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Five Tips No One Told Me About When Taking Pictures of the Northern Lights

My number one bucket list item in life was to photograph the northern lights. This past February I was able to go to Iceland and make my dream come true. I had never taken outdoor night shots before so I did my research online and felt prepared. Turns out, the advice I had seen didn’t tell me everything I needed to know — it was more difficult than I thought so I am sharing these extra tips to make it easier for you!

First off, I learned that the northern lights aren’t reliable because they are generated from intermittent solar flares that are drawn to the magnetic energy of the northern and southern poles. Prior to my trip, they had not seen the lights in Reykjavik for over a month and only started back up a few days before I went out, so I felt extremely lucky. Once you are over that key hurdle, be prepared from a technical standpoint by reading the numerous blogs on the types of cameras to use, lenses, f stops etc. My added tips are below.

1. Focus on your hands and feet

Ok this may seem simple, but I was not prepared. When you are taking these pictures, wherever you are, it will probably be winter and it will be cold. I was in Reykjavik where the low at night was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Not too bad. But to take good pictures of the northern lights, you have to be far away from city lights, and apparently in Reykjavik the temperature drops DRAMATICALLY as soon as you get into the country-side. I did not know this. By the time we got to the spot to shoot, the temperature was 7 degrees without the wind chill. So do all the normal things you would to dress for cold weather— lots of layers, scarf, hat etc. But also:

Pay particular attention to your feet! I did not think this through but you you will most likely be in a remote area where there won’t be benches or anything for you to sit on so you will be standing for quite awhile on snow. Wear thick rubber soled outdoor snow boots and have multiple pairs of warm wool socks on your feet if they get cold easily. Also consider getting those little heat packets you can put under your feet inside your boots. I had on boots and warm socks but they were not good enough. I lost feeling in my feet midway through the shoot and couldn’t jump up and down to warm them up because it caused distortion in my camera during the extended exposures. It wasn’t fun.

Wear versatile gloves. While 7 degrees minus the windchill may make you want to wear bulky mittens or gloves, remember you will have to keep using your fingers to adjust the camera, check shots, move your tripod etc. I had to keep taking off and on my gloves and hold them in my teeth or shove them in a pocket which inevitably meant I dropped them in the dark several times and they were hard to find. So when picking gloves consider the convertible kind that flip down at the top so you can move your fingers and cover them back up easily without taking the entire glove off.

2. Bring a flashlight

It will be pitch dark by the time the lights come out and you will be in the middle of nowhere. You will inevitably drop something on the ground, like a glove (see above) or also in my case, the entire leg of my tripod. I had to scramble to find it on the ground (a piece of the leg is still there somewhere), turn the tripod stand upside down, and screw the leg back in, in the dark, while it was freezing. I also had to replace batteries in my remote shutter release and I was not able to see which end was which.

Having a flashlight will come in handy. I would not rely on the light on your phone, because you will 1) have to take your gloves off and 2) have to hold the phone in your teeth because you need your hands to do something else. Also the cold weather drains your batteries fast and you want to save your phone battery because again, you are in the middle of nowhere and if you need help, you want your phone to work. A headlamp would probably work well.

3. You can make due without a wide angle lens

Every blog I read in preparation for taking these photos told me it was best to use a wide angle lens. That’s great if you can afford one which costs $3,000 or more. I could not. So I brought my fixed 50mm lens thinking that would give me a low enough f stop (1.8) and a wide enough angle. You can get a good one for $125 which is much cheaper. I also brought my 28–135 basic zoom lens which is what I used in the end and I liked the shots I got.

4. You can’t focus on moving light

Just a few minutes after I got situated and ready to shoot, that long-awaited moment happened, the big reveal. In the blink of an eye the lights suddenly came into the sky, and my heart leapt. I had wanted to experience this moment for so long, and there they were, finally. I started cheering and jumping up and down. It was as mystical, magical, and other worldly as I thought it would be. What the blogs I read didn’t say was that our human eyes don’t see all the variation and vibrancy in the lights like you see in the photos. It is only through the extended exposure of the camera lens that you can see it. So the lights themselves were dulled in color, but still absolutely breathtaking.

I immediately started taking pictures but the first few kept coming out black. I panicked!!! I checked all my settings and they were right. I took a few more pictures and still, nothing. I started to feel sick to my stomach and ran through everything in my head again. And then, I realized in my excitement and in the dark, I had left the lens cap on. Yup.

With a sigh of relief I tried it again, feeling good about my next attempt. But again, nothing. I got angry, I had done everything the blogs had told me. Thankfully, the guide that brought us out to the shooting spot came to my rescue. She walked through everything with me calmly and agreed everything was set up correctly, but then asked if my lens was set to auto focus or manual. I was shooting in auto focus to take one potential human error issue off the table knowing I had only one night to get it right, but she told me to shoot on manual focus because the camera could not auto-focus on the lights which made sense, I just hadn’t thought of that.

So I changed that setting, took a deep breath, and shot one more photo. And viola, I finally got one! I screamed out loud and got tears in my eyes… which quickly froze on my face so I stopped that, and went back to taking more more shots, all of which came out. Ecstatic I played them back on my camera to look more closely at them, and when I did, noticed they were all blurry. Because I was on a manual focus setting and it was dark, I didn’t have a point of reference to focus the lens. My guide saved me again. She helped me find an object in the distance behind us to set the focus which worked. You can see one example of a successful photo below.

5. Be present and enjoy the view.

After I got the hang of taking the photos, I remembered to take my attention off my camera and put it on the sky. As the night went on the lights became bolder and more intricate, showing up in multiple bands, in multiple places, dancing like ribbons in the wind. You could see them undulate and move with grace and ease, changing color and intensity. It was astounding. By taking the time to be present in the moment, I was able to imprint the beauty and magic of the night into my heart, not just my camera.

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