This is the year you’ve decided to not only see the northern lights but to photograph them. When you’re standing out there in the arctic night watching those coruscating sheets of colored light, of course you’re going to want to preserve the moment — and of course later you’re going to want to post your photos on Facebook and all your other social media sites.
So, where are the best places to see the aurora borealis? (And here is an accessory factoid you can use to impress your fellow aurora-viewers: the term “aurora borealis” was actually coined by Galileo. “Aurora” is the name of the Greek goddess of the dawn and Boreas was the god of the north wind. Thus the name of a phenomenon observed in the northern latitudes: a waving band of “dawn light.”)
Answering the question of the “best place” to see the northern lights is kind of like answering the question of where is the best place to see lightning. Obviously, the answer is: it depends. However, just as with lightning, we know that there are places where you can maximize your chances of encountering this atmospheric event.
First of all, you have to go north. In general, the closer you are to the Arctic Circle, the more likely you are to see the northern lights. The northern lights occur when the solar wind enters the earth’s atmosphere and interacts with atmospheric gases, throwing off photons. The earth’s magnetic field repels most solar particles, but the magnetic fields are weakest at the poles and hence these regions are likeliest to permit charged solar particles to enter the atmosphere and interact with molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and so on.
Winter is the best time of year to observe the northern lights, since the nights are longer and the skies tend to be clearer (clouds obviously being the bane of aurora observers). To see them at their brightest, you also want to be far away from light pollution — so, not too near big cities or towns. On the other hand, you also want to be in a place that is not too physically difficult to get to, especially if you’re going to be lugging camera equipment along.
Now, you could do all kinds of research to find the regions of the northern hemisphere that meet the above criteria. But I’ve done the research for you, so all you have to do is note the two places I recommend, then make your plans to go there. I figure it’s a good idea to recommend two places so you’ll have some options. More than two, and you might have trouble deciding which to choose.
Okay, so the first of the top two places I’m suggesting to see the northern lights is Alta, Norway. The town of Alta is located in the far north of Norway, where the Altafjord meets the Altaelva River. It’s a two-hour flight from Oslo.
The second of the two top places to see the aurora borealis is, well, the whole country of Iceland. Just get to Iceland, then take your pick of places to go. I’d recommend an area away from Reykjavik where there is an expanse of open, calm water to reflect the northern lights — an excellent composition for a photo.
Alta is recommended by a number of northern lights experts, as is Iceland. For example, the guys at “Aurora Service Europe” (see their website here), chose Alta as the number one destination for viewing the northern lights. Alta is also recommended by Fodor’s. And Iceland is recommended by everybody.
Now, as to getting there, you also want that to be as easy, convenient, efficient, and economical as possible. Is there a Web resource that can help you accomplish that? Of course. And that is TripAdvisor. Travelers are employing TripAdvisor more and more as not only their go-to source for reviews of places to stay and things to see and do around the world, but as a one-stop staging area for booking flights, rooms, tours, vacation rentals, and cruises. If you’re looking for deals, availability, and quality-control info, TripAdvisor pretty much has it all.
For example, click here to go to the TripAdvisor page for hotel deals and reservations for Alta, Norway. You can also use TripAdvisor to search for flights from wherever you are to Alta, which will give you a variety of prices and airline options. Just go to the “Flights” tab at the top of the TripAdvisor site.
Once you’re in Alta, how will you know where to go to not only see the northern lights, but to photograph them? Again, use TripAdvisor. You can do a search on “northern lights tours in Alta, Norway.” Oh, wait — I already did it for you! If you’d like to see companies in Alta that can guide you to the best northern lights viewing opportunities, just click here. You’ll see not only the local businesses, but reviews of those businesses by travelers. Pretty convenient… For example, there is GLØD Explorer AS, which, if you read the reviews and click through the links, you’ll notice has received a “Certificate of Excellence” from TripAdvisor. And then there’s Northern Lights Husky Day Tours where you can hunt for the northern lights by dog sled. How cool is that?
How to Photograph the Northern Lights — Gear and Settings
Okay, so the above info takes care of getting you to one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. Imagine: now you’re there. You’re out at night and the aurora borealis has made its appearance. You’re gazing upward, entranced. Then you remember you want to photograph them! How to go about doing that?
