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How to Capture the Northern Lights

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Dagur Jonsson
  By Dagur Jonsson
How to Capture the Northern Lights www.sleeklens.com

During the winter time, many people travel to the northern hemisphere to photograph the Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis. The best time to capture the stunning lights is from September to mid-April – these are the months where there are full dark nights.

The northern lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing displays of bright, colorful dancing lights. They are visible in the magnetic polar regions of the northern and southern hemispheres and they can range in color from white, green, pink and purple. In the northern hemisphere, the lights are best seen from Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

To get some great shots of the Northern Lights planning is important

Dark Skies

Without dark skies it is very hard to get nice shots of the Northern Lights, so finding the right dark spot is crucial in your haunt. Blue Marble Light Pollution Map is a great tool to find those dark locations across the northern hemisphere.

Clear skies
You need to be in darkness but without clear sky, it will be hard to get good shots of the Northern Lights so to capture the aurora you need to find some clear skies. MeteoStar Weather Satellite Imagery Maps of the Northern Hemisphere does a great job of showing cloud cover conditions on a large scale.

Aurora Activity
When you have found a dark place with a clear sky you need to check the aurora activity in the sky. The activity is measured on the Kp scale which ranges from 0-9 with 0 being low aurora activity and 9 being the greatest. Aurora Forecast Page provides some great insight on the current aurora forecast and a multi-day outlook. Aurora activity from 3 to 5 is a very good for some great Northern Lights shots. It is necessary to have in mind that aurora activity can be very unpredictable and some days are better than others.

What kinds of gear do a need?

To capture the Northern Lights a full frame (35mm or larger sensor) camera and a wide angle lens is ideal.

Here a few tips you need to have in mind

  1. Bring a tripod with you.
  2. Use a camera with manual mode. You will need to be able to adjust the ISO, Aperture and Exposure time.
  3. A full frame camera with high ISO capability allows you to capture the Northern Lights without significant noise in your images.
  4. Wide angle lens (14-24mm range) with a fast aperture. Aperture settings of f/2.8-f/4 are recommend.
  5. Fully charged battery. In the cold batteries die quickly so be aware of that.

Settings

Since the Northern lights are far away up in the space we can focus at infinity and obtain sharp focus. It is good to set up your camera during the day and adjust your lens to focus on infinity, or at a faraway horizon. Place your focus on manual to get the right focus in low light.

To capture the best images of the Northern Lights, shoot in RAW which allows you to change the white balance in your post processing work. Your aperture settings should be as wide as it can go. The aperture of f/2.8 is recommended. You will then need to change the ISO and exposure settings to get the best result. To get the right shot you need to ask yourself, how fast are the northern lights moving and how bright are they? When you have concluded that then:

  1. Set your exposure time between 5 to 30 seconds. If the aurora moves quickly aim for around 5 to 10-second exposures. If it moving slowly use up to 25 to 30-second exposures.
  2. Set the ISO at 400-800 and continue to increase your ISO until the picture is bright enough. ISO at 1.600 is often necessary to capture bright enough images.
    Remember that photographing the Northern Lights takes practice and patient. Also, it can be very cold standing outside staring up the sky, so dress warmly and keep in mind that capturing the aurora can take time. It is also often very dark outside so a flashlight can be handy when handling your gear.

Conclusion

  1. Look for the dark and clear sky in the area where there is some aurora activity.
  2. Use a full frame camera and a wide angle lens.
  3. Use a steady tripod.
  4. Use the manual settings on your camera.
  5. focus on infinity, or at a faraway horizon.
  6. Set the aperture settings at f/2.8-f/4.
  7. Set your exposure time between 5-25 seconds.
  8. Set the ISO at 400 to 1600.
  9. Make sure you have a full charged battery.
  10. Dress warmly, It can be cold standing outside during winters.
  11. The flashlight is good to have.
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Dagur Jonsson

Dagur Jonsson

I have always considered myself an artistic person and I have always been involved in art in one way or another. Photographing is an exciting form of expression for me and I have been very active and learn a lot in a short time. I have a background in drawing and painting since I was younger and learning the basic drawing skills helps me a lot in my photographing. I love doing moody shots with lot of emotion and try to process me images so they look a bit dramatic with a story to tell. I love shooting landscape with dramatic scene like dark clouds or captivating sunlight. I mainly shot my photos within the Reykjavik capital area but if I have time to go outside the capital I really love shooting around my parents summerhouse in the northwest Iceland. I shoot most of my photos with a Canon 700D and a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens and process them in Lightroom and Efex Pro to give them the extra mood I am always looking for.
Dagur Jonsson

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