I was excited after booking our trip to Iceland to photograph the northern lights. I did my research before my trip to Iceland for camera settings, as I consider myself to be an amateur photographer and am still learning my camera functions and settings.
I tracked the aurora borealis forecast on the Geophysical Institute webpage before and during the trip. Iceland/Europe was rated moderate of 3 for the two nights we would be staying out of the city. However, the moderate ratings are still amazing if you have never seen the Northern Lights before. Our last night was rated high with a 5 rating, and the lights were bright and could be seen from Reykjavík with 180 degree views overhead. It was hard to capture all the activity.
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Camera gear to photography the aurora borealis
- DSLR camera – one that allows you to set long exposures.
- Lens – one that allows you set a low aperture to allow more light into the frame. The lower the better.
- Tripod – to keep your camera steady during long exposures.
- Intervalometer – a device used for signaling time intervals between photos and used to create time lapses.
- Headlamp – used for light painting a foreground, which takes practice.
- Batteries – bring spare camera and intervalometer batteries in case you run out. You may not get another chance like this for awhile.
Plan before you go
Do your research and know the lowest f-stop (or aperture) your lens goes to, along with the highest ISO settings. Before you go, try to capture pictures of the night sky or night city shots. This will help you become more familiar with exposure lengths, your camera settings, and how to use your intervalometer.
You rented or bought a bunch of new camera equipment for your northern lights trip. Make sure you test and are familiar on how to use the gear before going outside in the dark and cold weather. Don’t forget to charge the batteries and bring extras.
Camera settings will depend on your lens and how much light you have. Lighting can come from the strength of the aurora borealis, the moon, reflection on snow, or other sources. As you can see in some of my photos, I have dark foregrounds in some and light ones in others.
- Manual camera setting – Cameras don’t work well automatically in the dark.
- Exposure (or shutter speed) – set the shutter speed to 15 seconds and adjust up or down depending on how the test shots turn out. For sharp stars and lights, consider bumping down the exposure. For more light and star trails, increase amount of time the lens is open.
- Aperture (or f-stop) – set the aperture to the lowest your lens allows.
- Focus (and zoom) – set to manual (not auto focus) and test. Continue to adjust the focus and zoom until you capture the right landscape and sharpness.
- ISO – controls the light sensitivity. Start at 1600 ISO and adjust higher or lower. The higher the ISO setting, the more noise you’ll find in the frame.
Always shoot in manual for lens focus and camera mode. Your f-stop should be as low as it will allow with ISO being set around 800. On darker nights with low moon light, start with a 30 second shutter. If you need more light use the bulb setting and set your intervalometer exposure to more than 30 seconds. Also, make sure you know how to work your intervalometer. I learned the hard way and was not able to use mine the first night.
If your pictures are still too dark, adjust to longer shutter speed or play with your ISO settings. On lighter nights, you will need less shutter speed. I used a 15 to 20 second shutter for my pictures my our last night.
If possible, scope out where you might want to set up in daylight. Make sure your location has minimum exposure to wind. Also, keep in mind that if it is easy to get to, you may be dealing with people who walk into your frame, try to take pictures with their camera flashes going off, etc. The further you are from the road/parking, the less likely you are to have a vehicle drive by.
Make sure you continue to move around if you are getting cold. Jump up and down or do jumping jacks.
DZJOW’s Adventure Log – How to photograph the northern lights was extremely helpful when researching how to capture the aurora borealis.