How to shoot Northern Lights


dapier

New Member
May 16, 2010
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#1
dear brothers & sisters,

80% chance I will be going to Norway to shoot Northern Lights in Feb 2015.

May I ask for your advice on how to shoot the lights?

I will be carrying two D4, 70 200mm f2.8 and 24 70mm f2.8, as well as a tripod and remote release.

May I ask what settings do I use?
F2.8? ISO? speed of the shutter?
Do I use high ISO with faster shutter speed or low ISO with eg 15 secs speed?
DO I use manual or auto focus? Is it at manual focus and at infinity? I have not done this before.
Where do I focus? at some trees (eg) or at the light itself?
Do I need 14 24 lens?
Is 4 days enough or do I need longer?
What white balance do I use? Auto?
I have only one tripod, meaning only one of my cameras can be mounted. Should I buy another?
Which is a better lens? 70 200 or 24 70?

Any other things I should know??

A side question. I can spare more than one month. question is the daylight hours are very short. Other than northern lights, is it worth spending time in Norway in Feb? In winter, public transport is difficult and I am not familiar to drive in snow. It will be my first time in Norway

I am a novice and thank you for your patience.
 

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thoongeng

Senior Member
Jan 26, 2010
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#5
I shared some things I learnt and some shots in this previous thread:
http://www.clubsnap.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1239618

Just sharing what I know:
- try to avoid shutter speeds longer than 600/focal length (eg 600 divided by 24mm focal length = max shutter speed of 25 seconds) so as to avoid star trails (unless this is what you want to achieve)
- have to use manual focus as the lights are very dim. Good to know hyperfocal distance, and practice before going so that you can set up in the dark (plus you will be very excited and will make mistakes so being very familiar with your equipment will lessen that)
- 14-24mm lens in my humble opinion will be useful, as the aurora stretches across the sky. 24mm is also ok, but you have to be more selective of your composition which part of the aurora to take. Most of my shots were taken at my widest setting of 16mm
- duration of stay? really depends on your luck hehe....
- if you shoot in RAW then can tweak white balance later, if not can try different settings eg auto or tungsten
- whether to set up 2 tripods depends on how familiar you are with your equipment I guess...


With all that said, the most important thing is to stay warm and protect yourself. You will probably be shooting in minus 20 degrees Celsius with cold wind blowing out in the wild.

I joined a photography tour so transport was taken care of for us. I heard from my friend that driving in Norway is quite ok and scenery is quite nice. Alternatively if your main aim is to see the auroras, there are quite a few operators in Tromso organising Northern Light chases. They fetch you from your hotel at night around 8pm, and they will check which areas have higher possibilities of seeing the lights then drive there. They usually also offer photography advice.

Have a good trip and good luck for seeing the Northern Lights!
 

dapier

New Member
May 16, 2010
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#6
thank you!
I have 3 FX bodies so I can use 14 24, 24 70 and 70 200 together but it is just too heavy for me to carry...n i at the moment have only 1 tripod ;)
thanks for telling me 14 24... never thought of carrying that at first... seems like you implied 70 200 is too tele, I was at first thinking maybe the horizon can be very far away hence 70 200 is needed. anyway thanks for the reply


I shared some things I learnt and some shots in this previous thread:
http://www.clubsnap.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1239618

Just sharing what I know:
- try to avoid shutter speeds longer than 600/focal length (eg 600 divided by 24mm focal length = max shutter speed of 25 seconds) so as to avoid star trails (unless this is what you want to achieve)
- have to use manual focus as the lights are very dim. Good to know hyperfocal distance, and practice before going so that you can set up in the dark (plus you will be very excited and will make mistakes so being very familiar with your equipment will lessen that)
- 14-24mm lens in my humble opinion will be useful, as the aurora stretches across the sky. 24mm is also ok, but you have to be more selective of your composition which part of the aurora to take. Most of my shots were taken at my widest setting of 16mm
- duration of stay? really depends on your luck hehe....
- if you shoot in RAW then can tweak white balance later, if not can try different settings eg auto or tungsten
- whether to set up 2 tripods depends on how familiar you are with your equipment I guess...


