With compact cameras, photographing the northern lights is often a matter of luck, although a night-time setting sometimes helps. Capturing that perfect shot can be surprisingly easy, however, if you use an SLR camera that allows long exposures of 10 to 20 seconds together with a tripod.
For the best results you’ll also want a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8 is good enough, f2.4 is better and f1.4 is best) and a wide angle. Experienced northern lights photographers often wrap foam around their tripod’s legs to prevent them-selves from touching the metal with bare fingers (the skin sticks). Many photographers prefer to use a cable release – but just pressing the button can also work well. It’s also a good idea to wear a thin pair of gloves to protect your skin from frostbite – but remember the protection thin gloves offer will last only a few minutes in cold conditions. Carry thick mitts, too. Plus, you’ll need to take a headlamp so you can see what you’re doing in the dark.
Camera batteries die fast in cold temperatures. Always carry a spare, and keep it tucked into your clothing, close to your skin to keep it warm. Even better, buy a battery grip (they cost from about £100) and load it with lithium AA batteries – these keep their charge for a reasonable period. Try not to take your camera indoors with you as the lens will fog up with the change in temperature and, when you go outside again, the condensation will turn to ice. If you must take your camera indoors, put it in a plastic bag – ziplock seals work well.
When selecting a location for your photography, try to find a place with some foreground – a tent or building lit from the inside, or some trees – that will give your pictures perspective. For the best outcome, an ISO of 400 is probably best; go up to 800 and the photos can be noisy. Set the focus to infinity and open up the aperture as wide as your lens will allow. If you can, turn off the LCD display as its light will interfere with your vision through the viewfinder in the dark. Then just point and shoot and pray.
One last word: unless you have a fisheye lens, your camera will only capture a fragment of the sky, and during a really spectacular display, the northern lights work their magic across 360°. It’s easy to get carried away with photography – but for the best experience, remember to take a few moments just to step back and enjoy the show.
Old-fashioned film cameras can work well in cold temperatures as they are not as reliant on battery power as their digital replacements. Be careful when winding on film, however – in cold weather it can become brittle and break. Changing film, too, can be tricky with cold, glove-clad hands. It can also be difficult to develop film to reproduce the colour of the northern lights correctly. Often they appear far greener in photographs than they do to the eye.
It is virtually impossible to film the northern lights using a regular movie recorder. To record moving images of the northern lights, expensive specialist equipment is required.