Most people who come to Iceland will be pretty keen to not only see but also take pictures of the Northern Lights. But how do you do that, exactly? What setting do you need on the camera? What other equipment do you need? We have put together this guide for 7 of the of the best photographic and technical pointers to help you out when taking pictures of the Northern Lights in Iceland.
You cannot rob me of free nature’s grace,
You cannot shut the windows of the sky
Through which Aurora shows her brightening face.
JAMES THOMSON, Castle of Indolence
This is the most important tip. Because it will be pitch dark you need to have your camera open for a few seconds in order let enough light in to be able to take the picture. This means that you won’t be able to hold it steady for all that time, and we’re pretty sure if you try, you will end up with a blurry image.
So, please get a tripod! They don’t have to be heavy or particularly fancy: lightweight tripods are good for your baggage allowance, but if those Icelandic winds pick up (as they so often do) it won’t be very good for your camera. Try and find one with a hook to hang your bag on and get some weight. Sometimes just a Gorillapod strapped to the right piece of fence will be enough. Make sure the camera is nice and tight, since this could also ruin your northern lights shots of it slips.
In general, you will want to have a wide-angle lens when photographing the Northern Lights. Focal length is measured in mm, and to start off with you will want a focal length somewhere in the region of 18-24 or even 35mm. Wide angle lenses will allow you to “get it all in”, all the way from the interest at ground level, maybe some trees, the coast line, a lake, all the way up to the sky where you will find the auroras.
Once you have a few shots, you may want to try something different: Maybe there is a particular shape in the Northern Lights that you want to focus on. In this case, use a longer focal length to zoom in, pivot the camera on the tripod, find the composition, lock the tripod and capture. And then hope that you have something, because you have to be fast. Experiment with different focal lengths and see what you get.
Cable release/delayed shutter
If you take a picture the normal way, it will most likely be blurry because the camera will shake at the critical moment at slow shutter speed. Use delay timer to take a picture 2,5 or 10 seconds after you press the shutter to eliminate the shake.
Everyone needs to see, even when it’s pitch dark. Take a headlamp, but remember to be courteous to other photographers while in Iceland: too much light in the foreground could ruin their (or indeed your) precious pictures. Most headlamps have a red LED for use at night time. Make sure to use it in this mode. It also much more pleasing for the eyes and it means that your eyes will not have to re-adjust once you turn the light off, so you’ll see the Northern Lights better!
Manual Mode & Manual focus
In these low light situations, the camera will not focus automatically. We shudder when we think about how many potentially awesome northern lights shots have been ruined by autofocus: put the camera in manual! There is usually a switch on the lens and a switch on the body. Use the switch on the body, since this usually overrides the switch on the lens. Then, once it’s in manual, the focus needs to be set to infinity. Put the focus pin on the lens in the middle of lemniscate (∞). The auroras are very far away, so the lens must be at infinity.
Auto (and all of its incarnations like A, S, and P) are not your friend! For the Northern Lights, its manual all the way. This is because the automatic modes try to bring the photo up to a normal, daylight level of brightness, which is not the goal when taking pictures of the Northern Lights. After all, you want a dark picture with bright Northern Lights in it.
This is the sensitivity of the sensor to the incoming light. When photographing the Northern Lights you want a higher ISO than you would have during the day. Start with 800 and take it from there. You want it only as high as you need it because the quality of the images goes down!
The maximum aperture (the hole that your lens makes so that light can get through to your sensor) is different for each lens. While some lenses are better than others, almost all can capture the Northern Lights given the right shutter speed. Try to have it as wide (smallest number) as possible. If you have a professional quality prime lens like the Sigma Art 24, don’t be afraid to shoot wide open at 1.4 but make sure the focus is precisely at infinity. Some photographers tape the focus ring in the infinity position so that it doesn’t get knocked off by accident in transport or in the dark.
So, did that help?
Now that you have all the technical know-how that you need to get the best shot possible, all you need are the right conditions and right location! Seeing the Northern Lights is never guaranteed, but on some of Get Local awesome Northern Lights tours, you can maximise your chances! They show you some great spots for taking picture of the Northern Lights during your time in Iceland. Good luck and happy shooting!