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.