Let’s go to Lapland and photograph the Northern Lights ! Between September and April, the Northern Lights appear about every other night when the days are at their shortest and darkest. Of course, the sky needs to be clear of clouds. This bright natural phenomenon can appear and fade from the sky as quickly as it appears. The Northern Lights, which occur almost every night during the winter, are generally of low intensity and may even be invisible to the naked eye. But the camera sees them well. Fortunately, our cameras’ sensors are more sensitive to colors than our eyes! You’ve always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights and bringing back a lasting souvenir, but you don’t know where to start ? Don’t panic; here are some tips for viewing the Aurora: how to photograph the Northern Lights, what clothes to bring to avoid freezing, what equipment to take with you etc.
When to see the Northern Lights ?
The official season for the Northern Lights in Lapland is from September 21st to March 21st (autumn and spring equinoxes). To see an aurora borealis, it must be dark, and generally the peak time is between 20h00 and 0h00. But depending on the place and how far north you are, you can see the aurora borealis as early as 4 pm The higher the latitudes or the further North you are, the shorter the winter days and the earlier the spectacle can begin. In addition, around the fall and spring equinox, the aurora activity is stronger due to the axial tilt. Being able to catch a glimpse of the display depends on geomagnetic activity, the geographic location, local weather, light pollution from city lights, and the full moon.
Before seeking the aurora borealis, it is imperative to check the weather forecast and the Kp index (Planetary K-Index). The aurora borealis is a high-altitude phenomenon that occurs well above the clouds. Therefore, monitor the local weather forecasts to assess expected cloud cover. As you will have understood, the idea is to have a clear sky! As for the Kp index, it is used to determine the chance of seeing an aurora. The Kp index ranges from 0 to 9 and measures the geomagnetic activity over a 3-hour period. If the Kp index is superior to 5, your chance of seeing an Aurora is better. Therefore, download apps on your smartphone giving forecasts of:
- The local weather
- The Kp index: Aurora Forecast or Aurora Alerts (available on Google Play and Apple Store)
Once you have checked the local weather and Kp index, you must prepare your gear. But, what gear ?
Bring something to warm you up when chasing the Northern Lights
It is imperative that you stay outside because the show of bright dancing waves can quickly appear and disappear at any time. Moreover, photographing these luminous phenomena is a static activity. You can spend several hours gazing at the sky without moving. You must dress warmly; you won’t enjoy the show if you get cold too quickly. Wear a lot of layers.
- For the upper body, you know the onion technique ? No, this is not the latest trick to avoid crying while peeling an onion! There’s no secret to enduring the cold: you must layer your clothes. The first layer is the one that comes in direct contact with the skin: choose short or long underwear made of merino wool or a synthetic fiber. The second layer, intermediate, is used to isolate body heat: opt for fleeces or down. The third layer, waterproof and breathable, protects against humidity and wind. Also, remember to take a wool scarf or a thick collar in your bag.
- For the lower body, it’s the same principle of layering. The first layer will be an undergarment of merino wool or synthetic fiber. On top, a pair of ski pants will do the trick. If you are really cold, you can add a light woolen tracksuit under your ski pants.
- For the head, fingers and toes, invest in a big woolen hat or a chapka to keep your head cold (or rather, warm). For the hands, a good pair of mittens in which you will slip warmers. Big thick gloves don’t go well with small camera buttons and dials. Think of wearing silk liner under-gloves that will protect you from the cold. That way, you can take your mittens off to handle your camera and still keep your hands warm. For my part, I opted for a pair of thin gloves under a pair of woolen gloves, hidden in large mittens! For the feet, a good pair of woolen socks and a pair of high boots to walk comfortably in the snow.
It’s too bad if someone tells you that you look like a certain Michelin man ! Anyway , the stars of your nighttime shoot are the lights. You are now warmly equipped and ready to hunt for the Northern Lights, but… When you have been outside for several hours, your toes will be numb, and your fingers will lose all motivation to get out of their mittens to take pictures. Warming up your numb fingers is essential to taking the perfect shoot. You need to remember to move to force the blood to circulate and drink a hot drink !
What equipment should I use to photograph the Northern Lights ?