With all that said, the most important thing is to stay warm and protect yourself. You will probably be shooting in minus 20 degrees Celsius with cold wind blowing out in the wild.

I joined a photography tour so transport was taken care of for us. I heard from my friend that driving in Norway is quite ok and scenery is quite nice. Alternatively if your main aim is to see the auroras, there are quite a few operators in Tromso organising Northern Light chases. They fetch you from your hotel at night around 8pm, and they will check which areas have higher possibilities of seeing the lights then drive there. They usually also offer photography advice.

Have a good trip and good luck for seeing the Northern Lights!
 

thoongeng

Senior Member
Jan 26, 2010
1,247
15
38
#8
thank you!
I have 3 FX bodies so I can use 14 24, 24 70 and 70 200 together but it is just too heavy for me to carry...n i at the moment have only 1 tripod ;)
thanks for telling me 14 24... never thought of carrying that at first... seems like you implied 70 200 is too tele, I was at first thinking maybe the horizon can be very far away hence 70 200 is needed. anyway thanks for the reply
You're welcome :)

I think 1 tripod is enough, just make sure it is sturdy to withstand the winds. I feel you can use your D4 with 14-24 first, if need to isolate eg a part of the aurora with a distant mountain and play with composition then use 24-70 or 70-200. For me I mainly wanted to capture the whole pattern of the aurora, and there are times when even 16mm wasn't enough heh...
 

dapier

New Member
May 16, 2010
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#9
thanks!! I will bare that in mind

You're welcome :)

I think 1 tripod is enough, just make sure it is sturdy to withstand the winds. I feel you can use your D4 with 14-24 first, if need to isolate eg a part of the aurora with a distant mountain and play with composition then use 24-70 or 70-200. For me I mainly wanted to capture the whole pattern of the aurora, and there are times when even 16mm wasn't enough heh...
 

Alpc

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Oct 10, 2002
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#10
Had better time taking photos in my first trip - like find your infinity point for your lens, since it is manual focus. Some lens you can turn right to the end, but others it's not. I took with Nikon D7000 + Tokina 12-24 F4 (did not have any F2.8 lens) and it work out well - ISO6400, F4 and I think between 15 to 20 secs.

My recent trip was a trip that almost everything can go wrong did.

Had a knock on the back of my head (huge swelling) and had my 1st ride in ambulance to their local hospital. Lucky thing it's just that swelling, nothing else. My shoes has no issue with snow but I slipped on ice, so depending on where you go, if there is ice, get ice cleats.

Did not expect it to be that cold and it was -12degC (with wind chill, actual temp was just -3degC) and did not bring chemical warmers - would not have been that bad, but I caught a chill while I was in Flam. So body condition was not that great - was bothered so much by the cold, did not have good time taking shots and this is despite an excellent aurora night!

My tripod bolts got loosen on the 3rd night. So I spent 20 mins wrestling with the tripod before finding a good position to get some shots. After that the clouds came, so not much shots of aurora as well!! So good tripod is better but always remember to bring the tools so that you can tighten if this happens. The last trip I borrowed my friend's gitzo and no issue. So I guess you pay for what you get?!?!

My cousin's tripod did not give issue but it topped when the wind blows. Lens was ok, since the broken part is the filter. But lesson learned, the tripod was place at a lower level so much so that you are practically sitting down on rocks to look through the eye viewer. So, tripod should be as low as possible to get low center of gravity and legs spread as far out as possible. The light weight travel tripod was a manfrotto.
 

dapier

New Member
May 16, 2010
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#11
thank you!

Mine is a gitzo.
I have to do something about my shoes. I use running shoes for travel, I seldom see snow as I am always in Southern Europe. I also do not have gloves.
I am not sure if I need a pair of waterproof pants. I have a class 10,000 waterproof pants to keep out water.

