Finding the Northern LightsPáll Jökull assisting two photographers shooting the Northern Lights at the Glacier lagoon at full moon.
I guess your Bucket list includes among other things seeing the Northern lights, and you would like to do it on your next trip? If you are traveling in Iceland from end of August to end of March you have a chance to see the Northern Lights if weather permits. That is because at the end of August the nights are dark enough and long enough for you to be able to see them. For you to bring the memories of the Northern lights home, it is appropriate to talk a bit about how to prepare and how to photograph the Northern lights.
Can I see the Northern lights at full moon?
Yes, you can see the aurora even if the moon is full, and actually it sometimes helps with bringing out details in the foreground which helps greatly in making a good photo of the northern lights. The photo above is a good example of that, as the moon lights up the glaciers and the mountains.
Why do I not always see the green color?
The eye does not see colors as clearly in darkness as in daylight, and when the aurora is not strong it sometimes appear as a faint, white glow on the horizon. On the other hand when the activity is higher and lights get stronger you will clearly see the green color, and sometimes even red, pink or purple colors. The modern DSLR cameras can capture the vivid colors of the night sky much better than the naked eye. Most of the time you can use Auto white balance to get good results, but I don't recommend that. If you are familiar with the white balance settings on your camera, the optimum setting should be 3500-4000K which gives result close to the actual color of the northern lights and it does not change from one shot to the next. Here is a visual explanation of the Kelvin scale.
"Humans use two different kinds of cells in their eyes to sense light. Cone cells, concentrated in the fovea in the central area of vision, are high resolution and detect color in bright light. These are the main cells we use for vision in the daytime. Rod cells, concentrated in the periphery around the outside of the fovea, can detect much fainter light at night, but only see in black and white and shades of gray." Catching the light, by Jerry Lodriguss
What should I bring?
You should bring warm clothes and good walking boots. Hat and warm gloves are essential when the wind blows and the temperature goes down to minus degrees Celsius. A flashlight is useful so you can see what you are doing when you set up your camera and fasten it on your tripod. Your smart phone can also be used as a flashlight. Bring your camera with fully charged battery's + a spare battery just in case. A sturdy tripod is necessary because you are doing long exposures and sometimes in some wind. A remote shutter release or using the timer for the shutter to decrease camera shake. If you have a lens with large aperture, (f/1.4 - f/2.8) and wide angle (14mm - 21mm) you should use it for getting best results. I recommend for example the Samyang 14mm f2.8 lens for the northern lights. It is a fully manual lens, inexpensive and can be bought with various mounts, such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Fujifilm and more.
Aurora at ThingvellirOn a still night at lake Þingvallavatn.
Can I use AUTO to shoot the Northern Lights.
No, the Auto setting is not suitable in these conditions, the Manual (M) setting should be used to get the best results. Be careful when focusing in the dark. It is best to focus manually on a distant light, a bright star or the moon for example, and then turn oft the auto focus on the lens. If you are not used to photographing in the dark I recommend that you practice and get to know your camera and familiarise with the necessary settings before you come to Iceland for the real thing. The Northern lights are unpredictable and sometimes they appear suddenly and then maybe disappear again 10 minutes later. In these circumstances it is not good to be fumbling with your settings in the dark.
Aurora borealisAt the Glacier Lagoon in moonlight.
Practice makes perfect!
Set your camera to high ISO, (1200 - 4000) and switch to manual (M) for optimum control. New or relatively new DSLR cameras do have better ISO performance than earlier models. Choose the largest aperture (lowest f-stop) of the lens and start with 5-10 sec exposure. Review your shot and adjust your settings accordingly. The shorter your exposure you use, the more details you will get in the lights, because they tend to move quite fast. For example a 1 - 5 second exposure is possible if the lights are strong.
ThingvellirThe church and old house at Þingvellir National park.
Where should I go for the best experience?
To Iceland of course! By driving out of city lights you will increase your chances to see the Northern lights and by following the weather forecast you are often able to find the best location. Choose your location carefully, because when photographing the northern lights it is equally important to have a good foreground and other interests in your shots as in regular landscape photography. For example a mountain, a tree, an old deserted house or having a lake or a pond close by adds to the interest with some reflections on the water.
If you are in Iceland, and would like to get a professional guidance to shoot some aurora, you can contact me for a tour and guidance. In the blog post are some examples of my Northern lights shots. Happy shooting:)
The aurora activity can be seen on few web pages, such as http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/pmap/pmapN.html. This plot shows the current extent and position of the auroral oval in the northern hemisphere, extrapolated from measurements taken during the most recent polar pass of the NOAA POES satellite. Of course the Northern lights can not always be seen, so you have to be prepared to fail for the first time. When traveling to Iceland your main goal should be to enjoy the country and what it has to offer, not just the Northern lights. Seeing them is like the icing on the cake :-)
More photos of Northern lights here.