Welcome to the dark side of photographic imaging!
Taking images of the illusion northern lights isn’t as daunting as you might think. It just takes a little forethought of the conditions you will be in and as much planning ahead as you can .
Knowing the basic camera functions is also a requirement to but you knew that already didn’t you ?
So first of the essentials ,the camera, in order of preference:-
a full frame DLSR ,NIKON 800 canon D5 what have you ….
2. A DX sensor DSLR ,NIKON D5100-5500 CANON D5500 or equivalent.( I own a Nikon D5300 and it gives great results .
3.Micro 2/3rds Panasonic GX8, G4,Olympus Pen or D500
All fitted with a wide angle lens equivalent to 15-28mm (35 mm terms ) lens with a preferable maximum aperture of F2:8 but F4 is ok ( the smaller the number the wider the aperture, thus more light can enter and hit the sensor ,the quicker the shutter will open and close ,the clearer the shape of the Aurora).
4.Its quite handy to have a articulated screen, ( the Nikon D5000 series all have these )as inevitably you will have the lens pointing skywards and it’s quite a pain to be bent over checking the exposure or the composition all the time ! Make it easy for yourself as much as you can .
4. A small top end compact can do it ,just ,but it must have manual focus ,manual exposure and a wide angle zoom .
5. So what is preferable is not always necessary .for two reasons .1. Full frame DSLRS are cumbersome beasts as well as expensive .They are unbeatable when it come to image quality ,but only if your a pixel peeper and or you enlarge your images to over 4ft on the long side , so ask yourself the very honest question are you bothered about image ,or “image ”
I personally use a Nikon D5300 and Panasonic GX8 and I’m more than happy with the results .
6.At least for now forget your mobile phone ,can’t be done ,the sensor is too small to collect the relative low light of the Aurora.
6. Next piece of gear is a tripod .No need to go mad here I have a compact aluminium ,no more than a £100 off eBay .Two features that are very useful ,a centre column hook for holding a weight ( a net bag with rocks in or the tripod bag with a polythene liner inside )when weighted this will keep the tripod steady in winds.
Second, the thinnest part of the legs of the tripod should be the last to be extended ,using the thicker profile upper sections that flex less .My tripod weighs less than a kilo.
7. Finally ,warm clothing ,very warm clothing ! You will likely be standing in subzero temperatures for over two or more hours , so a goose down filled duvet jacket is preferable double layer trousers ,warm boots and gloves ,and headband / wool hat and a buff to keep your nose warm .( that will get cold ) .
Don’t forget one of those chemical hand warmers to wrap around the barrel of your lens as well as the front element will freeze over ,especially if your near the coast .( electrical tape one on the top and one beneath the barrel of the lens ,pre-insulate with a aluminiumized pouch to keep the heat in .( see picture ,coming soon)
Just a note on camera preference .The Nikon and Canon range lends itself to the use of Pulse and Radian, time lapse devices more than Panasonic will so that might have a bearing on your purchase .These time lapse devices are programmed from your smart phone and are very intuitive to use ,as well is the remote triggering component in these smartphone devices.
The forecast ,the plan !
When I plan an Aurora session it’s inevitably in Iceland where you can justifiably increase the odds of a good session .
Malarrif Lighthouse,Snaefelsness, Iceland -6°C
So planning the trip means obviously winter months ,October to March .The months in between ,there is too much ambient light .
Next .Full or new moon ? Full moon will give good illumination in the foreground, and will brighten the Aurora curtain to a degree , but the downside you will have to reduce the exposure to accommodate the extra light that the moon provides ,which is more than you might think ,this in turn reduces the amount of star detail ,usually only rendering the brightest of stars . On the bright side you’ll be amazed at the foreground detail this lunar illumination affords ,truly amazing .Which is best is very much subjective ,you’ll develop a feel for which works best .
So the next is forecasting the weather and Aurora , not easy ! The Aurora is easy ! Using the below links , and assuming your in Iceland or at that Latitude approx 63° north.
