One of my dreams has always been to photograph the Northern lights under a fresh blanket of white snow. A few years I got a chance to photograph the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies. I happened to be on a workshop at Abraham Lake shooting winter landscapes when we received an unexpected stunning display of lights. At this point I had no experience and was not sure even how to do it; all I knew was the photography mantra, “expose to the right always”. So I made the mistake of shooting the northern lights for thirty seconds or more to get the scene exposure on the right side of my histogram. During my moments of excitement and panic I did not even think to look at the images just the histogram. I learned a hard less on that night as the final result was a series of images that had all been overexposed. This overexposure caused all the Northern lights to blend together with no detail or patterns. A lot has happened since then in term of camera equipment technology and photographer progress. These days with the year 2014 being a great year for Northern Lights I thought I would write a brief article on my experience and what I have learned.
When it comes to locations and where to find the right places to shoot the Northern Lights it always comes down to a few places that always win the hearts of photographers when it comes to visual beauty. As most know the Northern Lights are called that for a reason and that being they are seen in the higher areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The areas that I find the truly most scenic are Iceland, Norway/Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada/Yukon. Each has its plus and minuses which are beyond the scope of the article.
This year has been predicted to be a fantastic year for Northern Lights so I decided to do plan several trips this year based around the Northern lights. For my first trip I visited the countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and more specifically the Lofoten Islands. I had never been there and had seen all the images with fresh snow and snow capped mountain peaks. It was exactly what I had been looking for. From research I knew driving would be extremely difficult in the Lofoten Islands so I decided to take a photo tour where I would not have to worry about that. If you have ever photographed with me you know that was a smart decision. It was nice to be able to just be taken to places without worrying if I would end up lost and frozen somewhere in the night. Some nights it was -28 and a few seconds in this temperature and you felt the numbness already. The other advantage of taking a photo tour is the instructors will know the best places to go when the Northern Lights do happen. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a place when the lights occur. Not only was this advantageous to have instructors take you to these places but they also have the knowledge to know where it is most likely to happen and when. This was really helpful at night so that you did not have to stay up all night to look out the window when you have already been shooting all day.
So how are you suppose to shoot Northern Lights? Well the following is just my experience with it and what I found works best.
The first thing I want to talk about is shutter speed and how long you should expose for the image. This depends on the light available at each scene and the elements. The most important aspect I found to be essential to shooting lights is to make sure you don’t overexpose. What I found works best to capture detail in the Northern Lights is anywhere from five to twelve seconds. Anymore then this and the lights just blur into one another and you lose the stunning movements of the lights. I adjust the shutter speed based on how fast the lights are moving. When you get high action movement in the lights adjust your settings to have a shutter speed of five seconds. This short shutter speed will allow you to capture all the stunning patterns and movement of the Northern Lights. When the lights are barely visible I was up around twelve seconds. So in terms of my ISO I adjusted it so that I would be able to get the proper shutter speed. I photograph with a Nikon D800 with a 14-24/2.8 lens so that camera and lens does really well with night photography. I found that most of my images were taken at ISO 1600 and a few at ISO 3200 for the short bursts of light. In hindsight most of the images that I took at ISO 3200 were too noisy for large printing. It goes without saying that newer cameras will do better with noise and low light situations. I also recommend using a lens that has an aperture of 2.8 or less. Shooting at f/4 lens I was not able to shoot the lights with minimal noise and fast enough shutter speed. If possible a 1.4 or 1.8 would be even more preferable. In terms of what type of lens to shoot in terms of length, I always look for something as wide as possible. Using a 14mm lens I was able to capture most of the patterns in one image. I have seen plenty of fantastic images with a fish-eye lens as well.
So what happens to the rest of the elements in the image when shooting specifically for the Northern Lights?
