Friday, February 21, 2014

How to photograph the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights are undoubtedly the most amazing natural phenomenon that is observable in Finland and probably on the whole planet. But how can one's show to others the beauty of these lights? As the saying tells: a picture is worth a thousand words. How often people get disappointed as their images are not translating what they saw? The explanation might be that taking a picture of a Northern Light is not as easy as pressing the shutter release in automatic mode. In this article I will try to give you the best tips to get the best possible result even without being a pro in photography.

Ruka 01.12.2013 1:35am, ISO1250, F/5.6, 30s, 24mm (Canon 5D Mark II) 

Rule number 1: forget your smartphone! 
It can be as smart as Albert Einstein, it won't take any good picture. Unless the Northern Lights are very, very bright. Also, your battery will be empty in a few minutes or even seconds if it's 30 degrees below zero. All you need a camera with manual mode. There is no perfect lens. All depends on which kind of pictures you want to take. But wide angles are the most common and the largest possible aperture (F/4, F/2.8, F/1.8). Take off all the filters on your lens(es). They might cause unwanted concentric rings.

Rule number 2: load all your batteries
When the temperatures are extremely cold, batteries get empty quite fast. It is always good to have one or two extra in case. Also, keep them in a pocket which is close from your body (e.g. pocket of your trousers) in order to avoid frost and connection problems when you insert them into your camera. Take also an extra memory card.

Rule number 3: take a flash light 
You will walk in the total darkness as you have to avoid light pollution and a flash light is always useful to know where you are walking and for seting up your camera.

Rule number 4: take a tripod with you
In order to take pictures of the Northern Lights, long exposure time is needed and the camera should not move at all while the curtains are open. Make sure that your pod is stable. You can hang your bag to the hook. In order to avoid movement when you press the shutter, use a cable, a remote or the 10 seconds timer.

Rule number 5: the basic settings

  • On your lens, deactivate the stabilizer and the auto-focus. This is mandatory if you want to have sharp pictures. 
  • Turn the focus (the ring on the lens) to infinite.
  • Choose the manual mode. 
  • A good start is to use: ISO 800, aperture of F/4 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds.
Everything depends on the intensity of the Northern Lights. Sometimes the colors are not visible for the human eye and you need much longer exposure. And sometimes it is so bright that just 5 seconds are enough. I suggest to don't push the ISO over 800 with the basic models of cameras as you will get a lot of numerical noise on your photos. It is better to edit them afterwards on your computer. Shooting in RAW gives better results than in JPG. Sometimes I see people using the flash, but it is totally useless. No flash is powerful enough to light the sky. But of course, if you want to be on the picture, one flash shot is of use.

Rule number 6: Don't forget to protect yourself!
Okay, Northern Lights are on the to-do-list of many people, but it doesn't mean that you can die right after! Wear warm clothes, a hat, a scarf, warm gloves, ski pans and good shoes. Take a snack and a warm drink with you. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will come back. If possible, go hunt the Northern Lights with a friend. Turn off your phone to save the battery. You will need it in case of emergency. And move regularly your fingers and toes in order to avoid frostbites.

Gear rental
If you need to rent some gear, check this website (only in Finnish)
You can also book some equipment at Rajala Pro Shops: locations of their shops

I hope that these tips will help you to get the best out of your camera and impress your friends.
The picture over is the best result I got so far. I've never really been lucky with the intensity of the Northern Lights (max. 3) and I've seen only the basic green ones.

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