How to photograph the northern lights
Dad.info’s James Draven visits Finnish Lapland to bring you the best tips for capturing the aurora borealis on camera...
Speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time and money on seeing the northern lights only to return with a handful of terrible photographs to show for it, I’ve learned the hard way that you need to learn the basics of photography before trying to capture the moment forever on film. Having then returned with new equipment and a better knowledge of photography only to miss the lights entirely because they were obscured by bad weather, I also know you have to do your research before setting out.
A family trip into the Arctic circle to witness the ethereal majesty of the northern lights is a memory you and your kids will cherish for a lifetime, and by following my top tips you’ll have a much better chance of seeing them and preserving those magical moments for posterity…
Research: solar activity
The phenomenon of the northern lights is caused by electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere on the solar wind and collide with atoms at high altitude to create the dancing lights we see in the sky.
Predicting peaks in auroral activity to coincide with your holiday doesn’t have to be guesswork and it’s very important if you don’t want to return home disappointed. Luckily there are a few online resources. The Kp index is a 1-10 scale that helps predict geomagnetic activity and you can get a 27-day Kp forecast from the Space Weather Prediction Centre. The website of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska is also a mine of information and up-to-date aurora forecasts.
Generally speaking, March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year followed by October, but it’s worth remembering that the long nights in Lapland only last until the end of March/early April.
Research: the Moon
It’s also worth looking into the Moon phases when going to photograph the northern lights. A full Moon reflecting on the snowy vistas may make the night sky a little too bright to get a great view of the aurora.
On the other hand a night sky with no Moon could make photographing the spectacle more difficult because, with no natural light at all, you may need to leave your camera’s shutter open for a very long time or turn up your ISO settings to the extent that you have unacceptably grainy images.
Hotel owner and photography enthusiast Timo Halonen says the best time to take photographs of the northern lights is during a half Moon so, while it may not be the most important aspect of your trip planning, if you can co-ordinate your dates to match a period of high auroral activity and a half moon your pictures might look that bit better.
Research: the weather
There’s not a terrific amount you can do about the weather unless you happen to be booking a real last-minute trip, in which case you can always check out the seven-day weather report for the area you’re visiting, but it never hurts to take a look to try to get an idea of how the weather might be shaping up for around the time of your intended visit.
A cloudy sky during even a great display of the northern lights could effectively completely obscure the phenomenon… and we see enough grey skies in the UK without going abroad for the privilege.
Location: where to see the lights
Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland are all quite expensive places to visit and you’ll find your money doesn’t go very far when you get there. They are however your best bets without forking over a huge wedge of the folding stuff on long-haul flights to northern Canada or Alaska.
Tromso in the north of Norway is a well-known place to visit and see the lights and it’s quite a picturesque little town, though you’ll have to travel a little way out in order to see them at their best. Finnish Lapland is also well geared-up for northern lights experiences but, as long as you stay away from skiing hubs like Levi, the area is somewhat less developed.
Location: avoid light pollution
“If you can see the stars clearly, you’ll see the northern lights clearly,” is the advice the locals give in Finnish Lapland and, as any stargazer knows, the best way of viewing the night sky is in rural wilderness as far away from the light pollution of urban environments as possible.
Hotel Korpikartano in Inari in Finnish Lapland (pictured) is just such a perfect spot. Overlooking a frozen lake in the winter (the time of year you’d be there looking for the lights) which is so solid it even boasts road markings and sign posting for snowmobile drivers, the hotel really is wonderfully isolated and – though you’ll not find five-star luxury in this converted boarding school – the friendly, helpful staff boast that the countless stars visible in the night skies above their lodgings are more than enough to make up for the absence of stars beside their door.
Location: go topless
The best time to keep an eye out for the aurora borealis is around midnight but ideally you’ll be outside looking skyward for as much of the night as possible to be sure you don’t miss a thing. If you don’t fancy freezing your bits off but you don’t want to risk missing out on seeing the northern lights then you could always try staying in one of Finland’s glass igloo hotels.
These transparent domes are springing up in a couple of locations in Finland and offer a panoramic view of the night sky so you can keep an eye out for the aurora borealis all night long from the warmth and comfort of your bed.
You will have neighbours though, so just keep your eyes on the skies, people, or your bedroom won’t be the only topless thing you’ll see.
Location: getting around
It’s unlikely that you’ll stay just by your hotel while on your northern lights safari and there are loads of companies offering tours out to rural areas with less light pollution.
Many of these will see you sitting in the back of a minibus for the duration of the evening though and – while that won’t matter to you one iota should you spot the aurora and get some great pictures of it – an unsuccessful evening can feel like a real write-off if you’ve spent a night of your holiday shivering in the back of a Ford Transit.
Instead why not try snow-shoeing, snowmobiling or husky-sledding around the local area on your quest for the perfect picture? Not only do you avoid the roads and therefore the potential for traffic to ruin your shots but I guarantee that, even if you don’t catch a glimpse of any celestial displays, you’ll still have had a very memorable night to look back on.
Photography: take a tripod
“I looked out of my car window and there was the most amazing display I’d ever seen. I just had my camera but I’d left my tripod behind, so I had to make do with the roof of my car!”
If you’re not lucky enough to have a Renault Twingo as a makeshift tripod, like my host Timo did, then you’ll definitely need a tripod in order to photograph the northern lights. It’s an essential. An absolute must-have. Don’t leave home without it.
Taking a photograph of the northern lights means taking a picture without a flash at night, which means your camera’s shutter will need to stay open for a long time in order to get enough light in to make the image visible. This means that even the tiniest of camera shakes from your chilly hands will blur the image terribly.
