How to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland
by: Rafn Sig,-
It’s really no magic grabbing these Northern Lights or “Aurora borealis” into your camera.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Will there be any “Lights” tonight:
You can go to many locations to see if they will appear or not.
I usually go to “Veðurstofa Íslands” “Norðurljósaspá” ( https://www.vedur.is/vedur/spar/nordurljos/ ) as I trust them to give me correct information’s.
How do I read out of all these numbers, they are all in Icelandic?
Ok let’s go through it.
In the column “Spá um norðurljós” (forecast for the Northern lights) you see numbers from 0 to 9. The higher number is, more likely you will see the Aurora.
0: Stay home with a good hot chocolate and listen to some good music.
1: Stay home and work your other photos.
2: Go to sleep early and be fresh for tomorrow photo tour.
3: I would think about it. 50/50 chance. (I would stay home as I live in Iceland and I can wait) If you are Guest in Iceland then you should look up to the sky and check if you can see the starts. If you can, perhaps you should take the chance. It’s up to you.
4 – 8: Yes I would definitely go if the sky is clear.
9: ooooh Yes I would definitely go if the sky is clear. It has only happened ones in my lifetime and it was the most spectacular sight I’ve ever seen. The colors and the sound were far out from this world. It was WOOOOOOW
Next you have the box “Sól”
Sólsetur = Sunset and the time
Myrkur = Time of darkness – from and to
Sólarupprás = Sunrise and the time
Next you have the box “Tungl”
The photo shows you how big the Moon will be
Tunglið sest = Moonset and the time
The map of Iceland.
If there is a white spot on the map where you are staying it means “No clouds” and you have a chance.
The darker the green is the less chance you have as it will be cloudy and you don’t see the Aurora when it’s cloudy.
Other forecast Links I use to be sure:
Best time to see the Northern Lights
The best season to see the northern lights in Iceland is from early September to late April – these are the months where there are full dark nights. It is also not unheard of to see the lights as early as mid-August, once the final traces of the midnight sun summer are gone.
Ok, When I go out at night trying to capture these lights I dress well and comfortable because we never actually know if they are going to come or when they will come so it can be a long wait in the windy winter cold.
Use warm inner layer and outer layer. Put on a good cap or deerstalker, some scarf or comforter (or both) and extra pair of rag socks. You can never wear enough clothes to keep you warm because you are standing still; there is little circulation, so you need to over-dress to offset this.
Remember that we are not going to any Fashion show, here it’s all about keeping warm and be able to stay out in the frost and wind.
I’m using inner and outer gloves, that is, my inner gloves are thin so I can operate on the camera easily and the outer gloves are thick wool to keep my hands warm but the tip of my fingers can go through my thick ones and I can cover them when I’m not photographing or after my Camera setup on the location and I’m waiting.
If you look at my well used gloves you can see what I mean.
Don’t forget a good Flashlight or Headlight because it’s dark outside
Find dark place
Bright city lights affects the visibility on the Aurora lights, so find some dark place to get the Aurora as clear and visible as possible.
Tripod – A sturdy tripod is needed to avoid camera shake.
You will be taking the shots from 2 to 30 sec. so it’s impossible to make it by hand. Sometimes it helps in a heavy wind to lower the tripod closer to the ground and spread the legs to get it more stable.
I´m using Manfrotto 055 PROB tripod in a heavy wind and Manfrotto 190 tripod when it’s less windy. Sometimes I go all the way down to Manfrotto BeFree Compact Travel Carbon Fiber if I have to walk long distances to find the right spot. It all depends on the situation you are in. You actually can use whatever tripod you want, but it has to be stable to get a clear sharp image.
Remotely shutter release – It is advisable to use wireless shutter release if possible to minimize the shake. The disadvantage using shutter release with cable is that it takes on to much wind and the rubber cable becomes solid and stiff in very cold conditions. If you don’t have the wireless one, use the 2 sec self-timer in the camera. I have started to use that more and more with good result.
Replacement batteries – Just to be sure, take with you 2 – 4 fully charged extra batteries (it depends on how long you will be staying on the site). When it’s really cold outside batteries die quickly. I keep them in my pocket as my body heat will keep them “alive” longer. There is nothing more frustrating than to be out of electric when you are at the location and it’s a long way home. (It has happened to me ones, ONLY ONES, believe me).
Camera – Now I’m using Canon EOS 5 MK IV Full frame DSLR camera, but when I started I used EOS 20 and EOS 7D and they produced sharp images as well. A good camera with high ISO capability and good noise filter will do the trick.
Lenses – Since the aurora can cover huge areas of the sky, most photographers use wide angle lenses with fast aperture of f/2,8-f/4. I’m usually using Canon EF 16 – 35 1:2,8 L II USM and Tamron SP 24 – 70 F2,8 USD.
If I tell you the truth I have also used Canon EF 70 – 200 1:2,8 L IS II USM with good result. The problem with the 70 -200 lens is that it’s really heavy so most of the time it stays home or in the car. Yes I’m sometimes lazy.
It really all depends on what you want to get into the shot, what kind of lens you want to use.
Let’s bind this together and how we use this gear
Switch the lens to manual focus.
The Northern lights and stars are far away objects so we can focus at infinity and obtain sharp focus. Most lenses have a ∞ symbol on them which symbolize this focus point.
I have noticed however, when I’m shooting I put it on the ∞ symbol and then I slightly turn it back, just a touch back actually.
Aperture, ISO & Shutter speed:
When I shoot the Northern Lights I want to capture detail. I want to have the fastest shutter speed possible so I put the Aperture to f/2,8 or larger (f2.0, f1.8, f1.4 ) if you have it. The trick is to allow as much amount of light to hit the sensor in the least amount of time, allowing you to keep your ISO at a lowest value to reduce the noise (Higher ISO = more noise in the picture).
I keep it on ISO 800 mostly (Sometimes only need 400) up to ISO 3200 on very dark moonless nights. Those two factors will allow a fast shutter speed, which is absolutely crucial to capturing detail in the aurora. Every aurora show is different, it can move faster one night than the next, so you may need to adjust your exposure times to suit it. But typically anything from 2 to 10 seconds will show you lot of details in the aurora. More than 10/15 seconds and it will start to lose details and start to get blurry, like a fog ore mist in the sky, also if you are using a long shutter speed the stars will start to move and make a trail. When The Aurora is week you might need to use all up to 30 seconds just to get something in your shot.
So the thing is, Aperture on f/2,8 and adjust the ISO so you will have the shutter speed from 2 to maximum 10 seconds (if possible).
Night shooting is similar to day shooting in many ways. Don’t put your camera straight up in the sky unless there is an Aurora explosion. Find a good spot where you have foreground that lead you to the sky with the Aurora so you get some depth in the shot. Reflection from a Lake is Ideal if possible. Sometimes I’m using Graduated filter on the Aurora just to get the foreground lighten up a little bit. I hate it when the foreground is completely black.
RAW or JPEG:
If you want to get the best result, you should shoot in RAW. It gives you the cleanest images and they respond excellently to adjustments in post editing. You can of course shoot in JPEG but you will always run into problems when you start to develop the images.
You can’t use the flash to capture Northern lights but it can be good to use it to take picture of you in front of the Aurora (just to light you up) and then let the camera continue to work for the last 2 – 10 sec to catch the Aurora.
Be patient and be patient and be p. . .