The Northern lights is something I always wanted to check off the photographer’s bucket list someday. Now, just returned from a three days trip to Tromsø, I can finally do that. We have seen some great aurora activity, and I was lucky enough to capture some of it. Before getting into the details, some of the good stuff right here.
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22 @13mm, f4.0, 8 sec., ISO 1.600
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22 @10mm, f4.0, 4 sec., ISO 640
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22 @14mm, f4.0, 4 sec., ISO 1.000
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22 @10mm, f4.0, 13 sec., ISO 1.250
Admittedly, I wasn’t very well equipped for photographing the Northern lights. I planned to take my EOS 6D Mark II and rent a Sigma 20mm f1.4 for the trip. Unfortunately, the photo store was out of the lens, and all alternatives didn’t really work. Also, I didn’t want to spent the money on a lens that I would rarely be using on other occasions. So I decided to take my “old” 7D, where I at least have a wide angle lens: The EF-S 10-22mm f3.5-5.6. Not really a perfect choice: The 7D is not exactly known as a low-light monster, and starting at f3.5, this lens also isn’t.
So, can you still take decent pictures of the Northern lights with this combination? Yeah you can! As always, it’s not so much about the gear but what you do with it. I saw guys with GoPros mounted on GorillaPods taking more than decent pictures of the Aurora, so if you have any DSLR with a wide angle lens and ideally a tripod, you can do something with that. But, I have to admit: This type of photography pushed my 7D and the 10-22mm to a limit, where, looking at the pictures in post, I would have wished for a full frame and some nice 1.4 or at least 2.8 aperture lens. If you’re working in more or less total darkness, you’ll see this combination havings its problems when it comes to noise.
And one more tip: If you’re actually going to chase the Northern lights, just pack what you really need. I tend to pack more, and it just complicates things. Your camera, the widest and brightest lens you have and a tripod is enough, you won’t need any other lenses, flash and so on.
The right approach
Go shoot the aurora! Of course there’s a little more to it, but it’s really not that hard – at least not all of it. Difficult can be nailing the right combination. Set your camera to manual mode, aperture as low as possible (f1.4 is amazing, f2.8 is great, f3.5 is alright), ISO somewhere between 800 and 2.000, shutter speed somewhere between 4 and 15 seconds. And then trial and error. Sometimes the moon will be brighter, sometimes the aurora will be darker, and so on. Quite difficult is also nailing the focus: Since it’s pitch dark, autofocus won’t be an option. Switch to manual and then try setting the focus ring to infinity – or a little before that. That’s a good starting point. If there’s any lights visible (stars, city lights etc.), start live view on your camera, zoom in and then move the focus ring until those lights are sharp. Then you got the focus nailed. If there’s no lights or you don’t have live view, trial and error. Definitely nail the focus before the aurora shows up! Nothing worse than taking what you think amazing pictures for half an hours and then realizing they’re all out of focus.
The Aurora Borealis
We didn’t really know what to expect, of course. Would the Northern lights even show up? When? How? Where? So in our first night in Tromsø, we just started going out in the neighborhood. During the first trip at around 7pm, there wasn’t really anything. It was just dark, with the moon providing some light, so we headed back home. Two hours later, we went back out again – and there it was, gleams of green, visible to the eye. In general, Northern lights appear much stronger on cameras, because they let more light in than the human eye. But still, we were blessed! On this occasion, I took pictures #2 and #3 above, just several hundred meters from our AirBnb.
But once you’ve seen it, you can’t get enough – so we decided to go on a trip another night. We booked a bus tour at “Chasing Lights“, whose guides promise to go chasing the Aurora with you. To see some Northern lights, first of all you need a clear sky – and that can be difficult, if it’s cloudy or snowing in Tromsø city. That was the situation the night we planned our trip, so our guides took us all the way to the South, almost to the Swedish/Finnish border. There, we parked in the middle of nowhere – a clearing within forest and mountains, with no light other than the moon shining down. Temperature at -14 degrees, standing around and waiting for some Northern lights to come up.
The hard thing is, you can’t really plan. It’s a waiting game really. Conditions were perfect: Clear sky, freezing cold, very dark inspite of the moonshine. So all you can do is wait for some gleams of grey or greenish to show up. Pro tip: Set your camera to live view, increase ISO, and you’ll see the Northern lights before your eyes can. But then still, you can’t really predict what happens next. A small shimmer can turn into a dancing sky of Northern lights, or it can disappear again. Luckily, it didn’t take too long for some activity to happen.
After this encounter, we went to a different location, just besides a major fiord in the area. The location would have been perfect for some skies full of dancing lights – and we got lucky again, not in shape of dancing lights, but as some amazing glows and arches forming above the horizon.
I’m very thankful for having experienced this nature’s wonder. Experiencing the Northern lights every night we went out and being able to capture it in such a way – just amazing. It’s worth the waiting and cold weather any day. If you want to experience this on your own, I can highly recommend Chasing Lights as your guides for this encounter, they know what they’re doing, event- and photography-wise. And I’m very happy having started one of my new year’s resolutions – investing more time in photography – with such a highlight.