Like many the dream of photographing the northern lights was on my bucket list and last year I finally got my chance when I spent Christmas at the Ice Hotel. Situated near the mining town of Kiruna, the most northern town in Sweden, it is within the arctic circle and is a great location for viewing the northern lights in all their splendour.
Since I've have had a couple of people ask me how I did it on Facebook, here's a few tips for shooting the northern lights.
Before your trip ensure that you have the following:
- A sturdy tripod
- Spare camera batteries
- Thermal inner gloves
- Plenty of SD cards
Staying warm is important and the thermal gloves will allow enough dexterity to operate your camera as well as keep the frozen air at bay. One night it was -28°C / -18°F for me, so ensure that you're wearing numerous layers. I'm talking ice breakers, craghoppers, snow boots, fleeces, hats, buffs - the works. All of your spare batteries should be kept warm otherwise they will lose their charge; an inside pocket works well.
What camera settings to use is a topic people really worry about if they're new to night-time photography and there is no perfect answer. It really depends on both the current environment and your gear.
Lets start off with settings that worked for me. I found my ideal ISO sensitivity to be around 800-1200 and my shutter speed to be between 8-13 seconds. My Nikon D610 handles higher ISO values pretty well but if you're using entry level gear I'd suggest that you lower the ISO to 400 and increase the exposure time in order to reduce noise. You'll definitely need to experiment, I went to a few firework displays to get use to shooting in the dark.
For your aperture you'll want a higher f/stop so that the foreground and background details are preserved. A lens which can focus to infinity is useful here as it will result in very distant objects being in focus, including the stars! If you do not have the infinity symbol on the barrel of your lens you might want to check online for how to infinity focus with your lens. Finally auto focus should be turned off otherwise your camera may start seeking.
When it comes to composition try to include some context of your location in the frame. Pointing your camera directly up at the sky is fine but having some woodland trees, a nearby town or even yourself in the photo will really add something extra.
And one final thing - don't get too hung up in capturing the moment with your camera that you forget to enjoy the moment itself.