Check this out ,it’s one of the best there is ,the texting service is largely a waste of Time ,I’ve had texts and there has been nothing ,no texts with one of the best Auroras I’ve ever seen !
So ideally look for a KP number of 2+ , 3-5 should be superb 6-7 amazing and the larger the number the greater the chance of seeing it at lower latitudes 7-8 it should be visible in the UK and top of Scotland 9-10 you’ll need to wear a lead apron ! ( just kidding !) .
The next thing is cloud cover.This is the part that isn’t easy , a blistering Aurora 60 miles up in the stratosphere completely obliterated by 1 mile of thick cloud ! Although a clear night is good partial cover is better , this is because the clouds in small sizes and amounts will give depth to your image , even better if there is something in the foreground , like a glacier ,house ,Lighthouse, car or person (if you can get them to keep still of course ! ).
So in practice that means in Iceland if the Aurora forecast is good but the clouds are covering you for the foreseeable future …..Drive out of it ! But obviously check the cloud cover page of the above website .But 100 mile drive has the potential to make a memory of a lifetime , guaranteed! you will forget the inconvenience of the 100 mile drive .
Setting up your camera
So now you have your spot , First thing is check around and see if anyone else is taking images of the Aurora ,if they are “Aurora etiquette ” now comes in to play !
Make sure your not too much in the foreground ,they may have needed to get closer to foreground interest than you ,well that’s their choice and they should have thought of that , but having placed you head torch on ,be aware of the light pollution you may be causing in the images of your fellow photographers.
At all times keep your head torch to its lowest setting and keep your body between you and them ,cutting down on extraneous light leaks so that all is needed is the odd beam to be photoshopped out .
End of lecture !
So neatness and organisation is the order of the day ! I have a small fabric tray to place all lens brushes, leads etc . Especially when working with snow in the ground . you’ve no idea how the white stuff swallows up your camera stuff .
Best also to assemble the lens on in a warm dry atmosphere, so that moisture doesn’t accumulate on the inside of the lens when inevitably cools down .
Now with camera firmly on the tripod check the focus .Remember auto focus will not work in such low light levels , it might occasionally , but it will “hunt” for light contrast which will cause problems. Best if you turn the settings to
NikonD5300 F2;8 15secs ISO1200 manual focus, use the Lupe in the screen to adjust ,take a test shot or two until the stars are just in focus , then using a but of insulation tape ( gorilla tape is good in the cold ) tape the focus ring to prevent it revolving , The middle of the infinity mark should be lined up in the maximum distance line on the focusing ring .
File setting , should be in RAW , this will give you up to 5 stops of exposure latitude each way ,thus allowing you to “pull “out to the correct exposure by 2 stops at least in post processing ,so that an 8 second exposure when viewed on the cameras screen will seem quite underexposed will have the well formed shape of the Aurora curtain ,but when pulled out later in post processing by 2 stops it will have an effective exposure of 30 secs ! Neat eh !
Final note in shutter speed , when triggering the shutter use the self timer set to 2 seconds ,or an external triggering device as mentioned above .
Kirkjufell ,with Kirkjufoss in the foreground ,F2:8 25secs, ISO1600
Nikon D5300 25Secs F2;8 ISO1200
Note how the Aurora curtain has lost detail due to the 25 secs exposure time.(no Moon that night)
You can of course use JPEG or JPEG & RAW ,but this will not only fill your card quicker, but will use the cameras buffer for longer , if you are completing a time-lapse compilation this will hold things up a bit .
After a 30 seconds exposure you will notice that the stars will appear as dashes due to the earths rotation and spoil your shot ,also the Red green curtain will appear as a green mush as it can move
Malarrif Lighthouse RAW conversion,f2:8 15secs ISO 1200 (no moon)
Right⇒Jpeg from a RAW conversion 15secs(more detail and less noise )
Mararrif Lighthouse Aurora moved rather quickly ,so ideally 8-15 seconds is your limit .Experiment !
