Northern Lights Photography – made simple

northern lights icelandNorthern Lights are a phenomenon that creates a spectacle rare for most of the population of the world. It is beautiful and breath-taking. Those are the two primary reasons we have a strong attraction. Experiencing the visual is exhilarating beyond expression for many. Capturing the moment in camera as a photograph is a good means of sharing, re-visiting, boasting and so on.

The science behind the Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis, briefly, is that they are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by the solar wind. When the cumulative effect is strong enough to alter the trajectories of charged particles in the solar wind


and magnetospheric plasma, we are presented with the phenomenon. It is the ionized particles of atmosphere that emit light of varying color and complexity, in bands, depending upon the participating particles. A similar phenomenon occurs around the south pole and is called southern lights or aurora australis.


It is always better to plan for viewing Northern Lights. Ideally, darkness is required. The best observation of Northern Lights happens at locations high in latitudes and closer to the poles. The most intense Northern Lights area is Alaska, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia, Canada (Yukon and Nunavut). The lights can be observed from mid-September to mid-April. The reasons for this trend are due to the March and September equinox. The time can be anywhere between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. though the probability and intensity can be higher between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. During peak activities, one can expect several flares.

Here is a photo that was taken with the elements: nearly full moon on the horizon, a few sodium vapor street lamps, a few commercial building lights.

Northern Lights in Iceland September 2019 -
Northern Lights in Iceland September 2019 –

The Kp-index for the night was less than 3 which is relatively mild but the sky was clear and Northern Lights could be seen.  If you are lucky, you may find yourself in a place where the horizon is clear, the sky is clear and Kp-index is high.

For photography, you need the following:
1. A sturdy tripod
2. A remote shutter release with an intervalometer
3. A camera with manual setup
4. A wide-angle lens with sharp infinity focus
5. A headlight or flashlight – for working with your equipment.
6. Warm clothing including cap, gloves, boots, depending upon how well you can deal with the elements
7. Spare battery and disk for the camera

Depending upon how long you have had the equipment and circumstances that you have used, it may be strongly recommended to practice using the equipment in the dark. I have seen people getting disappointed. There is no certainty of the duration of the Northern Lights and you come under pressure and that makes it worse. You need to know, exactly how you are going to do it and how to set up the equipment. Your kit has to be ready.

The most important would be to learn setting up your camera to manual mode and shoot at infinity focus. It works fine in the day. For it to work at night, you have to set up your camera on the tripod – in aperture priority mode, manually focus, in the smallest f stop(the widest) where your lens performs the best (for most it would be something like f2.0 to f4.0) on bright light, farther than 30 feet and try to refine focus with magnified focus.  There are lenses where you can lock the focus ring and if you have such an option you can do this in the day.  There are other lenses like Irix 15mm which would click at Infinity.  Once this is done, dial your camera to manual mode. Set shutter speed to be 6 – 8 seconds. Change the ISO to be between 1600 and 6400. You may have to experiment with shutter speed and ISO to get the best out of your equipment. After a few shots review and if need be, adjust.  Besides this, you should set your camera to shoot in RAW plus JPG. Set JPG to be the highest quality and maximum size. Set camera to AWB.

northern-lights-in-Iceland –

This photo was taken on September 21, 2019, using Sony A7III with Irix 15mm lens canon mount + mc11 adapter.

If your camera has an intervalometer, then set the repeat cycle and set for the number of shots. Normally, newer cameras have this built-in intervalometer otherwise you may use the remote release. It is advisable to remove all filters from the lens when shooting the Northern Lights.

As part of the preparation, it is useful to identify the foreground and access to it during the day. This adds to the overall result.

It is possible to use smartphone to take photos of North Lights which entails using an application that would take long exposure shots. You have to still place your phone on a tripod and allow for the steady shots. Samsung S10 or S10 plus has camera app with PRO mode and that should make it possible to take photos of Northern Lights.

Please remember that processor of a full frame camera produces the cleanest and manageable noise levels in photo. Any camera, including that of smartphones, will produce, relatively noisy and less clean photos at night. It may be best to research to choose from between your options.

In real world situation, supposing you are visiting, say, Iceland. You may be moving from location to location and visiting various falls,  lagoons, geyser or other attractions. By the end of the day, after a couple of beers, it becomes a challenge to look out for Northern Lights. But since this is on your agenda, it is upon you to organize in a manner that you are on the look out and have a plan.

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