This trip is very troublesome, but it is a once in a lifetime

My gear is going to be super heavy. 2 or 3 FX bodies plus 14 24, 24 70 & 70 200, plus laptop, HDD, battery charger, tripod etc etc

The lowest temperature I have tried is minus 6 (actual). Minus 25 was in a freezer in a frozen food warehouse.

If not for the Northern lights, I rather be in Italy

Had better time taking photos in my first trip - like find your infinity point for your lens, since it is manual focus. Some lens you can turn right to the end, but others it's not. I took with Nikon D7000 + Tokina 12-24 F4 (did not have any F2.8 lens) and it work out well - ISO6400, F4 and I think between 15 to 20 secs.

My recent trip was a trip that almost everything can go wrong did.

Had a knock on the back of my head (huge swelling) and had my 1st ride in ambulance to their local hospital. Lucky thing it's just that swelling, nothing else. My shoes has no issue with snow but I slipped on ice, so depending on where you go, if there is ice, get ice cleats.

Did not expect it to be that cold and it was -12degC (with wind chill, actual temp was just -3degC) and did not bring chemical warmers - would not have been that bad, but I caught a chill while I was in Flam. So body condition was not that great - was bothered so much by the cold, did not have good time taking shots and this is despite an excellent aurora night!

My tripod bolts got loosen on the 3rd night. So I spent 20 mins wrestling with the tripod before finding a good position to get some shots. After that the clouds came, so not much shots of aurora as well!! So good tripod is better but always remember to bring the tools so that you can tighten if this happens. The last trip I borrowed my friend's gitzo and no issue. So I guess you pay for what you get?!?!

My cousin's tripod did not give issue but it topped when the wind blows. Lens was ok, since the broken part is the filter. But lesson learned, the tripod was place at a lower level so much so that you are practically sitting down on rocks to look through the eye viewer. So, tripod should be as low as possible to get low center of gravity and legs spread as far out as possible. The light weight travel tripod was a manfrotto.
 

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#13
Get a pair of water proof shoes/boots, then layer up with socks. One liner and one thick wool. Get insulated soles as well as you'd be standing and walking on plenty of snow in Tromsø. Get a waterproof shell and dress up in layers below the shell. You should be alright, just make sure you've a good base layer.

I see that you've plenty of good equipments so best that you don't trim on your outfit, you're as good as your camera. If you're not enjoying it and freezing with melted snow in your shoes, you'd not enjoy the trip and your pictures would definitely not turn out as good. Next option would be to rent additional winter gears in Tromsø city; http://www.tromsooutdoor.no/winter-clothing-a-footwear.139084.en.html

Other than that, if you've additional budget--get a guide if you're afraid of driving. In February, you'd have more actual daylight rather than the civil twilight and nautical twilight where the Sun is below the horizon. The drawback would be there would be more snowfall from February onwards as well.

Stay dry and warm then enjoy the Aurora Borealis.
 

JacePhoto

Senior Member
Oct 1, 2007
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#14
Yes! If you are driving, get a spade (for digging your car out of snow), cheap carpet from Walmart, and they have salt to melt the ice. (Once you have dug the snow out, you need layers of long carpet so that your car wheels can have a firm grip to get out. Driving in snow especially in the dark is dangerous. Applies even if your car is new and with 4x4.

I was stuck in the snow 2-3 times. One time was in pitch dark 2 am in the morning while chasing aurora. Was lucky to have met some nice people who were experienced in recovering vehicles in deep snow.
 

Alpc

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Oct 10, 2002
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#15
thank you! Mine is a gitzo. I have to do something about my shoes. I use running shoes for travel, I seldom see snow as I am always in Southern Europe. I also do not have gloves. I am not sure if I need a pair of waterproof pants. I have a class 10,000 waterproof pants to keep out water. This trip is very troublesome, but it is a once in a lifetime My gear is going to be super heavy. 2 or 3 FX bodies plus 14 24, 24 70 & 70 200, plus laptop, HDD, battery charger, tripod etc etc The lowest temperature I have tried is minus 6 (actual). Minus 25 was in a freezer in a frozen food warehouse. If not for the Northern lights, I rather be in Italy
If you don't mind getting mild frost bite on your fingers like Will03 had previously, you could go without gloves - but i would advise against that.

