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How I shot the Northern Lights from a plane

Earlier this year, I was flying back to Toronto from Vancouver, and I got to witness something pretty incredible: The Northern Lights. I was on a red-eye flight, and I can never sleep on airplanes. I got lucky and had the whole row to myself (I’m more of an aisle seat person usually). Being bored, I moved to the window seat and looked outside, only to realize there was something unusual: I could see the Northern Lights.

Now, it’s easy to miss, as they mostly looked gray to the human eye. But since I had photographed them once before, I took my camera out of my backpack and did a quick test shot. And there it was, some green Northern Lights! Of course, the test shot was absolutely horrendous, so now I had to figure out to shoot this in a way that would actually produce a decent photograph.

Shooting the Northern Lights from a plane

I had main challenges: The low-light conditions and the reflections. Let’s talk about exposing and focusing first. The only way to focus in this darkness was to use the wing. Even that proved a little challenging given how dark it was, but I made it work on the bright part of the wing.

I was using my Sony 16-35mm f/4 so I set my aperture to f/4. A wider aperture would have been better, of course. I played a bit with ISO and shutter speed and ended up at ISO 12,800 and a 2-second exposure. The plane was relatively stable and I was putting my camera against the window to make it as stable as possible. Sony’s in-camera stabilization helped a lot.

A tighter shot

So I was getting some relatively sharp shots. But I still had some ugly reflections. These airplanes windows are terrible for shooting. I took my sweater and was holding it with my left hand, so it would cover the camera and the entire window, while I was shooting with my other hand.

It was taking care of the reflections. But handholding a 2-second exposure with one hand proved to be challenging. It got maybe 1 in 10 shots that were even remotely sharp. But I got the shot.

If you ever travel on a redeye flight in the Northern Hemisphere, pick a seat that will look towards the north: On the left of the plane if you’re flying east, or on the right of the plane if you’re flying west. I just got lucky. But keep an eye out!

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