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Photographing the Aurora

My friend and I spent seventeen winter nights in Iceland, hoping to see the aurora. Each evening we’d gather our layers of clothes, fortify with a shot of rum, and go outside to stare at the monochrome sky. Sometimes our excursions were late in the evening, coordinated with the rapidly changing weather and whatever plans we had made; others we would set an alarm for the early hours of the morning, hoping for good luck. Most of the time the sky was thick with cloud. Always it was cold.

On the evenings we spent in brightly lit towns, we would get in the car and drive until we could no longer see street lights and then pull over, lie back in our seats, and look up through the windshield, hoping to catch a spot of green light in the sky.

At farms in the unpopulated countryside, we would stand outside and examine any clear patches between the clouds, leaning back until our necks could no longer take the strain.

In those seventeen nights, we saw the aurora once.

The first hint was a small discoloured smudge in the sky, which could have been a patch of cloud. Before long it got brighter and turned green, spread out and multiplied, until there was no doubt that we were watching the northern lights.

The show lasted for forty minutes and at its peak expanded to a wide river of green light spanning from one horizon to the other. It would sway from side to side like water flowing down a pane of glass, it would appear in bursts above us like fireworks, and sometimes we caught glimpses of rare purple in the green.

Despite all the time and planning we put into it, we still felt like we’d got lucky. The aurora forecast was low and the day had been cloudy with more of the same predicted. We only went out for some air, after an evening of staring intently through the curtains to check for activity and seeing nothing outside but occasional rain.

I had done enough research beforehand that I was ready when it did appear: here is the advice that was most useful to me.

Don’t Spoil It

Now is a good time to question why you want a photograph. For many people, it’s the thrill of finding a good image, of that moment when the shutter opens and you can already picture what the result will look like hanging on a wall. But if you don’t recognise that feeling, and a picture is more to show off after the event, then perhaps it’s not worth the cost of what you miss.

There are thousands of good pictures of the aurora, taken by some very dedicated and talented people. Unless the shot is really good, and you are well prepared, don’t miss what might be your only chance to watch it fiddling with your camera. A good memory of soaking it in will be worth more than a poor snapshot to show your friends.

Before arriving in Iceland I’d resolved to myself not to take a picture unless I was in a situation where I could make a good one. Even in the photogenic eastern fjords and with an obvious composition, I still didn’t unpack my camera for the first five minutes.

Compose an Image

The best images are the ones that would still work, at least a little, if the aurora wasn’t there.

Any simple image of the sky is going to be unsatisfying, no matter how good the lights were. You need a foreground to make a good composition – it doesn’t have to be complex, but it has to be something to give context.

The most impressive display to watch was directly above our heads, and it was easy to point the camera up at them, but my favourite pictures were the ones of the mountains and town.

Come Prepared

Most importantly you need a tripod or something stable to get a good image of the lights and it helps to have a cable release to avoid shaking the camera.

If you’re far enough North at the right time of year to see the aurora, you’ll also need plenty of warm layers, and more than just the normal amount if you’re going to stand around and take photographs. It takes some perseverance, and that’s hard to maintain if you are cold. After 40 minutes standing in one spot, the cold started to creep in to my 6 layers.

Your equipment will also be affected by the cold. Batteries will drain quickly (take spares), and the camera is likely to fog up if you take it from a warm room to the cold outdoors (leave it in the car or porch, if possible, for a few hours before).

Use the forecast, but don’t live by it

There are two forecasts to follow: the aurora and the weather. Both those things are so changeable that the forecast can only ever be a guide. I spend at least a month before and during the trip obsessively watching the aurora forecast and the night I saw it was one of the lowest predictions.

Camera Settings

There are already plenty of websites dedicated to aurora photography settings, but there were some of the most useful to me:

You need to experiment on the night to get the right exposure – the brightness of the aurora varies from one minute to the next – and no-one can give you specific settings that will work any time. I’ve included the settings I used on each picture on this page.

If you leave the shutter open too long (generally 15-30 seconds), you will lose the details. The aurora moves, sometimes rapidly. If you leave it open for less time (2-3 seconds), you might miss parts that aren’t as bright, like the rare purple streaks in the photograph above.

If you have set up a good composition with a long exposure, it is worth leaving your camera where it is and taking several pictures. The aurora came out so different in each one that there were plenty of results to choose from, and it gives you time to stand and watch while the camera is working.

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