How to take photos of the Northern Lights

It’s one of nature’s great events, and it’s surprisingly easy to do if you have a DSLR camera

IMG_1107Now is a great time see – and to photograph – the Northern Lights. We’re at the mid-point of the Solar Maximum, a 12-years-or-so period when the famed green lights above the Arctic Circle are historically at their most frequent and spectacular. Unless you’ve got incredibly sensitive camera equipment, filming the Northern Lights is impossible, but capturing a photograph is surprisingly easy – so much so that once you’ve got the settings down to a tee, it’s easy to enjoy the show, too. TravGear de-camped to Finland in November to have a go.

IMG_1110When to go: the Moon

As always with astronomical phenomena, the Moon’s positioning makes a huge difference. Dedicated astro-photographers should definitely visit during New Moon week to get a truly starry sky as a backdrop. It’s also worth taking a pair of 10×50 binoculars along for some stargazing while you wait since the skies here are so dark and free from light pollution that clusters, nebulas and the Andromeda Galaxy are easily visible. Leave your telescopes at home; you’re already going to be lugging around enough gear. However, a Full Moon can be just as appealing, with brightly-lit foregrounds, such as frozen lakes and shorelines – and some quite stunningly bright moon-shadows – producing some entrancing images (though there’s a lot more light around). Arty shots galore are possible, while the Northern Lights tend to be seen in (you guessed it) the northern sky, and mostly away from the Full Moon, except during particularly strong activity when they dance high above and to the south.

IMG_0758When to go: the Sun

Lapland is famous for being the home of Santa Claus, with much if December dominated by spoiled British children and a parent on day-trips or overnighters to see The Bearded One. So if you do want to catch the utterly unique, feeble light of the kaamos period when the sun never truly rises over the horizon, go for early January. Note that this is also the coldest part of the year when temperatures can drop to as long as -40ºC. However, November is famed for offering the strongest and most predictable aurora displays.

IMG_1115What lenses to take

A wide-angle 10-24mm lens with fast aperture of between 1.4 and 3.5 is recommended, though my own 10-22mm lens with 4.5 aperture proved absolutely fine. You won’t want to swap-out lenses while out in the (freezing) field – it’s a faff and, frankly, not good for your camera pr lenses. It’s also really important to have a clean sensor; noise is always going to be visible on Northern Lights images to some degree – thats the nature of the subject matter – but by having the sensor cleaned on your camera (something that costs about £20) you can remove dirty spots. If you’ve never had it cleaned before, your camera’s sensor is likely filthy. It’s possible to batch-remove some of them using Lightroom, but why bother? Also makes sure your lenses are clean (something most of us overlook), and remove any filters you might be using during the day.

IMG_0770What settings should I use?

Set your camera to manual exposure, put at at the widest aperture possible, make sure the white balance is on automatic, and fix the focus at infinity (I used masking tape to keep it there). Try exposure times of between 10 and 20 seconds. Any shorter and it the images will be too dark. Any more and the stars in the background will start to become star trails. However, to get interesting shapes it’s often better to take long shutter speeds – up to 30 seconds – on very weak displays.

IMG_0775Do I need a tripod?

Yes. A tripod is mandatory; you really wont get anything that’s not ruinously blurry without one. Go for a reasonably lightweight model, though a full-size is always better than a shrunk ‘travel’ tripod to avoid spending the evenings kneeling in the (admittedly rather dry iso-thermic type of ) Finnish snow.

IMG_1110Do I need a remote shutter release cable?

It’s optional, and something else to lose. It’s crucial not to introduce camera shake, especially for long exposure photographs, but since most cameras have a two-second delay on the shutter release, it’s no biggie not to have one (unless you’re going for 30-second+ exposures, which is way to long for aurora photography).

14Will my camera get covered in condensation?

Yes – so take precautions. DSLRs are built for below-freezing temperatures, and surprisingly sturdy, but they do demand proper care. While you;re using the camera outside don’t breath on the LCD screen – condensation forms instantly, and freezes soon after. It’s therefore necessary to hold your breath while lining-up a shot and releasing the shutter. After a few hours of aurora photography your DSLR will be really cold and beginning to ice-up. It’s handy to have both a brush and a camera bag; the former to remove dust and snow from the lens, and the latter to house your cold camera before you go back inside. The padding on the bag will allow your camera to get warm only very slowly, which reduces the possibility of damaging the electronics.

15How to predict the aurora borealis

There are three things that can help you predict the aurora borealis, and only one of them can be downloaded (sorry!). SolarHam is handy for assessing the Kp-index (how disturbed Earth’s magetic field is) of a solar storm, and therefore its progress south. A solar storm of Kp4 in strength is required for serious aurora in Finland (contrast that with a Kp9 for the UK). In terms of websites yr.no is also great for judging cloud cover while in Finland which, incidentally, has wildly fast and almost total 4G mobile connectivity). However, the other two factors in predicting the aurora come down to experience; only someone who lives and works locally as a Northern Lights photographer – and has done for some time – will be able to whisk you to a cloud-free corridor to maximise your chances. These guys also know what time they start, something that’s really not well known at all outside a few specialist photographers (many tour groups head out into freezing temperatures way too early in the evening), and they also know each other. That is why we recommend you book a dedicated Northern Lights photography trip with The Aurora Zone or Adventure By Design.

22What about aurora alarms?

Many hotels give you an aurora alarm, in reality a cheap Nokia phone that receives a text message from someone responsible for reading some of the websites mentioned above. That might sound handy, but in reality a message is received about 6pm that says something along the lines of ‘Great auroras tonight if the clouds stay away!’ or ‘There’s a good chance we’ll see Lady Aurora later tonight!’, and are of limited actual use. Since aurora don’t tend to begin in Finish Lapland until about 11pm, cloud cover can change a lot between the message being received and the show starting.

Jamie Carter travelled with The Aurora Zone (01670 785 012) on its Jeris Autumn Aurora Photography holiday, with dates available from September 2015. The flights were supported by the Regional Council of Finland. For a winter/spring 2015 photography trip, the seven-night Torassieppi Aurora Photography trip costs from £2,108 pp, including direct flights (London), transfers, full board accommodation, activities (including Auroraphotography workshop with Gareth Hutton, Pallas Fell snowshoe trip, 17km husky safari, Aurora hunting via minibus and snowmobile safari), guides, and cold-weather clothing. Departures available in January, February and March.