How to photograph northern lights in Iceland

Seeing the northern lights in Iceland is amazing experience by itself.

For those that are into photographing, catching the phenomenon on a film is a really rewarding thing because the photo can show whole lot more than the naked eye can see. It is also a bit difficult to take a quality photo of the northern lights due to the dark so good photo is a nice accomplishment.

This article will go through the process how to photograph northern lights in Iceland with DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex camera).

But note it will take some practice to get it right, we will touch on that later in the article.

How to photograph northern lights

Before going out there and start shooting into the dark a proper preparation is needed.

You both have to prepare the camera and yourself.  It will make your live easier during a cold dark night in Iceland.

Camera and accessories

  • Good SLR camera with fully charged batteries and an extra pair. They can last for short while due to the cold in Iceland, from 10°C down to -20°C (50°F down to -4°F) depending on the season and where you are (in the highlands etc).
  • Wide angle lens is recommended, the same as for other landscape photography.
  • Good Tripod. INLHQ recommends a full size one so you can choose to stand upright. You can also have strong winds so bigger tripod helps.
  • Remote shutter. You can also use the shutter delay on the camera but it is more consuming process especially if you only have 10 second delay option)

Other important things

  • Flashlight or headlamp (you can also use your phone, but you would probable want to save the battery for other use than flashlight. The batteries can also last for short while in the cold)
  • Good outerwear (Jacket, gloves, cap and good shoes, it can get a bit cold during the winter)
  • Coffee or hot coco. If you are staying out for couple of hours or longer this is a must.

Where are the northern lights

There are two important things to keep in mind when you want to photograph northern lights. How is the weather forecast for northern lights viewing and where to go.

First check out the northern light forecast from the Icelandic meteorological office. You can find info on how to use the forecast in article about the northern lights forecast for Iceland.

The location where you are staying and aurora forecast control where you are going to see the northern lights (the big picture) but the landscape for the photo shooting does also matter, so keep that in mind.

Photographing around lakes, waterfalls, glaciers or in snowy condition can do the difference as it helps reflecting the light and making the picture brighter.

The photographing procedure for northern lights

So let’s go through the adjustments for the camera, there are probable many different setup that you can use depending on the cameras but this is something that has worked well for the INLHQ team Canon´s.

First we need to understand the nature of the photo shoot. It´s a landscape photographing during the night so the camera adjustment have to be done through the manual mode.

For those that are not used to work with manual mode this can be a little tricky but something that can be learnable and the best way is to go out and practice before. You can take a photo of full moon and stars or street lightning in the city for example.

Prepare

So the camera is ready on the tripod, you have found a good spot and the first wave of northern lights are coming your way. It´s time to get the camera ready. Below are some basic adjustment for the first photo shoots, some adjustment are likely needed during the photo shooting to get the right focus, brightness etc.

  1. Put the camera in manual mode.
  2. Adjust the ISO between 400 – 800 (try to keep the ISO as low as possible to minimize noise in the picture).
  3. Adjust the Av (aperture) to the upper value of the camera lens for the landscape photo shoot (You can se the value on the front of the lens, for example 1:3.5-5.6).
  4. Put the shutter speed between 20 to 30 sec.
  5. Keep the flash turned off.
  6. If you do not have remote shutter turn on the shutter delay but keep the interval as short as      possible to shorten the waiting time.

Focus

Now the camera is ready for the photo shooting but there could be one problem. The camera might not let you take picture as it can not focus due to darkness. This depends on the camera you have.

There are basically two methods that can be used.

  • Auto focus:You can try to find an object that the camera can focus on (normally something visible due to some light source (the moon, street lights, etc. ) The disadvantage it that the light source will affect the photograph. You can also use your flashlight to lumen up the foreground for focus and then turn it off.
  • Manual focus: You can put the lens in manual focus put it on infinity and try to adjust it right from there, but this process can be quite difficult depending on the camera as you can hardly see anything through the lens.

Now you are all set, experiment with the adjustments as you go along. Just do one or two adjustment in a time so you can see if you are on the right track.

Photograph northern lights

Northern Lights in East Iceland – Canon Rebel XTi, Canon Zoom Lens EF-S 18-55mm, ISO 800 – AV f4.5, shutter speed 15.

Useful tips

Snow and full moon will help a lot to reduce the shutter time or lower the ISO value. It help as well to light up the nature. Calm lake will reflect the northern lights giving the photo a new dimension.

When adjusting the camera settings keep this in mind:

  • Lower aperture number = shorter shutter speed
  • Higher aperture number = longer shutter speed
  • Lower ISO = less photo noise and longer shutter speed
  • Higher ISO = more photo noise and shorter shutter speed

Have you some good tips about northern lights photographing? We would like to here about it. Please share your thoughts how to photograph northern lights or share photos in the comments below.

If you like to learn more about night photography take a look at the courses at CreateLive.com
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