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Northern Lights

Photo tips

How to take photographs of the Northern Lights

(Back to the Northern Lights tour page)

Cameras that can manage to take pictures of the aurora have to have a manual setting. The camera needs to be useable in high ISO setting. Older cameras, 5 years and older, are not as good in high ISO setting like the newer ones, so you should have a good photosensitive lens

The lenses that are best to use are panoramic/wide and with a large diaphragm. You can use a tight/close-fitted/close lens but if you want to have some landscape in the picture panoramic/wide lenses are best. The lens needs to have a focus indicator as well to see where the focus is because autofocus does not work in this situation. This indicator is on most finer lenses and is situated on top of it.

How to adjust everything

The camera should be adjusted to manual mode. The diaphragm should be adjusted to the largest diaphragm the lens provides. In fact the lower the diaphragm number is the better, 1.4, 2.0 or 2.8 are the best ones.

The shutter speed should be adjusted to 4 seconds in the beginning, sometimes you need a shorter time but most of the time you need longer time, about 4-15 seconds. It is not recommended to go over 20 seconds because it will develop something called star trail in the stars.

ISO (photosensitive/sensitive), should be adjusted to ISO 800 in the beginning. Most of the time ISO 800-3200 is used but the lower the number the better the quality and better colors. You can experiment with this number, it all depends on how strong the aurora is.
The lens is adjusted to manual focus and if it has image stabilizer on the lens you must turn that off and also if you have some sort of a filter fastened on the front of the lens, like UV-filter or something like that you should take that off as well. The focus should then be adjusted to infinity, there the window with the focus indicator should appear. If the focus is not stable in the lens you should turn the focus circle to the left or right, depends on the manufacturer which way the infinity setting is, and then a little bit back again, but only a little bit. It might be hard to get focus in these situations but if you have trouble with it, you can zoom out the lens to the max and try to focus on a star and then zoom back when the focus is there. The camera is put on a tripod and if you have something called shutter release then it is good to use that but not necessary.

White balance is best to adjust on AW (auto white balance). The aurora is moving fast and the color changes also quickly so this setting is the best in this situation.

So, the basics are:
  • Put the camera on the tripod, take filters off of any and turn off the no shake
  • ISO should be adjusted to 800-3200.
  • The diaphragm should be as big as the lens provides.
  • Shutter speed should be 4-15 seconds.
  • White Balance adjusted to auto white balance.
  • Take extra batteries with you, because it will empty fast in the cold.
  • Flashlight if possible so you can see what you are doing while adjusting the settings on the camera.

Written by Aðalheiður Stella Stefánsdóttir based on an interview with photographer