Timo’s top tip is to stamp the snow flat to provide a more stable base for the tripod’s legs and to keep the tripod pretty low to the ground and not fully extend it. With a low centre of gravity and with fewer extended parts to wobble in the wind, you’re more likely to get a perfect, shake-free image.
Photography: remote controls or set a timer
For the same reason you’ll need a tripod you’ll also want to bring a remote-controlled shutter release or set your camera on timer mode, because even the camera-shake created by you pressing or releasing the shutter button on your DSLR will cause unwanted blurring on your image.
Photography: switch to manual
Before we go any further it’s worth mentioning that you’ll need more than your average point ‘n’ shoot, pocket camera. You’ll want to bring a DSLR or mirrorless camera and switch it from Auto mode to Manual. No, not to Shutter or Aperture priority mode, but on to full Manual. You don’t want the built-in flash automatically popping up and ruining your shot!
This may sound daunting but you’ll want full control of all your settings to get a good picture. When photographing in very low light conditions it’s much easier than you’d think to know what to do because you essentially just want the settings to all be making the image as bright as possible.
Photography: wide lens
While they may be great for getting wildlife images and pictures of the kids on sports day, you’re not going to need that long lens to get a picture of the northern lights. Quite the opposite, you’ll want to get as much of the night sky in as possible and, for better composition, a decent chunk of the landscape too.
Most kit zoom lenses that come with DSLRs these days cover the 18mm-55mm range. Although 18mm is a relatively wide shot on a full format DSLR (which basically means the sensor that collects the image data is the same size as traditional 35mm film), on a DX or crop sensor camera, which most non-professional level Canon and Nikon DSLRs are, that 18mm focal length is actually equivalent to a 27mm field of view. In layman’s terms that simply means that you won’t get an awful lot of the sky or landscape into the shot.
While an 18mm lens will do the job if you’re on a budget, it might be worth investing in a 10mm fisheye lens if you’re photographing a lot of landscapes, or if this is a one-off trip to see the aurora borealis then you can rent a wide-angle lens for a fraction of the cost of buying.
If you’re worried about that distorted landscape look (see the above image), there’s lots of software available that can correct that warp and give extra wide, panoramic shots with arrow-straight horizons.
So, another important factor to consider is the aperture or ‘speed’ of your lens. The wider the aperture of your lens, the more light it can collect in a shorter period of time. This means you can take photos with faster shutter speeds to prevent blurring and with lower ISO settings to prevent grainy images.
Aperture is measured in terms of ‘F-number’ or ‘F-stops’ and you can tell how ‘fast’ your lens is by looking for the lowest F-number on your barrel – the smaller the number, the wider the lens diaphragm will go and the more light it can capture.
Ideally you’d want your lens set at around F2.8 or better but such fine optics can be pricey, so simply stop your lens down to the lowest F-number available for best results.
Photography: know your ice from your ISO
The ISO setting on your camera controls how sensitive your DSLR’s sensor is to light. It’s basically the same as film speed on old analogue cameras. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor will be, enabling you to take photographs in low-light situations.
However with more sensitivity comes more ‘noise’ or graininess to your image, so you’ll want to keep ISO as low as possible while still getting bright enough images. Rely as heavily as you can on having a wide aperture and – unless the northern lights are moving quite quickly – long exposure times.
I’d recommend you start by taking photos with an ISO setting as low as 400 and experiment with slow shutter speeds, gradually building up to higher ISO settings based on your results. It all depends on the ambient light and the brightness of the aurora.
If the lights are dancing around the night sky quite quickly, a slow shutter speed could make them look quite blurry, in which case try upping the ISO and the increasing the shutter speed to get them looking crisper on camera.
DSLRs are always improving and noise at higher settings isn’t as bad as it once was, so try capturing the same scene with a variety of settings and shutter speeds. There’s always software that can clean up an image at a pinch should you best shots be very grainy.
Photography: RAW power
When shooting under less-than-ideal conditions you’ll want to have the best quality image files available for post-production on your computer. While JPEG format files are very easily shared in Asset Bank and edited, they are a ‘lossy’ format, which means some data is discarded. JPEGs, therefore, do not compare favourably to RAW format images, which contain all of the data captured when you released your camera’s shutter button.
RAW files are similar to negatives in film photography terms because they are not yet ready to be used in their current format and must first be processed into a printable/sharable format. Unlike JPEGs however, because the processing is done on your computer rather than your camera, you have the option of changing some of the image settings at a later date rather than having photographic data like brightness, contrast and white balance ‘baked in’ to the file.
You may however need slightly more advanced photo editing software to manage RAW files and they do, of course, take up more memory so bring a nice big card and if you’re worried about making the change, most more modern DSLRs offer to record images in both JPEG and RAW simultaneously these days.
FINAL TIP: keep your battery warm and/or bring a spare
In arctic temperatures your battery charge can decrease very quickly so it might be worth keeping your camera’s battery, plus any useful spare ones you might bring along, in a pocket close to your body or in another warm place to ensure you don’t run out of go-juice when the lights eventually do their thing. Happy hunting!
You can visit Finnish Lapland with Scandinavian Travel and SkiLapland. A three-night stay at the Hotel Korpikartano costs from £711 per person based on two adults sharing (B&B). A four-night Northern Lights itinerary (Nov-Mar) costs from £1,565 per person based on two adults sharing (full-board & activities included). A four-night stay in Levi & Ylläs including one night in a stunning glass-roofed igloo costs from £928 per person based on two adults sharing (B&B). To book call 0207 199 6012 or visit: www.ski-lapland.co.uk/