In our last post, we discussed the where and when of being in a place to see the Northern Lights. If you missed it, find it here:
We were in Lofoten, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, but far enough south that the nights are dark enough to see this amazing display. It was September, within the optimal Northern Hemisphere fall and winter time frame of September to March. September also offered fall color and warmer temperatures than full on winter (although we were still quite bundled up!).
Okay, you are in the right place at the right time of year, you’ve chosen a shooting site, scouted it out in advance, your aurora app or guide or the locals indicate conditions are fortuitous, how do you capture the magic happening overhead?
A checklist of Northern Lights shooting essentials:
- Fast, wide angle lens
- Remote shutter release or self-timer
- Wide open aperture
- ISO 800 (as a starting point)
- Long shutter speed-depends on intensity of the display-4-20 seconds
- Manual technique
- Optional: Adjust white balance to Kelvin 3200 (can be done in post)
- Warm clothing and comfortable and secure footware, suitable to your location
Remember, you will be working in the dark, so advance preparation is mandatory. You do not want to be fumbling with equipment when the show is happening overhead, so the first order of business is:
Choose the widest angle and fastest lens you own.
I shoot with a Fuji X-T2. I was VERY happy with my choice of lens, the Fujifilm XF 16 mm f/1.4 WR (weather-resistant) lens. Although we were fortunate our night with the dancing lights was not windy, raining or snowing, Northern Lights shooting situations may well include any of these complicating conditions, so the choice of a WR lens adds a measure of reassurance. 16 mm was wide enough and f/1.4 fast enough to accomplish what was needed. In addition, this lens lends itself to pre-focusing, as the focus can be locked with a retractable clutch feature.
Steve was less happy with his choice. He was shooting with a Nikon D500, and started out with a fast 24 mm lens, AF-S 24 mm f/1.8G ED lens. Good for low-light situations (fast), but not wide enough. He ended up switching to the Tokina Fisheye 10-17 mm f/3.5-4.5 DX lens, which he made work, but with some compromises. Although wide enough, it is not particularly fast and at the 10mm end of the range, is fish-eye, meaning he had to spend time in post-processing straightening out curves to create a rectilinear effect. Since our return, he has acquired the lens he was wishing for during this shoot, the Tokina SD 11-20 f/2.8 (IF) DX lens.
Not a hand-holding situation!
These are long exposures, so a TRIPOD is essential. Preferably, a good, sturdy, tall enough tripod that you know well enough to operate in the dark! We were shooting on a sandy beach, with waves washing in and out around our feet, a shifty support. At times, I perched on a flattish rock just big enough for me and the extended tripod. I constantly reminded myself of the precariousness of my perch, not wanting to step too close to the edge and found myself in the surf with a sprained ankle. Other times, in the surf zone, shots had to be timed between waves and the tripod stabilized by hand as water swirled around the legs.
For further stabilization, we used remote camera releases. The self-timer on your camera could also be employed, but the inherent delay could cause you to miss the shot you are envisioning.
Shoot in manual
Shoot at the widest aperture your lens will allow. At f/1.4, I could keep my ISO at 800, and depending on the brightness of the lights, shot with shutter speeds from 4-20 seconds. Longer than 20 seconds and any visible pinpoint stars begin to blur. Depending on how active the movement of the Northern Lights is, longer shutter speeds will also tend to make the “sky-writing” less legible. So, check in with your histogram on a regular basis, striking a balance between keeping your ISO as low as possible, with shutter speeds as short as possible. Depending on how fast your lens is (your maximum aperture), you may need to use higher ISOs of 1600, 2000 or more.
Shoot in RAW format for maximal flexibility in post-processing. Consider adjusting the color temperature in advance to Kelvin 2800-4000 (our guide Christian Hoiberg likes Kelvin 3200).
Remember, the hunt and hope inherent in pursuing the Northern Lights is part of the fun. If your timing and luck pay off, it will be a sight you will never forget. It may take some persistence, with repeated tries, setting your alarm clock for the middle of the night and sleepless nights, but it’s worth it!
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