Well when shooting just for the lights the rest of the elements went completely dark and no detail. This meant I had to do another exposure just for the rest of the scene and manually blend the two images together in post processing. It is vital that you use a strong tripod with a sturdy ballhead to prevent any kind of movement during the shot especially when shooting on the ice. The first night of shooting Northern Lights we visited a frozen lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The creativity of shooting Northern Lights has been getting better so fast, that the most creative images most always include the foreground with the Northern Lights. So being that I was on a frozen lake I looked for ice cracks that would act as great leading lines that would connect the foreground to the background lights. To properly expose the complete scene you need to take at least two images. One image should expose for the Northern Lights; a second image where you expose for the foreground and the other elements in the image. A critical element to exposure in the foreground is the elements present. If there is plenty of snow especially in the foreground your exposure will be much less. After the images are taken I usually shoot another image with my hand in front of the lens to signify the end of the series of images. Later in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge I can stack those images as the same set or series. This is very helpful later on when trying to sort what image goes with what. So I shot the Northern lights at ISO 1600 for nine second and then exposed for the foreground ice, which was anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds. I then manually blended the two in Photoshop.
The next component to photographing Northern Lights successfully is Aperture and focusing. Aperture is a constant from my experience. I need to be at an aperture f/2.8 (lower if I had a faster lens) always to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the patterns in the Northern Lights. Combining an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 1600 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of less then ten seconds. The trickiest part for me was the focusing. I started by focusing on the background first to make sure I got the Northern Lights in focus. I set this up by looking at my LCD live and focusing on a star in the distant sky. I then go in at 100% preview by pushing the plus button till I got a bright star in tight and rotated the focus till it was sharp. Once that has occurred you can shoot the background Northern Lights with the assurance you have those sharp. Double check after by checking the LCD review of the image and going in again at 100% to see all the stars are sharp. You know you are in the right area if you are focusing on infinity and then pulling back a smidge from that. If that all seems like too much work you can practice test shots during the day and marking on your lens where the background is in focus and use that mark on the lens later when shooting Northern lights. There are other ways that people use to focus on background stars but I found these methods worked best for me. Once you are confident the background Northern Lights are sharp, refocus for the foreground without moving the tripod or the camera position. If you are going to later blend the two images together in post processing there can be no movement in the camera. In my experience this was the hardest part in the process. I tried a couple of images where I shot one image focusing only on the background but all my foreground elements would be soft. So I would say it is imperative to refocus for a second shot. Once I got the hang of that process I took it one step further and took several images focus bracketing at several different increments blending all the images in post processing.
So how do you focus in the foreground when everything is in complete darkness? The answer is bringing some sort of light like a LED light or your headlamp. Find an object in the immediate foreground you will want to include in the image and then focus on that. Use the LCD preview and again go in at 100% to make sure everything is sharp. There are many ways that people offer when it comes to focusing on subjects in the foreground but for me I chose the most important element of the foreground I wanted and used that. That works well except if you are in a group or a workshop where everyone is photographing as well. Shooting with several other participants in the workshop in a wide open space with head lamps buzzing everywhere lead to contamination of light in most of my images. Even though people are spread out, any kind of light that people use can show up in your images. No matter how far away I seemed to get away from the group I could see other photographers flashlights in my images. So be wary if in a group situation. This can be very hard to overcome when shooting Northern Lights. Thus, I tried to avoid using any light and use my best estimate. This proved to be a big mistake and I lost several images to the foreground being soft.
So to overcome this obstacle I decided I needed to wait till the next day. I would practice during the daylight and mark my lens where the optimal sharpness point should be; choosing to focus on something one-third into the foreground scene. When testing I looked for a similar situation that I would find myself in while shooting the Northern Lights. I was looking for something where the foreground element would be similar such as a rock, ice crack, etc. This foreground subject would be right in front of me with the mountain peaks in the far background. Once I found the spot of optimal sharpness I marked this on my lens. I could then go straight to that focus point next time I was in the dark and shooting Northern Lights in a group situation. I want to note this was not the ideal situation and the focus was not always a 100% but it was the best I could do under the situation.
The last thing I did was take some time to just enjoy the Northern Lights without doing any shooting. Just enjoy the amazing show that so few people every get to see!
If you have any tips that you found helpful that would be great to know..