Sometimes it’s all about natural light… Sometimes there’s not even a band in sight!
If you’re ever lucky enough to head to the far north and want to take photos of the incredible spectacle that is the Northern Lights this little guide might just help you get started!
Every time I’ve been out trying to shoot this most amazing of natural phenomenon there’s always the discussion of what settings to use with the other intrepid photographers braving the cold for the perfect shot. There’s no right answer of course, it’s all about the image you’re trying to capture, but this guide will share the things I’ve learnt from trial and error and reading around.
It’s really worth getting familiar with some of the inner workings of the camera before you step out in to the night – you’ll need to play with the settings and it’s best to get the hang of this in the warm! I’ve no idea how much you’ve played with your camera, but this is a great way to get better acquainted! I’m really sorry if you know all of this stuff that’s coming up already but if you’ve never really delved around in the menus hopefully this discussion of the basics will help…
There’s a couple of ways to get good photos of the northern lights depends on whether you want to try and get “star trails” or keep stars as points. Either way, because of the long shutter speeds you’ll need to use, the one essential piece of kit you’ll need is a tripod. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but you’ll need it to keep the very camera still during a long exposure.
A remote shutter release of some sort is also really useful, especially one with an shutter lock function for really long exposures (like when you’re trying to capture star trails), but you can get away without one. To be fair if you’re out at night in the winter in the far north (potentially with a howling gale just to make things more chilly!) you’re probably going to want to do everything wrapped up as warm as you can be with your gloves on so keeping your camera kit as simple and as easy to manipulate as possible will make your life much easier.
Getting in amongst the Camera Settings.
First, find the Manual setting! There’s usually a dial on the top of the camera somewhere – turn this to “M”. This means you control all the settings, not the complex (and at times belligerent!) electronics in your little box of tricks. Work out how to change the aperture (“f-number” or “f-stop”) which is how much light the lens lets in to the camera, the ISO (which is how sensitive the sensor is going to be) and shutter speed (how long the camera’s little sensor is exposed to the world).
Getting decent exposure is a balance of the holy trinity of the shutter speed, “f-stop” and ISO – it’s a non-unique solution with every shot and some trial and error will probably be needed.
The smaller the “f” number the wider the diaphragm in the lens opens and more light it lets in, but the narrower the front-to-back zone in front of the camera will actually be in focus. In daylight, when I’m doing landscape work and I want as much of the world as possible to be in focus I’ll use f16-22. When I’m doing gig work, I want as much light as possible so I’ll be using f4-5.6, but that means the “depth of field” (or amount of stuff that’s in focus!) is much smaller so I might get the microphone in perfect focus, but the singer just behind the microphone can be out of focus just behind it! Sensor size plays a role here to – for a given f-stop, the smaller the sensor the broader the depth of field and the more stuff that’ll be in focus.
The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor will be and you’ll be able to take photos in lower light or with faster shutter speeds. There is a trade off though… The higher the ISO the greater the potential “noise” and “grain’ you’ll get in the image. This is more of an issue with a smaller sensor – I have some elderly Olympus 4/3rds kit (tiny sensor) great in daylight, but above 400 ISO the image starts to fall apart. That’s why I do gig work with my Pentax as it has a huge sensor and can capture sharp images at obscenely high ISO numbers (albeit with a very narrow depth of field!)
The longer the shutter speed you use, the more light gets to excite the pixels on your sensor… BUT you can get blurred images through camera shake and your subject moving the longer the sensor gets to look at your target… In everyday daylight shooting a good rule of thumb is that your shutter speed needs to be more than the focal length of the lens in order for you to hand-hold the camera for a shot. This means that if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, then a shutter speed greater than 1/50th of a second means that you shouldn’t get camera shake issues. It’s really hard to hand-hold a camera at shutter speeds less than about 1/30th of a second unless you’re an actual Ninja or budding Zen Master. As you’ll be shooting at night with much longer shutter speeds a tripod (or ascending to true enlightenment) is essential!
The other two (quite sneaky!) settings you’ll need to dig out of the menus on the camera are the “Self Timer” and “Mirror Up”…
The self timer causes a delay from the moment you press the shutter until the moment the camera does its thing. This matters then you’re using a tripod without a remote trigger of some sort because pressing the the shutter moves the camera causing vibration no matter how gentle you are potentially making the image blurry (generally considered a Bad Thing). If you press the shutter and the camera waits for a while before triggering the shutter, any movement attributable to your fat, gloved-up fingers should be done and dusted before the camera does its thing. There’s usually a couple of options for the self-timer – I’ve quite happily used a two second delay, but my camera also has an option for a 12 second delay. One to experiment with!