The Harbour, Höfn
⇐RAW development in Lightroom allows the enhancement of reflections in the image to be brought out.
⇐Straight Jpeg, notice lack of detail and clarity in the sky& foreground
The last on your camera settings is the ISO , which is the sensitivity of the cameras sensor .The larger the number ,the greater the sensitivity to light ,and the quicker your shutter can fire .Like all things there is a trade off ,in this case it’s sensor noise due to the increased sensitivity of the sensor ,it now picks up reflected light from adjacent pixels on the sensor itself .
Also there will now be a lack of detail .The larger the sensor , the less a problem this will be ,i.e. The large sensor of the full frame DSLR has bags of latitude ,noise is not much of an issue as it is in its smaller cousin the DX or micro 2/3rd format.
If you are of the latter persuasion, ( and I am , I love the small size of the micro 2/3rd ,much more of a creative tool than most DSLR users can imagine !)
In terms of frugality there is now available, completely free ,the NIK SOFTWARE suite including amongst other software Silver FX Pro 2 ( digressing here ,this is the program I use for all my monochrome work ) the software I’m pointing at in this paragraph is called ” Define ” it’s the noise reduction software that is tough to beat .On the default setting there is little reason to fiddle . If how ever you find the level of detail is uncomfortably reduced in your image ,you can paint the detail back to a degree using another piece of free software in the suite “sharpening output ” set to “inkjet.”
This you can paint back on the image in Adobe elements / Photoshop ( once you have flattened the image in the Layers menu ) ,just select the brush size and away you go ( there is an annoying save button for every brush stroke ,I imagine it’s a bug that they will sort out at some point) .
So back to the point in question ,start at 1200 ISO and experiment from there,3200 begins to get a bit noisy ,especially when there is no moon , if you have included a fair amount of foreground detail and a half to full moon then a lower ISO will work .Experiment!
Remember the RAW format though +- 5 stops ! Just try it out on a clear sky and see how much detail you can pull out .
So now all that is left is the composition.The Aurora curtain has a general direction of east to west , in a violent show the ripple may take a north/south heading for a bit , So position yourself with this in consideration. The temptation initially is to just take a photo of the Aurora itself ,while quite spectacular, the winners and most memorable, are the images with foreground interest ,it’s worth the research ,get something in the foreground and you will be richly rewarded !
Lighthouse ,Icelandic pony, iceberg, car ,mountain , old building ,Viking! Get yourself on the beach ,remember though the point at the beginning foreground interest will need to be illuminated ,so at least a half moon shining on this one . reflections in a rock pool ,normal health and safety rules apply of course ,lets state the obvious first ,watch the tide and the waves ,they take no prisoners !
best to visit the beach the day before and line things up.You will not only gain more depth in your photography but also in your holiday .
That’s it ! If there is one guarantee ,it is this ,once you have seen the Aurora in full swing and taken an image of it ,it will haunt you for the rest of your life , not a day will pass that you don’t think of it ,it’s an itch that requires frequent scratching .
Hope these notes will offer some relief .
David L .Smith
So a review of settings :-
1.Camera =DSLR DX or Micro 2/3rd fine , good compact ( forget mobile phones !)
2.15mm (35mm equivalent) up to 28mm f2:8 best f4:0 ok ,the Aurora is huge !
3. Tripod with case ( to carry extra weight for stabilising).
4.Warm clothing ! lens warming device advised ,prevents misting/Freezing up.
5.Settings ,RAW for better post processing .you should have the software on disc that came with the camera .
6.ISO 1200 max with noise reduction software ( NIK collection ,Google )define
7.Manual focus on distant object and tape in position
8.A full or half moon will illuminate the foreground better to balance the final image
9.Worth knowing is that the Aurora will appear on your correctly exposed digital image before your own eyes pick it up .