Well, first of all, let’s talk about your camera equipment. If you’re going to go to all the trouble to try to photograph the northern lights, don’t use your cell phone. Make sure you have a good camera with a top-of-the-line lens. A number of cameras will get the job done, but if you want the best quality for aurora boralis photography, I would recommend the Sony A7S II. This is currently the best low-light, full-frame camera on the market. Not only will it take excellent stills in dim light, it will also capture excellent video. And why not video the northern lights while you’re at it? Pair it with a fairly wide-angle lens, say in the area of 35 mm. And the faster the lens, the better. To go with the A7S II, I’d recommend one of Sony’s A-mount G lenses or Zeiss lenses. For example, the Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70 mm F2.8 zoom lens.
If you want the best all-purpose camera for the job — a camera that will not only give you great northern lights shots but will also work well for everything else you want to photograph on your trip — then I’d recommend either the Nikon D810 or the Sony A7R II. These are the best landscape and general-purpose full-frame cameras currently made. Both have excellent sensors (both sensors are made by Sony, actually). Both will not only give you high-quality night shots at higher ISOs, but will also serve you well during the daytime. You can’t go wrong with either, though the Sony A7R II is a lighter, more compact camera and therefore easier to lug around, if that makes a difference to you.
Next, you must have a tripod. It won’t work well to try to photograph the northern lights by hand-holding your camera. Don’t even attempt it. Invest in a rock-steady tripod. Gitzo, Manfrotto, Slik… there are a number of good tripod manufacturers.
You can get all of the above camera gear at Adorama — an excellent online source for just about every type of camera equipment known to man. They have good prices (check their special deals) and good service. Of course, you can find all three of the cameras mentioned above at Adorama — the Sony A7S II, Sony A7R II, and Nikon D810 — along with a full selection of lenses. If you’d like a less-expensive camera to photograph the northern lights, then make sure you get one that offers full manual control. And speaking of that…
To photograph the northern lights, you will obviously be photographing at night and you’ll be photographing stuff in the dark sky. This is a challenge for most cameras — and photographers — to handle. Therefore, before your trip, you should acquaint yourself with using your camera at night. At the least, go out and take some shots of stars, the moon, or distant city lights. Try it first on whatever programmed mode your camera offers and check the best, most well-exposed images to see what the settings were. Then, experiment with different manual settings and check the results each time you make a change. The settings you’ll be changing are ISO, aperture, shutter speed, focus, and white balance. When you photograph the northern lights, put the camera in manual mode and try the following suggested settings.
ISO determines sensitivity to light, the higher the number, the more sensitive. With the Sony A7S II, it almost doesn’t matter what ISO you set — even values of 25,600 and higher can yield good results with acceptable noise. For the best results with all these recommended cameras, however, try to stay around ISO 1600 or lower.
For aperture, you’ll want to use the wider settings that your lens offers. Try to keep it at F4 or wider.
Next, shutter speed will vary with the brightness of the aurora and your aperture. In general, you’ll be making exposures in the range of 4 seconds to 30 seconds, which depends also on ambient light and whether there is a moon or not. Experiment with different exposure lengths. Also, watch the histogram on your camera to try to keep the values in the middle of the graph. Obviously, such long exposures are why you’ll need a tripod. In addition, use a cable release to initiate the exposure. Or, alternatively, cameras like those from Sony have Wi-Fi and offer an app for your smartphone that can be used to trigger exposures. If you don’t have a cable release or a smartphone app, then set your camera’s self-timer to 2 seconds and trigger the exposure by pressing the shutter button. This is all done to minimize camera shake.
When it comes to focusing, it’s most likely that your camera’s auto-focus will fail miserably at focusing on the northern lights. So set your camera to manual focus. If the northern lights are dim and you’re having trouble focusing on them using the viewfinder, try focusing on stars instead. Focus will most likely be around infinity anyway. If you still can’t focus, try focusing on a far-away terrestrial object — a mountain, tree, or rock. If there isn’t enough ambient light to focus on far-away physical objects, use a flashlight to illuminate something that’s far away, focus on that, then leave your focus set where it is and point your camera at the northern lights. Remember to turn off your flashlight!
For white balance, you best setting will probably be somewhere between 3,700K and 5,500K. Experiment and check your results in live view. If your camera doesn’t offer numerical white balance settings, first try “Daylight” setting and then try “Incandescent” setting. See which results you like. In any event, don’t leave you camera set on “Auto” white balance.
Also, don’t put a filter on your lens.
Remember that batteries discharge faster in the cold, so bring along a spare battery or two.
Okay, so now you know where to go to photograph the aurora borealis, along with how to get there, and how to photograph the northern lights once you find them. If your timing is good and you’ve maximized your chances by going to one of the top two locations mentioned here, then it’s very likely you’ll have an unforgettable, inspiring, once-in-a-liftetime experience. Good luck!
And to whet your appetite, here’s a video of the northern lights…