I traveled to the far north of Norway in January of 2016 hoping to see and photograph the Northern Lights. I saw them faintly on the drive from the airport to my first Airbnb for the night, but by the time I arrived, they had retired for the night. Furthermore, British Airways was holding my tripod hostage at London Heathrow, so I would have had to jury rig something with uncertain results. Despite spending nearly a week in the Lofoten area of Norway, I never once caught another glimpse of Aurora. All that to say, when I traveled to Iceland in March of 2016, I was very eager to actually see and photograph the Aurora Borealis. On landing in Iceland, we were greeted with heavy cloud cover. This low ceiling persisted for most of our trip. One night clouds got a bit patchier and the forecast for Aurora was medium, so we went out and drove around away from the lights for a while. The Aurora was out faintly between the clouds, but barely visible to the human eye. Only very long exposures could pick up its faint hints amid the clouds. This was not at all what I had been hoping for:
The night we ended up with a terrific view of the Northern Lights was one in which I was particularly tired. We had spent a long day on the road, done some hiking through deep snow, some dicey crawling down icy rocks into a hot springs cave (while trying to balance camera and tripod), and I had bumped my head multiple times on the cave roof. I had already left my comfy Airbnb once that evening to photograph a rather lackluster sunset over Akureyri. If it hadn't been for my travel companion Curt Good's urging, I might have stayed home, despite for the forecast for clearing clouds and "Medium" Aurora activity.
We first headed straight south of town as it was the quickest route away from civilization and light pollution. What we did not yet realize is that there is a band in which the northern lights generally appear, a band which is north of most places the Aurora is viewed from. (The exception is Svalbard which is north of the band, thus the Aurora generally appears in the south from Svalbard.) This meant that Akureyri was between us and the northern lights. When they began to peek out, we quickly realized our mistake with the glow of Akureyri interfering with our viewing:
If we shot west, we could nab just the corner of the Aurora with no light pollution and an incredibly dense field of stars visible:
However, we very quickly elected to hop back in our vehicle, sprint north, cross the inlet east at Akuryeri, and head further north. We set up just north of Akureyri for the best shots of the evening. The show started slowly with a spot-light like spray coming from the north/northwest:
Soon thereafter, the Aurora burst into such full bloom all across the sky from the NW to the NE, it lit up the foreground and even my widest angle lenses could not hope to capture it all. I tried to do panoramas, but even squeezing the exposure down to 8s, the Aurora was changing too quickly to do panos. So I finally pointed my camera at the most intense part of the show, came up with a reasonably good composition, and set my intervalometer to take photos every 8 seconds. I then sat back and enjoyed the show!
I have already made that hour-long sequence into a beautiful time lapse video which I'm planning to integrate with the rest of my Iceland video and then share with y'all before too long. Here's one more shot from the sequence:
So how do I shoot Aurora Borealis?
You must use manual M mode on your camera, where you're setting aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. You can look at my settings above to get a ballpark idea on settings; don't be afraid to tweak them to match the brightness of the aurora that you're seeing, as well as ambient light from moon or light pollution. Turn off flash. You'll generally want a wide-angle and as fast (large aperture, small F-number) a lens as possible.
The thing that's hardest for most people is the need to manually focus, which is a bit of a trick in the dark. The best way to focus is to put your camera into live view mode, zooming in using the digital zoom on your screen, and then manually focusing on some distant point of light (preferably a street light or city light of some kind, but a bright star can work as well). The light will be quite bad quality because of the high ISOs your camera is using to show you it in real time, but you want to adjust your focus until the light is as small as possible. When it's big and bloated, it's out of focus. Change the focus so it starts getting smaller and smaller, and then when it starts getting bigger again, move it back to the smallest point.
Here are a few essential tools I used for these shots:
- Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 manual lens (Sony FE-mount, Canon EF-mount, Nikon F-mount) - This lens is the best and cheapest lens for astrophotography of all kinds, including shooting Aurora. I know it's rare for something to be both best and cheapest, but in this case it is. It holds its own in sharpness with $2000 lenses from Canon and Nikon, it's wide-angle, it's fast with wide aperture (which allows you to lower your ISO, improving your quality; it also allows you to lower your shutter speed to reduce stars streaking), and it's fully manual. You can't use autofocus for astrophotography anyway, so it's perfect, saving money and weight. As the cherry on top, Rokinon makes this lens with mounts for all the most popular interchangeable lens systems.
- A cheap intervalometer - I've linked one that works with Sony, but they're available for all the brands. Don't be stuck on the one I've linked, because different "brands" come and go, but the same Chinese factories make them. Mine has lasted for a long time with heavy abuse. An intervalometer is great even if you're not making a timelapse, because the Aurora changes so quickly, you want to just keep taking photos one after the other and then go back and pick the best ones later.
- Sony A7rII - This camera is one of the absolute best 35mm digital cameras out there, but there are lots of cheaper options that will still do great in this situation like the A5000, A6000, A6300, or A7II. If you must, even a Canon or Nikon will get the job done.
- Iceland Meteorological Office Aurora and Cloud forecast - This is an absolutely essential tool that I found quite accurate. I was unable to find a tool of similar quality for Norway and would welcome any comments pointing me to any for Norway or other common Aurora viewing sites.
Here are a few important things I learned about photographing the Northern Lights:
- The Northern Lights are in the north in most places. Svalbard and other very far north locations are the exception, rather than the rule. A local in Svalbard told me the northern lights can appear in any direction and I had not realized that this is not universal. In most places, the northern lights will appear in the north.
- It doesn't have to be cold to see the Northern Lights. Luxe Adventure Traveler writes, "[A]nother common misconception people have is that it has to be cold to see [the northern lights]. The Northern Lights are actually active all year round. But because they are only typically visible in the aurora zone between 65° and 72° North, they are not visible from April through August when the aurora zone experiences nearly 24 hours of daylight. People just tend to associate Northern Lights with the cold since they are visible in the winter months, but we have seen them in August in very comfortable temperatures."
Luxe Adventure Traveler wrote two great blog posts about the Aurora Borealis entitled 5 Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights and 5 More Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights. Both are fantastic and should be read before planning to photograph the northern lights. You'll learn the best time of year to go, what causes the different colors of the northern lights, and some very sound advice on planning a trip and setting expectations.