If you think you would never wander off path inti a deep snow trench, then you could try without waterproof pants. Again, it would be better to get one. Waterproof - with snow grip - boots would be good too.

If you are joining the local small group for the aurora part, they would usually provide those arctic overalls, which would help.

Good luck with the driving if you are doing it yourself. I don't feel comfortable driving in snow/ice conditions so i have not driven in that area yet. Drove in lofoten but there were no snow there yet during this trip - encountered super heavy rain at Å tho.
 

ywh

Member
Aug 12, 2002
291
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#16
Couple of answers that may be of aid here:

1) Where to focus? Simple, if there is no distinct foreground then focusing using Liveview on a distant object will do. If there is foreground, then hyperfocal focusing will be good though you may actually need to focus stack.

2) Settings. I use my 24/1.4 for much of my aurora shots. It drops the shutter speed and gives way more definition. From my experience, 30 seconds will usually render it as a green blur which is in my eyes, not really attractive.

3) One tripod? Get another one if you are bringing 2 cameras. Forget 3 FX bodies, 2 will suffice. Spend the rest of the weight on extra batteries and hand warmers.

4) Good waterproof boots is essential. NorthFace chilkats are popular. I have always worn my Bogs boots but they are not entirely waterproof despite claims. Salomon Goretex Quest 4D is pretty amazing for the waterproofness and is lightweight (not a heavy duty hiking boot).

5) Gloves are needed for sure. Layer the gloves and get Swany gloves as they have those that allow you to shoot without taking the whole glove off.

6) WB is not an issue with you are shooting in RAW. If you are not shooting RAW then perhaps it's best to start asap. :)
 

Nov 19, 2009
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#17
A couple of mistakes I committed during my aurora snapping experience over two weeks in Iceland:

1) Lens focus will slowly change over the course of several exposures simply due to wind, changing temperature, moving around the camera to capture different parts of the aurora. I had thought pre-focusing once at the start and simply triggering the timer throughout the night would work, but I ended up with several shots towards the end with blurred background stars instead of pinpricks of light. The slight mis-focusing is too minute to see using the camera's screen, even at full zoom, so I didn't detect it until I viewed it on my ipad back in the hotel. Using the Nikon 14-24 I think made it worse because of its heavy lens elements, which might have slowly moved the focus mechanism as the lens was pointed upwards for most of the night. Some folks recommend taping the focus ring to lock it in place once manual pre-focusing is done.

2) Not finding an interesting foreground element to include in at least some of the shots. Mine were thus stylistically boring.

3) Horizon not completely level because it was too cold and windy to keep taking off my gloves to fiddle with the tripod knobs. Of course one could simply crop them level.

4) Not spending enough time watching the aurora itself because I was too busy fiddling with the camera settings and lens focus. Remember that taking shots of the aurora is like taking snapshots of a movie. The aurora is always shifting and changing colours, and while the photos can give some idea of how it looks like, it can’t completely capture the full magic. Spend time to enjoy the aurora itself, rather than always fiddling with the camera.

Some other pointers:

1) Wear a headstrap torchlight to help in setting up the tripod and camera. It’s almost completely dark and the torchlight comes in handy when you have to walk away from the road/carpark to a darker spot where headlights from cars on the road do not interfere with your night vision.

2) Bring chemical warmers for your hands. I use feet warmers adhered to my dual-layer glove’s inner layer. Keeps my hands warm through the night.

3) Use the widest angle you can. Mine was at 14mm all the way.

4) ISO will depend on how bright the aurora is. On some particularly bright nights, 5 sec exposure at ISO 800 gave good results. On dimmer nights, 25 sec at ISO 1600 worked ok but then the aurora was less well defined.

5) Tripods are a must. Use a carbon fibre one if u can, cos the aluminium ones will get really cold and even painful to hold.

