Photographing the Northern Lights: Tips, Tricks & Best Practices

by  Christine Wei | Dec 12, 2013
Northern lights above an igloo
Northern lights above an igloo / unaz/iStock

Adventure traveler or not, few things inspire wanderlusters everywhere to brave the elements like the jewel-hued Northern Lights. If you’ve dreamed of chasing this legendary phenomenon, now’s the time: The aurora is reaching solar peaks this winter and next, meaning visibility will be the greatest in this time for a good decade. And as with all epic travel experiences, you’ll probably want to capture your sightings on film (or an SD card). Here’s how. 

6 Unexpected Challenges & Tips to Overcome Them

Battery Life: Cold temperature slows down chemical reactions that keep a battery running, which means your batteries will give less than optimal charge or sometimes simply stop working. You’ll want to bring multiple backups and carry the batteries as close to your body as possible, in pockets preferably attached to an inside clothing layer. Once you get to your location, you can minimize the battery’s exposure to the elements by wrapping up your camera once you’ve pre-set the tripod and camera settings, only turning the camera on when it’s time to shoot. This will also help prevent your lens from freezing in a particular position.

Fog and Condensation: If you paid attention in 5th grade science, you’ll remember that condensation forms when cold objects are introduced to much warmer environments, like an iced beverage in a hot room. A serious concern on a Northern Lights expedition is moisture forming or leaking inside the camera, which can be damaging to the electronics. Some preventative steps: leaving the camera in its bag on the porch, bringing it inside to rest on a cold windowsill, then finally bringing it out of the bag after a few hours. For extra insurance, seal the camera in a ziploc before placing it back in the camera bag when you’re still outside. Then if any condensation forms indoors, it should largely be on the plastic surface, not the camera.

On the flipside, the camera will fog up if it’s abruptly brought from indoors to out. The fog will eventually clear up and won’t hurt the camera, but it can be inconvenient to wait. To avoid it, simply place your camera by a cool window for a few hours or leave it in a bag outdoors before carrying it to your viewing spot and taking it out.

Plastic and Rubber: A point that isn’t brought up as often is that these materials can freeze and become extremely brittle. Even if you’re generally gentle with the camera, this becomes especially important when it comes to the ball head that holds the camera up on the tripod. Be sure to use a sturdy one that’ll hold up to weight and fiddling around.

Focusing: This is best done in daylight. Got a fancy-pants, super new camera? Great. Use your infinity focus and you’ll be all set. If you don’t, manually focus on the furthest object in sight – try a mountain top on location or even a building or lamp post at the end of the street, if you're still at home.

Lens Expenses: If you’re not an avid photographer who will make enough use of the kinds of lenses recommended for shooting the Northern Lights (most commonly wide angle, prime, and telephoto), rent instead of buy. After all, beyond the most basic prime lens, they generally run from $200 or $300 up to thousands of dollars. Yikes!

Extra Padding: Ever got your tongue stuck on an ice cube just out of the freezer? That’s what often happens with slick, frozen surfaces – like metal tripod legs. To avoid sticking, buy foam wraps or make them yourself. Some photographers also like to hold their lenses in place with masking tape after setting the focus, just to be safe.

What Kind of Camera?
Before deciding what photography gear you’ll want, you’ll need to know a few key functions if you don’t already. The most important ones to learn are ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. In a nutshell, ISO refers to light sensitivity, where higher numbers indicate better sensitivity but results in more graininess; shutter speed dictates how much time the camera takes to take the shot (exposure); and aperture controls how much light is let in, which affects both shutter speed and sharpness.

We get that no one ever jumps to purchase equipment just for one trip, but the reality is that smartphones don’t offer a lot of these controls. Beyond a few settings that your phone might offer, your best bet would be to experiment with long exposure and shutter speed apps – though unfortunately that would essentially be a shot in the dark, so to speak.

The good news is that baseline point-and-shoots with manual settings start from just over $100 these days. If you consider all the other funds going in to the trip, that’s actually not that significant. Of course, mid-range cameras in the $300 or $400 range would do better in this kind of low-lighting setting.  That’s probably not a significant cost, all other funds going into the trip considered, not to mention the time that you’re taking and the effort that you’re making. If you’re serious about capturing a glowing, gorgeous photo like the ones published all over the internet – and are willing to shell out another one or two hundred dollars – consider using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

Time and Place
As our editor pointed out earlier this fall, an aurora-based trip is one instance in which joining a tour or hiring a guide can be worth your while. These experts have been hunting the aurora for years, know the best viewing spots, and know when to be on high alert. Likewise, keep in mind when you’re booking your accommodations that some hotels offer wake-up services that alert guests of light sightings. Regardless, we do suggest that you have all of your gear packed and ready to go, and sleep in clothes that are as journey-read as possible – the lights can be fleeting, so you’ll want to get out the door as quickly as possible.

The Bigger Picture
Say “Northern Lights” and more often than not Iceland will pop into most people’s minds. We'll leave you with a friendly reminder that it isn’t the only country whose skies are prone to shimmer. Finland, Norway, and Sweden all offer robust viewing spots (and tour options). Closer to home, Canada and Alaska also make for promising aurora-hunting bases. See our contributor’s report for more ideas.

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