Photographing the Northern Lights is not an exact science as many factors exist. Each camera and each lens will give different results. So you’ll have to experiment before finding what works for your camera. A single-lens reflex or hybrid camera is recommended for this type of photography. Here are some practical tips:
- Take a camera with manual mode; to photograph the Northern Lights, you must have full control over different settings on your camera. It would be best if you had a camera where you can, on the one hand, adjust the exposure time and, on the other hand, increase the sensitivity. The lens should also be able to open to F4 (at least) but ideally around F2.8. Don’t forget to turn off the flash and set the white balance to “daylight” to ensure that the colors in your photos don’t turn yellow or blue.
- Stabilize the camera: a stable and sturdy tripod is essential! It is best to hold the camera motionless for several seconds. OK, the artistic blur can produce a little effect, but it is not the one we are looking for here. A cable release is helpful to avoid pressing the shutter button on the top of your camera. Even pressing the shutter button can cause the camera to shake with the long exposure you are using. Otherwise, you could use the camera’s 2-second timer to ensure there is no risk of movement of the camera when the exposure starts. The longer the exposure, the more likely some motion.
- Auroras fill large areas in the sky, so a wide-angle lens is ideal. It will catch the most light and be the most comfortable for shooting the sky and landscape. Anything from 16mm to 30mm lens is ideal for full-frame cameras.
- Don’t forget spare batteries; freezing temperature and long exposure drain camera batteries quickly. Keep several fully charged batteries in the inside pockets of your jacket for your body heat to ensure you have enough battery life to take your shots. A “cold” battery may register as empty or simply not start the camera !
- Check your memory cards: there should be enough space left, especially if the evening is going to be intense.
Finally, take a flashlight with you, if only to look at where you are placing your tripod or where you have focused. You have put on your warmest clothes, all your photographic equipment is ready, the sky is clear, and the Kp index is high. It’s time to get down to business: let’s photograph an aurora borealis !
Shooting the Northern Lights ?
Ideally, find photo spots during the day: a beautiful photogenic landscape far enough from civilization so that light pollution does not spoil your shot. Go back to the site at nightfall, set up your equipment (tripod), and make adjustments. The first time I saw an aurora borealis, I rushed to my camera. The Aurora was over by the time I had deployed the tripod, taken the camera out of the bag, and made the settings… The moral of the story is that your camera equipment should be ready. If not, leave your gear where it is and enjoy the show. The Northern Lights are often very short-lived… So take the time to enjoy the show and don’t spend all your time behind your camera.
You will tend to point your camera at the sky, which is understandable: the Northern Lights are so beautiful! But don’t make the aurora borealis the only subject of your picture. The success of your photographs is all about composition. Remember, one of photography’s old-fashioned rules is connecting Heaven and Earth. By adding some context, you add a new dimension to your picture. Lapland landscapes are perfect for this. The dancing lights in the sky over a mountain range, a lake, or a fjord, and the trick is done. All you have to do is wait patiently for the aurora borealis to come on stage…
Tadaaaa! The show starts, all beautiful, all green! You fine-tune the framing and shoot. Look at the result immediately to check the exposure. Is the photo underexposed, increase the exposure time or the sensitivity; overexposed, decrease these parameters? Change the manual settings and do it again and again until the Aurora disappears, varying the framing if possible to get different shots. Since you won’t know the speed or brightness of the Aurora ahead of time, you’ll need to find the shutter speed and ISO setting that gives the best results. Some quick tips, if the aurora borealis you are viewing is bright and fast, choose a shutter speed between 5 and 10 seconds (ISO 4,000). For a slower aurora borealis, try a shutter speed between 12 and 20 seconds (ISO 3,200). Finally, for a less intense aurora borealis, you can push it to 20 or 25 seconds (ISO 2500). Be careful, the higher the ISO, the lighter you will capture and the more pixelated your photos will be.
« Hold back the night… For the two of us until the end of the world ».
Now it’s time to go back to bed. Take the time to put your camera in your bag, or even a plastic bag if it is icy cold, so that it will avoid a thermal shock that could be harmful – condensation is not good for electronic components – and taking your camera from freezing cold outside to warm inside might result in condensation forming on your lens.