6) The brightness of the aurora is somewhat like that of a cloud on a full moon, so set exposure accordingly.

7) Focus can be set at hyperfocal distance, or using a bright star. For the Nikon 14-24, the focus ring goes beyond infinity, so simply rotating the focus ring to the end doesn’t work. U can try practicing now in Singapore by shooting stars in the night sky to determine focusing distance, rather than doing it in freezing temps in Norway.

8) Try to rent a car with a spare tire (and make sure it’s inflated before you drive off from the rental area). Chasing aurora can mean going onto dirt or gravel roads at night where you don’t know if there are sharp rocks. I had to change out a punctured tire once after driving back from a night shoot.

9) Keep yourself warm and you will enjoy the shoot much more than if you are freezing. Don’t have to worry about waterproof clothes while shooting cos rain/snow=cloud cover, meaning you can’t see the aurora anyway. The waterproof stuff is for the day when you are out and about even if it’s rainy/snowing.

10) Schedule at least a week or longer to ensure the aurora will make an appearance. I didn’t see anything in my first week because it was always cloudy. Actually the colder it is, the less cloud cover there usually is, so hope for cold nights.

11) Get a mobile data plan so you can check cloud cover maps online while you are out chasing aurora. Then you can decide to drive to spots with the least cloud cover.

12) Choose periods around the minimum moon phase (i.e. no moon or very small crescent). A bright moon will wash out the aurora
 

Aug 28, 2006
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#18
I would suggest joining an aurora tour. Find a smaller tour that is focused on photography. You do not want to join the usual tour bus tours. You will have people using flash (no foreground interest) to take the aurora lights.

- Hunting for the aurora takes hours and its best to leave the driving to others who are familiar with the place.
- Tours will provide the warm clothing (waterproof jumper suit) on top of your own personal warm clothing. Waterproof is good as you can spend hours waiting for the lights so you definitely would be sitting down on the ground, snow covered. Or you could step much deeper into the snow than intended. I must have stepped into a snow covered hole as it was up to my mid thigh. Also waterproof clothing tend to be more windproof, the wind will be killing you more than the cold.
- some tours will even lend you tripods.

-If you can, bring two cameras especially one that can do time lapse. So you can shoot with one and do time-lapse with another.
-Bring a wireless remote. I remember waiting for the lights by a fire and just shooting with my remote from time to time OR even putting my gloved hand in the pocket to shoot. It can get very cold! More from wind than just the cold.
-Wide angle. 24mm or wider is good. I would go for a brighter lens (low aperture) if choosing between two wide (one wide, the other wider)
-Sturdy tripod, it can get windy, so even if using a mirrorless, bring a sturdy tripod.
-Bring genuine batteries.
-Need to be able to focus on infinity. If there is a moon, use that or a bright star.

I disagree that a full moon will wash out the aurora. I was lucky enough to shoot with and without the moon. It all comes down to whether or not there are lights to shoot and how high the activity is. Also no one can tell you if 4 days is enough. You could end up not seeing anything even when there is high activity. Or you could hit the jackpot and see something phenomenal every night you are there!

Good luck with your hunting! I think its a nice experience but I am not rushing to go back heehee! Saw the lights in the outskirts of Reykjavik, Iceland and Tromso....had better luck in Tromso, but spent more time there specifically on the aurora....so good luck!
 

Alpc

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Oct 10, 2002
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#19
Yup, I agree it is best to leave it to specialized small tour group with max of 6 people that concentrate on photography of auroras. They will even give you a lesson in how to to photograph auroras!

They have the knowledge and know-how and locations to go for incredible shots and their chances of success would be higher too. They are also relentless in hunting for aurora, therefore increasing your chances of seeing them.

Both of my trips were thru these companies, well in my case, the same company despite separate locations - they shifted their base after my 1st trip, so I was able to experience it in 2 different countries!
 

SlowcarIX

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Aug 29, 2012
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#20
am going to be in Tromso Feb14-26...was there Oct 2013 and there was too much clouds. Hope this time i get clear skys.
 

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