The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) our favorite topic
One of our favorite subject during winter are The Northern Lights and all year round that’s the subject we get the most questions regarding: the “Northern Lights”, what are they, where do they come from, will I be able to see them and how do you photograph them? Here are a few facts regarding this marvelous spectacle and a few technical tips for the photographing enthusiast.
The “Northern Lights”, or Aurora Borealis, are a beautiful spectacle. They are series of discharged particles emanating from the sun (some call it solar wind) the particles penetrate the Earth’s magnetic shield and create light when combined with atoms and molecules (such as nitrogen and oxygen) when entering our atmosphere. The discharged particles travel more than 150 million kilometers (about 90 million miles) through space towards the Earth before being drawn in to the Polar Regions by our planet’s magnetic force. However the Vikings believed that the Northern Lights meant that the Pagan god Odin was having a Party and to be honest I like that explanation more 🙂
Another popular question is regarding the colors of the Northern Lights, they always produce a green shade in the sky and it depends on what types of gasses the discharged particles collide with what color we get. Collisions with oxygen typically produce green and yellow lights while contact with nitrogen results in reds, violets, and blues. Red or violet we get often but these colors are not as common as the green/yellowish.
The Northern Lights are most common and easiest to spot and photograph on a location in latitudes in the Arctic Circle from 68 degrees to 74 degrees (Iceland´s latitude and longitude 65°00 N 18°00 W). The best time of year to travel to see the lights is in the winter months due to low light pollution and clear atmospheric conditions. Some say that new moon cycles can improve your chances as well, but we are so spoiled here in Iceland we have the lights available almost every night it just depends on the clouds and weather if we see them or not. For best chance to enjoy the sightings and get the best photos we´ll take a short drive and avoid urban areas as unwanted ambient light can really affect your images. We´ll then stop somewhere we have a nice foreground in the photos.
Here are a few technical tips:
You must bring and use a tripod! Without it your photos are useless. Also bring a cable release, or use a timer to capture the Northern Lights properly, we do not want shaky photos. You want a fast, wide angle lens that will provide you with the ability to incorporate enough of the dark night sky in your image for contrast and scale.
And even a fixed focal length lens would be nice. We recommend that you take all filters off the lens prior to shooting, including a UV filter, so you will not have an undesirable aberration on all your images.
There is no perfect recipe for capturing the northern lights because our exposure will largely depend on the light. You can try setting your camera on full manual mode. Use the Live View setting on your camera’s display to ensure you get a sharp focus at infinity (or slightly less, depending on the lens). Your ISO should be set between 800 and 3200 and aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6, the shutter speed between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Don’t use more shutter speed because usually it looks like green mist rather than a sharp streaks in the northern lights, also the star starts to trail after about 10 seconds, so it is better to increase ISO than to have to long shutter speed.
If you have travelled to Iceland only to see or photograph the Northern Lights remember that they are completely dependent on the frequency and strength of solar flares that come in contact with the Earth. You´ll have to be ready every night during your stay to go out and see the Lights and if you are lucky you´ll get the chance to see them at least once during the stay. Of course we have a few tools handy that help us determine the odds according to the weather and magnetic field each day so we can let you know in advance if to prepare for a long night.0