It's a sight you'll never forget, something totally magical, eerie, spectacular... there are so many ways to describe the phenomenon of the Northern Lights. But once your holiday's over and you've travelled home, will you actually be able to remember the spectacle, the glow, the colour, or will the memories fade away? The best way to bring back the magic is to take plenty of photos, and make the images good enough so they're worth having.
Every camera will give you different results. Every aurora is different, as is every night sky. You'll probably find yourself experimenting with different settings to get the images you want. Here's how to take the best photos of the northern lights.
How to take pictures of northern lights with smartphone technology? These gadgets aren't called smart for nothing, the cameras they contain are seriously good. But the Northern Lights are actually not very bright in photographic terms, and even the best-in-breed smartphone camera, which has very few if any controls beyond the absolute basics, won't give you brilliant results. The same goes for your tablet.
Having said all that, as long as you have a relatively new, high quality smartphone you might just manage something decent. Here are our tips for smartphone users:
- Make sure the lens is spotlessly clean
- Turn off all the apps and messaging services so they can't interrupt you
- Buy a tripod, or get clever and stand your machine on heaps of rocks. Otherwise your images will be blurred
- Some of your pre-set settings might work – it's worth checking. Do you have a 'starry skies' setting?
- If you have manual mode, that's great. You can adjust the ISO and exposure.
Some phones don't have a manual mode, including the iPhone, but you can try downloading
an app to do it for you, one that gives you manual control.
- Make the ISO 800. You can go higher but the photos will get progressively more grainy
- Try a 15-second exposure and go up from there if you need to
See what you get. Your images might even turn out quite well. But you probably need a proper camera for truly great Northern Lights photography.
While you don't necessarily need a DSLR camera, a hybrid manual-digital machine, you do need a camera with actual controls. Most of us leave our digital cameras on automatic, but remember to bring the instruction manual with you. It might be something you rarely use, if ever, but most good digital machines have a suite of manual menu settings designed to help you take great night photos, and they're well worth getting to grips with.
Here are our top tips for photographing aurora using a decent digital or DSLR camera.
1. Make sure your camera has manual settings
2. A newer camera is best, one capable of delivering a high ISO setting. Your ISO setting depends on how much extra light you need and
how the ISO affects your other settings, for example the aperture and shutter speed. As a rule the higher the ISO, the more light you capture, but the grainier the effect
3. A wide angle lens is a bonus, covering loads of sky. Set it to a fast aperture of f5 minimum, ideally f8
4. Turn on manual focus
5. Switch the flash off
6. Use a tripod to steady the camera – because the lights move across the sky a tripod lets you set a longer exposure that remains clear
7. Pack spare batteries, since they lose power faster in the cold
8. Bring at least one memory card with you – it can take a while to get the perfect shot and you don't want to run out of juice!
9. Focus is vital. If you have an infinity setting, use that and adjust things from there
10. It's handy to focus the lens during the day if you can, it's so much easier than doing it at night. If that's not possible, choose a bright star or planet in the night
sky and use this as your focus marker
11. You don't know how bright the lights will be until they arrive. When the aurora you see is bright and moving fast, set a shutter speed of 5 – 10 seconds.
If the aurora is moving slowly try 12 - 20 seconds. If it's very faint you might need a long setting of 20 - 25 seconds.
12. Set your white balance to daylight to stop your photos ending up too yellow or blue
The GoPro is small, light and wearable. And it's actually a reasonably good way of photographing aurora despite the phenomenon being tricky to capture because it's not actually very bright! The experts have given it a go and the results can be, apparently, very good, a realistic portrayal of the magic you see. Here are some tips for GoPro Hero 4 users.
- Change your shutter speed to 30 seconds. Sometimes 10 seconds is enough, sometimes 20 will do, but you need to figure out for
yourself what's best under the circumstances
- Set your GoPro values using your smartphone if possible, since it's faster and it lets you preview your shots
- The results are nowhere as good when you use video mode, but night lapse mode is great
- Make the interval continuous
- Make the MP 12MP Wide
- Turn the Spot Meter off
- Turn Protune on
- Make the White Balance 3000K
- Set the ISO Limit to 800
- Set the Sharpness to High
- Turn WiFi off
- Turn off the display at the back
- Position the gadget away from light and point it at the sky
- Be prepared to spend at least two hours collecting footage to choose the best images from