10 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are a wonder best experienced first-hand. That being said, the phenomenon also presents some amazing opportunities for fantastic pictures you can share with your friends who haven’t been lucky enough to take their own Arctic trip (yet). With that in mind we’d like to give you some pro hints as to how you can get the best shots possible during your Greenland cruise under the Auroras.
Tip 1 – Prepare Yourself
You already know that you’re going to want to have your personal photography gear gathered and ready to go. But you should also have your own self prepped for hours out in the cold of an Arctic night. You’ll find during your Svalbard cruise that the Arctic winter nights can drop down to -40°C, so make sure you have enough layers to deal with the cold, some coffee or hot chocolate in a thermos to warm your insides, and a good dose of patience as the weather doesn’t always cooperate and some rare nights can be overcast.
Tip 2 – Frame to Show Just How Immense the Northern Lights Truly Are
You’re certainly going to get some beautiful pictures if you shoot the Aurora alone in the night sky. However if you want to relate to your viewers just how big the spectacle can be then you’re going to want to put something else in your frame to act as a reference. Snowy hills and mountains can certainly do the trick. They have an added bonus that their stark white and black features can contrast very nicely with the greens and violets and (rarer) reds of the Northern Lights.
Open water can also be a nice addition to your picture. In this case you can get the colours of the Lights reflecting up from below. You might however want to use water that has some patches of snowy rock or land in it so it doesn’t just look like a continuation of the night sky.
Man-made objects will help more with scale. While mountains look beautiful, your viewer isn’t going to know how big the mountain is, they have no reference. However a tent, a building, a Zodiac boat, or one of our cruise ships lends a scale that people can relate to.
Lastly, stick a person in your picture. This is probably your best bet for scaling since it directly compares a human being to the panorama in the skies above. So have your loved one looking up at the skies, plant yourself at a low angle looking up past them, and snap a picture that shows off the Northern Lights and a moment in time you shared with someone you care about.
Tip 3 – Get a “Still” Picture
You’re probably going to want to capture a single moment in time instead of a time-lapse picture. Time-lapses look great with star trails, however they can muddy the edges of the “waves” of the Northern Lights - they will blend together into one big green clump. Since it’s a night shoot you’re going to want your shutter open long enough to capture enough light to get a picture at all. At the same time you don’t want your shutter open too long. So what is the optimum shutter timing? How long your shutter remains open depends on your focal length (For completely new photographers, the shorter your lens – the lower the number – the wider the shot).
There’s a general rule of thumb, known as the “500 Rule” for night photography, that beginners can follow – 500 divided by the length of your lens (in millimetres). So if you’re working with lens of 50 mm then your shutter can be open a maximum of 10 seconds per shot (500 ÷ 50 = 10). If you’re working with a lens of 18 mm then your shutter time should be no more than 27.8 seconds (it’s best to round down, not up).
One extra note here – if you intend to print out your picture (as opposed to just keeping it as a digital image on your computer or on the web), the bigger the print you make, the more likely you are to see a trail in any shot, even if it looks like the stars are just pinpoints in the digital file. This happens because there are in fact trails in pretty much every shot; it’s just that in the digital picture on our screens the trail is so small that our eye can’t make it out. So if you create a large print version of your picture don’t be surprised if the stars start to show a tiny bit of a tail.
Tip 4 – Use Your Remote
If your camera comes with a remote control then you should use this to take the actual shot of the Northern Lights. Pressing the button manually can possibly cause just enough shake in the camera to make the stars blur.
Tip 5 – Experiment with your ISO
Unfortunately there’s no real rule of thumb when it comes to the ISO setting of your camera. You want to set your ISO in that sweet spot between letting in enough light to get an image and letting in too much light so that there’s noise.
What you do want to make sure of is that if you’re shooting RAW pictures you want your particular camera’s version of Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on (not all cameras give the option to turn this off).
If you’re shooting .jpg pictures (RAW is better) then you’ll want both Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction turned on.
Tip 6 – Take Most of Your Shots While on Land
Our Northern Lights cruise ships anchor in bays where there are relatively calm waters; however there is still going to be some motion while you’re on board. You can try snapping some shots while on deck, but you’re probably going to end up with at least a tiny bit of motion blur. So save the majority of your camera’s memory for when you make the trip to land.
Tip 7 – Take a Tripod
You’re not going to want to hand-hold your camera because it can very easily cause blurs in the stars and the Aurora.
Tip 8 – Keep Your Batteries Warm
Batteries tend to get quite sulky when they get cold. So keep your extra batteries in an inside pocket so your body can help keep them warm.
Tip 9 – Take Off Your Filters
Don’t have any filters on your lenses. Because your subject is coloured light itself you’ll end up with annoying rings in your picture (thanks to the way the light interacts with the filter) if you have filters on your lenses.
Tip 10 – (Pre)focus Your Lens
It can be a bit tricky getting a sharp focus for your pictures at night. A lot of cameras have an Autofocus feature – however they can be a bit touchy when they get cold. If the autofocus isn’t working well, then, while there’s still a bit of daylight, switch your camera to manual focus and zoom all the way in on an object in the distance (like a feature of the cruise ship if you’re on shore, or maybe the top of a mountain). From here you can try the infinity focus on your lens (marked with “∞”). Or you can switch to the live view on your camera, focus in on a distant object, and manually work your focus until it looks sharp (make sure to turn your live view off when actually taking pictures as the light from your camera’s monitor can creep into your pictures).
Bonus Tip – Practice!
This is just a starter’s guide and there are many more technical steps that can be learned along the way to give you a better chance at snapping those perfect pics (many of our cruises feature an on-board photography pro who will be happy to help you out). But the best way to get the most from your particular camera, your lenses, and you is to just start snapping. Play with all the settings on your camera. Discover how you best like to frame your subjects. The more pictures you take, the better your pictures will be.
Northern Lights cruises
Oceanwide Expeditions is happy to provide a number of differently-themed Northern Light cruises that will take you to the wonder of the Northern Lights.