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. \r\n\r\nAt 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.
We weren’t hopeful that evening: the aurora forecast was low and the day had been cloudy with more of the same predicted. But after hours of playing cards in the quiet town of Reydarfjordur, we bundled up at 11pm and headed out of town on foot for some fresh air.
The first hint of it was a small discoloured smudge in the sky, that looked like it could have been a patch of cloud. Before long it got brighter and more green, it spread out and new patches appeared, until there was no doubt that we were watching the aurora.
Despite all the time and planning we put into it, we were lucky to see the show we did: a full river of green light spanning from one horizon to the other. Sometimes it would appear in bursts above us like fireworks, and we caught the odd glimpse of rare purple streaks mixed in with the green.
We saw the aurora about 5 days in to our trip and tried again every night after that, without any luck. Fortunately, I had researched advice for photographing the lights before the trip and the spot we found just outside Reydarfjordur was as picturesque as you could hope for. With my planning and one night’s experience, these are my tips for photographing the northern lights.
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, 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 the show fiddling with your camera. A good memory of soaking it in will be worth more than a poor snapshot to show your friends.
We were lucky to be in the photogenic eastern fjords for these images and with an obvious composition, but I still didn’t even unpack my camera for the first five minutes in case the aurora didn’t last.
Compose an Image
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. The best images are the ones that would still work, at least a little, if the aurora wasn’t there.
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.
Your equipment will also be effected. Batteries do not like the cold and 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.
There are already plenty of websites dedicated to aurora photography settings, but here are some of the most useful tips I found:
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. 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.