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How to Shoot the Northern Lights

How to Shoot the Northern Lights

Lake Inari in Lapland, Finland has long been a popular spot for cold weather enthusiasts eager for some outdoor winter fun. People flock to this arctic resort from all over the world especially during the Christmas season usually with kids in tow. Throughout the winter months, tour operators offer a “full on” experience with wood cabin lodging, saunas, reindeer, snow mobile rides, and of course the greatest prize of all, a chance to see the fabled northern lights in all their green luminescent splendour.

So, taken by striking web site pictures and keen to also try some snowmobiling, I set off in late February with a small crowd of photo enthusiasts looking for some Aurora Borealis magic. I took my Nikon D7200, a Sigma 18-35 Art lens, a sturdy tripod and boarded a Finnair flight to the arctic circle. Once landed in Ivalo, I found a world of ice, snow and temperatures well below zero to greet me. Border formalities were dealt with quickly and a local driver sombrely escorted my small party and I to our lodge.

The Nellim Guest House
The Nellim Guest House

The Nellim guest house was comfortable and cosy. The food served was good (especially breakfast) and the day activities for guests had something for everyone to enjoy in the snowy Lapland landscape. From dog sledging to ice fishing, to cross country skiing there was enough to keep all amused. The snow mobiles were easy to ride, albeit bumpy, and offered the same sort of thrills an off road motorbike would.

It was picture taking I had really come for though and a chance to take some snaps of the aurora. What set up did I use on my camera? What worked best? Here are the essentials.

The Northern Lights on Lake Inari , Finland
The Northern Lights on Lake Inari , Finland

1. It’s best to have a DSLR or equivalent with manual settings.

The flexibility manual settings offer allows for vibrant, detailed images, similar to the ones used to advertise the northern lights on brochures, websites etc. When set correctly a DSLR yields instant results that require little or easy post processing on a computer. 

A smartphone will work as well but it can be argued that the detail and image quality will not match that of a DSLR, at least not quite yet, especially when shooting in the dark.

2. A “full frame” machine is preferable.

A 35mm “full frame” format camera has a greater surface area sensor, bigger than most consumer grade machines. More light is consequently captured by the sensor every time the shutter is released. This allows lower shorter exposure times, lower ISO settings and usually less noise in pictures.

A natural wonder
A natural wonder

3. Use the fastest wide angle lens available.

A fast lens has a bigger diaphragm aperture (maybe 2.8 or smaller still) and will allow shorter exposure times.

4. A tripod is a must!

It’s cold out there in the snow and ice and exposure times in the dark can be several seconds long. A tripod is the only way to avoid camera shake and blurry pictures regardless of whether you use a camera or a smartphone.

5. Settings

Set the lens to the widest angle available (18mm or even less). Aperture at two to three stops down from maximum. Focus needs to be on “infinity”. This can be achieved by pointing the lens in automatic mode to an object perhaps 30m to 40m away from where one is standing, a light source perhaps. Then, once the lens has set itself to infinity, flip it into manual focus mode and don’t touch the lens again.

Use the widest angle available, set focus to infinity
Use the widest angle available, set focus to infinity

Exposure times should be around ten seconds. Any longer than that will produce images with noticeably blurred stars in the sky (due to Earth’s rotation).

ISO settings depend on the combination of the camera’s sensor and lens. A compromise needs to be found (while shooting) for bright enough images and the exposure time mentioned above. I found that ISO 800 to ISO 1250 worked well for me without introducing too much noise or noise that could be removed in post.

6. Shoot raw.

Raw images allow greater post processing flexibility.

The lights, like a green misty blur
The lights, like a green misty blur

7. Have a spare battery!

The cold will run down batteries faster than expected. It’s best to have an extra ready to go. Keep it warm in a pocket until needed.

8. You need luck.

A combination of clear skies and solar activity is needed to see the aurora. It’s no good standing around with camera in hand on a cloudy night. Also, it’s good to be creative. The better pictures of the lights are all about telling a story and creating visual atmosphere. The lights should be a detail in the background and perhaps a camp fire with people, a glowing tent, or even a snowmobile can be good to “anchor” the image in the foreground. 

More lights on Inari
More lights on Inari

I spent three hours on a lucky night on frozen lake Inari, at minus fifteen degrees with my nose pointing to the heavens. I admired one of the most captivating spectacles I have ever seen. The northern lights darted around me in the sky, twisting, coiling and turning, Sometimes they appeared suddenly as if by the flick of a switch, other times they would take shape slowly in a warm glow, dissolve in the same way and then reappear elsewhere above the horizon. 

Colours varied from green to green-blu with occasional streaks of red. Sometimes the lights were sharp and bright, more often they were like a misty blur. There were shafts and beams of green that dropped from the heavens and seemed to get trapped by the clouds in a bright yellow glow just above the tree line. It was all a bit mystical. 

I had two batteries with me for my shoot and used one up entirely in the space of just over an hour. I remember brushing off frost from my camera to change it out. I stopped shooting and made my way back to the guest house in the early hours of the morning when I could no longer bare the cold on my feet. I wished I’d had more time to experiment with composition and perhaps a change in location too.

Twisting, turning and curling!
Twisting, turning and curling!

All in all it was a great, worthwhile experience and lucky one as well. The best time of the year to see the lights is autumn and early spring. There are apps available that can accurately predict times and places for the best sightings that work very well. “My Aurora Forecast and Alerts” is one of the most popular. 

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