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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. After all, it’s no secret that Lapland is also home to Santa Claus, his reindeer and merry helping elf’s, too.

Throughout the winter months, tour operators offer a “full on” package here with wooden cabins to sleep in, saunas to relax in, reindeer farms, snow mobiles, and of course a chance to witness the northern lights in all their green luminescent splendour. For many this lasts attraction is the greatest of all.

So, taken by striking web pictures and keen to try some snowmobiling as well, I set off in late February for some Aurora magic. I packed my Nikon D7200, a Sigma 18-35 Art lens, a sturdy tripod, a few other essentials and boarded a Finnair flight from Gatwick to the great North.

In Ivalo, once landed, I found a world of ice, snow and temperatures well below zero to greet me. The border formalities took very time to sort out and once through, a driver escorted me and a small party to our lodges.

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 snow. Amongst the favourites were dog sledging, ice fishing and cross country skiing.

The snow mobiles provided transport and were easy to ride, albeit bumpy. I discovered they offered the same sort of thrills an off road motorbike does. As a result, I promised myself I’d find time to investigate these machines a little more some time in the future. It was picture taking that I had come for though on this trip and a chance to take some snaps of the Aurora Borealis most of all.

What set up did I use on my camera? What worked best? Was it easy? 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 manual settings available on a DSLR camera, along with a decent lens, permit easy vibrant, detailed images. When set up correctly a modern DSLR yields instant results that require little post processing on a computer. 

A smartphone will also work, but image quality might not quite be the same as that of a DSLR. A lower quality smart phone camera might simply be disappointing.

2. A “full frame” machine is preferable.

A 35mm “full frame” format camera has a bigger sensor, bigger than most consumer grade machines. This allows for shorter exposures, lower ISO settings and consequently comparatively less grainy, noisy pictures.

A natural wonder
A natural wonder

3. Use the fastest wide angle lens available.

Use the best quality, biggest aperture lens you have available. An aperture of maybe 2.8 or bigger still is ideal for low exposure times.

4. A tripod is a must!

It’s cold out there, in the snow and ice in the middle of the night and exposure times in the dark can be several seconds long. Consequently a tripod is the only way to avoid camera shake and blurry pictures both for cameras and smartphones.

5. Settings

Set the lens to the widest angle available (18mm or even less). Aperture at maximum or just under maximum, wherever image quality is best. Focus needs to be on “infinity”. This can be achieved by focussing the lens in auto mode on a bright subject 30m to 40m away (or more). The lens will set itself to infinity this way. Then, disengage auto focus mode, flip to manual and do not 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 at the most. Any longer than that will produce images with noticeably blurred stars due to the Earth’s rotation.

ISO settings depend on the combination of the camera’s sensor and lens. A compromise is necessary (while shooting) for bright enough images and the exposure times mentioned above. I found that ISO 800 to ISO 1250 worked well for me without too much noise in any of my pictures.

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 normal. It’s best to have an extra ready to go. Keep the spare warm in a pocket until needed.

8. You need luck.

A combination of clear skies and good solar activity is essential to see the aurora. It’s no use standing around with camera in hand on a cloudy night. Furthermore, it’s always good to be creative. It seems like the better pictures of the lights are all about telling a story and creating an atmosphere. The lights work well when used as a detail (albeit a big one) in the background. Glowing camp fires, tents, snow mobiles or people are effective props to “anchor” pictures in the foreground.

More lights on Inari
More lights on Inari

Personal Experience

I spent three hours on lake Inari, at minus fifteen degrees with my nose pointing to the heavens. The lights were one of the most captivating spectacles I have ever seen. At first, they darted around 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. Similarly, they would then dissolve and reappear elsewhere above the horizon.

Colours changed from green to green-blu with occasional streaks of red. Sometimes the lights were sharp and bright, more often they were a misty blur. Many times shafts and beams of green seemed to drop from the heavens and bounce low on the clouds above the tree line in a yellow glow. It felt 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 some frost from my camera to change the battery out. Finally I made my way back to the guest house in the early hours of the morning when the cold on my feet became unbearable. It would have been good to have had more time to experiment with composition and maybe a change in location, too.

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

All in all Inari 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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