Oh my god there it is. Stay calm, I’m trying too, but it’s hard. And so it went after an epic 5 1/2 hour journey across Iceland’s south coast, we arrived at the glacial lagoon after midnight and the sky opened up. First attempt, success, its pin sharp; whoop, and whoop.
The feeling within groups when they see the northern lights for the first time tends to be panic. Your present, but the FOMO can be overwhelming. There’s so much expectation, it’s an absolutely key aspect of anyone’s trip. Stay calm, what settings do I need. Damn it, just calm down and stop panicking. Focus, focus, for god’s sake. I don’t mean concentrate; your pictures are out of focus.
S**t, S**t, bleep, bleep, bleep .. Turn off that bloody light, you’re ruining everyone’s pictures .. But I’m not focused, I cant focus. S**t, s**t, bleep, bleep, bleep .. I’ve missed it
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Let’s talk technical; but before we do that, let’s be calm. I have experienced the northern lights more times than I can remember. It can be fleeting, it comes in peaks and troughs, calm glow and intense bursts that take your breath away. Clouds can come in and out, and sometimes you only get a short-lived glimpse. But, most of the time, you have a little bit of a window, so stay calm, get ready as quickly as you can, but no quicker. Focus, in every sense of the word. Arrive early, be patient and wait, be prepared.
While I can’t speak for other workshop operators, I can say at ExploreLight we go around to everyone individually, make sure their cameras are focused, and check their composition, white balance and general camera settings. Shameless self-promotion aside, having someone with you that has some experience, makes a huge difference to the quality of your shots. It’s tough shooting in the dark, especially for the first time, having to use a totally different range of settings and focusing techniques. But read on and there are a few tips below that should help you on your way.
A fast wide lens is typically what works best for shooting night scenes. By fast I mean, a wide aperture. 1.4, 1.8 or 2.8. F4 can be fine too but having that extra stop can make all the difference when the light levels are low.
A wide lens is also vitally important. Personally, I use a Nikon 14 – 24, 2.8. It’s a great all-purpose lens for my general landscape work and works fantastically well for the night shooting too. Link above I got mine at Conns.
I suggest a baseline test exposure at ISO 1600, F2.8 at 30 seconds. Its a good range to take a look at the exposure. If possible bring the shutter speed down a bit to make sure your stars are sharp. Remember though, if you don’t have a really wide lens, i.e. 14mm, your stars will show movement at 30 seconds. 15 seconds in general would be preferable but a lot of the time there simply is not enough light. It’s also a good idea to see what ISO your camera can handle in advance of a northern lights trip. Do some tests. IE, what’s the highest ISO setting with acceptable amounts of grain.
It’s also important to monitor the exposure. The Northern Lights will vary in intensity, and as such you will need to vary your exposures to compensate for the variation in light levels. There can be a big surge and highlights can easily blow out. For example, I’ve started shooting at ISO 1600, F2.8, 30 seconds and had to change to ISO 400, f.4, 15 seconds. Huge swings. Watch out for them.
So how do you focus in pitch-black surroundings? Well this can be a bit tricky, but there are a variety of methods that we employ. When we are running ExploreLight workshops we always make sure everyone’s camera is focused. A few methods below.
- Have someone with a headlamp stand approx 50 yards from everyone and shine their headlamp back towards you. Then use single point auto focus to lock onto the light. Make sure to focus using the same focal length you intend to shoot with. Do this away from other people that may be shooting nearby. There’s nothing worse than a rogue headlamp to ruin a good shot.
- Use single point auto focus to lock onto a nearby light. Street lamp, house, bridge etc. This is unlikely to work in Iceland but if you’re shooting in Lofoten then there are lots of little lights to lock onto. A few too many.
- Just feel the force. Turn your manual focus ring to infinity then just bring it back a few mm. Zoom in afterwards to check its in focus and adjust as necessary. When you really get to know your lens this is the quickest and easiest way to focus. However, most people don’t shoot enough at night to ever really get a feel for this, so probably best to go with the safer methods in 1 and 2.
Foreground, Foreground, Foreground, Foreground, Foreground
That’s not a typo. Did I mention foreground is important?
I appreciate its exciting to see that green pop on the back of your screen for the first time. It’s pretty darn epic to be fair. But a green sky and nothing else is not a good picture. Just like a great sunset is nothing without a complimentary foreground.
We plan this aspect of the ExploreLight workshops meticulously. We try to have a variety of options wherever we go. Generally, we are looking for water and ice as the lighter tones in both reflects the green from the sky, and provides a really interesting dynamic to the images.
Don’t forget when your out shooting the northern lights it tends to be in the depths of winter, in not so warm places like Iceland or Norway. You’re also likely to be standing outside not moving that much potentially for hours on end. Wrap up well. Layers are essential, and not the Photoshop variety. Hand warmers, feet warmers, all these things can help you stay out longer and make better images.
I hope this small guide helps you take better pictures on your northern lights adventures. Its truly is an epic experience that can stir the soul.
If you fancy having us help you in person through all things northern lights, monitor the weather, choose the locations and generally go to the ends of the earth to make sure you have a great trip then why not join us in Iceland soon!