The “Mirror Up” setting is awesome if you’ve got it… Normally when you look through the viewfinder of an SLR camera the light you see has come in through the lens, been bounced around by a bunch of mirrors that sit between the eyepiece, the sensor and the lens. When you hit the shutter button that mirror moves out of the way (that’s where the “ker-chunk” noise comes from!) allowing light to hit the sensor. In effect you’re moving a fairly sizeable lump of glass around inside the camera and this introduces vibrations (and thus blur) when you’re using slow shutter speeds (that Bad Thing again). Somewhere, deep in the menus should be an option where you press the shutter once to move the mirror out the way, then press it again to trigger the camera to start recording the shot. This means that the magic combination for shooting at night is to press the shutter once to get the mirror out of the way, then press it again to trigger the self timer which will make the camera wait a couple of seconds (and allow the fat-finger induced vibration to run its course) before getting on with the serious business of transcribing those zeros and ones that make up the image on to your SD card…
The final thing you’ll need to do is “deactivate” auto-focus. If you point the camera at the heavens and let it decide what to focus on I guarantee that little box of electronics is going to get confused. Set the lens to manual focus and focus on infinity (the northern lights, stars and clouds etc… are a long way away so this works just fine). There’s usually a focus ring on the lens to enable you to do this (worth having a head torch just in case you need to check this while you’re out and about).
Shooting for Stars as Points…
The world is A) Roughly spherical and B) Rotating surprisingly quickly (15 degrees and hour no less!). This means that the longer the shutter is open the longer the world has to turn meaning that the stars appear to move and you’ll get streaks of light rather than points. Use the widest angle lens you’ve got, so you can see lots of sky. The rumour out there on the net is that if you divide the number 500 by the focal length of your lens you get the number of seconds you can have the shutter open before stars appear to streak. Zoomed right out out, the widest angle lens on my Pentax has a focal length of 26mm (in 35mm equivalent speak…). So 500 divided by 26 gives me a maximum shutter speed of 19.2 seconds before I might start to see streaking
So to keep star streaking to a minimum, I used a shutter speed of 20 seconds, an aperture f8-10 (so the foreground will mostly be in focus, even if though the lens is set to focus on infinity) and ISO 1600. If the image is a little dark, up the ISO and have another go… be a little careful as the higher the ISO the more grainy the image looks (this’ll depend on your camera!) You’ll be amazed how bright the foreground will be if you’ve got snow and moonlight! It’s even worth fitting a lens hood if there’s a full moon to stop lens flare.
Use the ‘mirror up’ setting (if you’ve got one!) and a twelve second timer – press the shutter button once to move the mirror out the way and again to trigger the image capture (and try not to knock the tripod!).
Shooting for Star Trails…
For this you’ll need a really long exposure – like 20 minutes! Basically this is only really worth having a go at if you’re out in the sticks where there’s very little light pollution and can set the camera up and press the shutter before retreating to a convenient hot tub with a beer (unless you’re a big fan of hypothermia of course!).
The thing is how can you get such a long exposure? The first stop is to dig around in the camera setting and find out how long an exposure you can get out of your camera – often that’s only 30 seconds or so, so if you want something longer lasting you’re going to need some help.
This is one shot where the remote tigger and the “Bulb” setting comes in handy. The Bulb setting is for really long exposures and how it works depends on your camera… Usually this setting opens the shutter when you depress the shutter button and then closes it when you take your finger off the shutter button. The thing is even with all the Ninja skills you can muster, standing perfectly still for 20 minutes with your finger on the shutter button in the freezing cold isn’t really practical. This is where a remote shutter release comes in to play… These usually have a shutter lock setting where you can tigger the shutter, lock it open, and then release it later at your leisure and after a duration of your choosing. If you have a remote trigger that’s wired to the camera (as opposed to an infrared trigger) you’re going to be leaving that shutter release swinging around on the end of a wire attached to the camera for a prolonged period of time (not great if the wind means it’s going to clonk the tripod now and again!) and you night need to improvise some way of lashing it down or clipping it to the tripod to stop things moving (I found that stealing Lampy’s big hair clip thingy worked really well…), or you’re left holding the remote for the duration of the exposure and not moving far.
For this kind of shot you’ll set the camera to manual and focus on infinity, and probably use something like f20 and ISO 200. If you want the “Circles in the Sky” thing going on, set up the camera pointing north and upwards (preferably out of the wind!) with the the zoom as wide as possible…. Use the mirror up setting and a twelve second timer – depress the shutter once to get the mirror out of the way, then again (gently) to set the timer going and the camera recording. Step away from the tripod and go and find a warm place. If your first shot comes out a little dark, try raising the ISO a little. One issue with this approach is that if the Northern Lights suddenly kick in while you’re in the hot tub you might end up with an overexposed green sky!
Finishing the Shoot.
When you’re shoot is done, or you can’t stand the cold any more and need to warm up there’s one last thing to consider. All your kit will have got really cold so when you go back inside any moisture in the air will condense on the cold surfaces of your camera and lenses. getting moisture inside your prized camera and lenses is not generally considered good. Either stick your camera back in your kit bag before you head inside and then leave it there while it warms up, or deploy a large zip lock bag… Stuff the camera in the zip lock and seal it before heading inside and you’ll get condensation on the outside of the bag and not the camera. You’ll still have to wait for the camera to return to room temperature before releasing it from the bag and viewing your amazing photos of the night sky so a little patience will be required.
I use IPhoto on the Mac for post processing and to be fair I didn’t have to do much with these shots at all – maybe up the contrast, but that’s about it.
I hope that all makes sense! The best advice is to have a go but above all, make sure you enjoy the light show!
To finish off here’s a gallery of some of the best shots I’ve got of the Northern Lights. So far…