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Photographing the Aurora Borealis in Iceland can be an exciting and challenging experience for beginner and advanced photographers alike. Everyone has their own way of accomplishing this. The following steps reflect what you might already know if you’ve been exposed to the milky way or any type of night photography.
First, the most important thing before you even touch your camera is to set up for the shot.
Take a few moments to enjoy this wonder of mother nature.
Experience the magic with your naked eye for a few minutes, as the colorful lights dance and whip around before you. This will be the most lasting experience of the Aurora Borealis you will ever remember, much more than any digital photograph will ever do.
How to document what you’re about to experience.
First and most importantly, you’ll need a solid tripod with a simple to operate ball head as well as a remote wired shutter release. You don’t want to be pushing your camera’s shutter button by hand.
The camera should be a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual focus. Locate your lenses infinity ∞ mark. But before you shoot, turn your focus back slightly. If you don’t have this option, focus at a distant light if possible. Or when it’s still light, focus on a distant object and mark your lens with tape at your widest open aperture.
If your camera has a BULB setting, you can manually control exposure times throughout your Aurora shooting session.
Most cameras today have amazing ISO setting options. I suggest starting with 800 ISO and maxing out at 2500 ISO. This will vary depending on your camera.
A wide-angle zoom lens works best. F1.4 to f2.8 will offer the best results but 4.0 will work as well with higher ISO’s.
The trick is to keep your aperture wide open so it can gather the most light possible.
Fixed prime lenses work, but variable wide lenses rule for any landscape, especially when capturing the Northern Lights!
Long exposures are essential for capturing the Aurora. Exposure times vary between 5 seconds at higher ISO settings with wide open apertures, all the way to 20-40 seconds. I’ve captured it in various settings. My best results using my full frame Nikon range at ISO 800 at f 2.8 using my 14-24 lens at 20 seconds. This will vary depending on brightness and conditions, but I seldom go above ISO 2500. (20 seconds tends to keep stars from blurring in my case ).
Always have spare camera batteries on hand. Keep them in a warm inner pocket. Bring a good headlamp with an infrared light setting option. This will prevent night blindness.
NOTE: When using headlamps be respectful of others making exposures nearby, don’t be selfish. It’s always good to work with others when exposing in any night photography situation. Teamwork rules!
Experiment with different exposure settings. All cameras are different. Expect to be fussing around at first. Its always good to test your settings first and get a feel for working with your camera in the dark. Knowing your camera’s button locations and menus are critical. (If you’ve never done night photography before, playing in the dark at home where it doesn’t count is a good way to learn)
When the action starts, you’ll want clear skies for the most part and quickly seek a good landscape to construct your composition. Total late predawn darkness is best while exploring optimum locations on our workshops. As far as moon phases are concerned, I’ve found waxing or waning crescents great for illuminating foregrounds, especially with the strong foreground features found in Iceland.
When experiencing the Aurora, your camera will most likely see something before you will. Camera sensors can pick up much more than your eyes will at first. You will most likely notice a faint green hue on the horizon with your naked eye and then pinks if the strength continues. As this increases you will want to turn down your ISO. Always consult your camera’s histogram and make adjustments as you go. Remember, if you want star trails, any exposure time over 30 seconds will provide this. If you want static stars, a 20-second exposure will do, but you’ll need to raise your ISO to do this.
Enjoy shooting the Aurora!
Join us for our photography expedition to Iceland where we explore the area most known for great Auroras in February 2019.
All the best,