkness) this option becomes irrelevant and will be of no use since certain specific settings (shutter speed, diaphragm and ISO) are required.
Also your lens is better used in manual mode (if possible) as it will try and focus on a certain spot in the distance, difficult to find/impossible to focus on. Because of this, it is better to have the lens manually focused on infinitum.
Northern Lights can have different density therefore the light can be displayed in different intensities. At some point brighter and faster than others. Therefor it is important to be able to change the shutter speed and be flexible with this setting. For night photography it is important to keep the shutter open for multiple seconds, to bring in more light. Therefor the use of a tripod is required. The used range could go from 0.5 seconds to 20 seconds, depending on the Aurora display and artistic results you want to have. The faster the shutter speed (0,5 seconds to 5 seconds), you will more likely capture the dancing lights sharply, the longer the shutter speed (5 seconds to 20 seconds) it will create more vague, blurred lights. Have a look at the result, test what shutter speed is optimal. Besides the shutter speed, as your camera is in manual mode, you can also change the other settings to have the desired result.
The diaphragm decides how much light is being registered. The lower the f-number (f/1.4 – f/2.8 or f/5.6) the wider the opening of the diaphragm, the more light will be registered.
The ISO-setting (International Organisation of Standardisation) will define the sensibility of registration of the image when received on the digital sensor: the higher the ISO-number the more sensitivity (the more noise it will give to your image). This number should be nicely balanced out with the shutter speed if photographing the Northern Lights. If you shoot with a long shutter speed (5 seconds to 20 seconds), you balance out the incoming light with lowering the sensitivity (ISO 100 – 1600). If you shoot with a fast shutter speed (0,5 seconds to 5 seconds) you will need to balance out the incoming light with adding more sensitivity (ISO 1600 and up). Again, this feature is depending on the desired result.
When suggested settings are used (long shutter speeds and open diaphragm), your camera will get sensible for any possible (little) movement such as simply pressing the release button. Because of this, it is recommended to use a delayed shutter release by using the timer (2 seconds delayed) or the function itself of ‘delayed shutter release’ if available in the menu. This will prevent any shaking / unsharpness or movement in the image when taking a shot.
If you have a camera with changeable lenses, the use of a wide angle lens is recommended. Fixed lenses: f.e 14mm-24mm-35mm (numbers will vary by brand of camera/lens system/crop sensor) or zoom lenses with a changeable range: f.e. 14mm- 70mm.
Be sure to use the most wide angle possible, in order to photograph bigger parts of the night sky, as northern lights might move quickly across from one side to the other.
Last important features
– You can play around with the white balance setting to find the perfect white point in order to project the correct colours (as seen) to your image.
– The battery of your camera is not standing cold temperatures very well. Be safe and bring a couple of spare ones as your might get surprised with a sudden empty battery during the night. Don’t let this bad luck get in your way.
– Same idea for your memory card. The amount of photos you will take, if a successful night filled with Aurora, can add up very fast as you probably will get fascinated with the results on your screen, wanting to create as many memories as possible.
– The use of on-camera-flashlight is not recommended. It will badly burn out anything that is in your close proximity. If you do want to light up some details (water, stones, trees) or people in front of your lens, you can use an off-camera flashlight or a head lamp.
– Think of composing your photograph:
«A well composed landscape in which the Northern Lights are one of the elements is nicer than a Northern Lights photo in which the landscape is clearly secondary.” (Ole Salomonsen, Tromso Travel Magazine) If traveling in group or being out on your own, respect the others around you: Unwritten rules and customs:
Unwritten rules include showing consideration with headlamp and vehicle lights and not leaving any rubbish. When you visit places like Tromsø for photography, it’s important to be considerate to others. If you are driving a car, so remember to switch off the motor and lights. There may be other photographers nearby who you don’t see, and you run the risk of inadvertently damaging their photos by un- necessary use of headlamps and car lights. Be considerate to others and nature. Remember to leave nothing but footprints and to take all rubbish with you when you leave. (Ole Salomonsen, Tromso Travel Magazine)