Photography

Photographing the Northern Lights

A lot of people ask us if we see the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). The answer is yes! There has to be several conditions met – ie clear skies, not too full a moon and, of course, they have to be there! We see them several times a year and we can see them from our garden right by the lodges. If they are really strong, we will see some colour in the lights….however, a camera will see more than we do and really pull out the colours. This is a little blog about how to take photos – some simple tips and ideas on camera settings.

This is aimed at an amateur photographer using an interchangeable lens camera, a bridge camera or even a phone.

How do you know the Lights are there?

I use the Aurora UK app on my mobile phones and set it to alert me at an amber status which gives a pretty good chance of seeing the lights. This app shows the intensity of the lights and a reading of 100nT or more is good! I also use the Glendale app for more detail, although this is slightly more difficult to get. Use the map function on either app to see where the Aurora is. The Glendale app shows the cloud cover and will give points where others have successfully seen the lights which is helpful.

If there is an alert we go out to the garden and look north and north west over the lodges. The photo below was taken from our garden!

The Most Important Thing – a Tripod!

The most important thing you need to do when taking photos at night (no flash!) is to keep whatever camera using 100% steady. I really mean steady! The best way to do this is by using a tripod. Even for phones, you can get little cheap tripods. These are absolutely fine – all you need to do is to keep it still!

Lights screenshot Loch Fleet 2
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Shutter Speed and Focus
Normally, when taking photos of the Northern Lights, I would use the shutter priority mode (normally denoted by ‘S’ on the mode selection). Then, set a shutter speed of between 8 and 15 seconds – depending on the intensity of the show. By using the shutter priority mode, the camera will automatically adjust other settings. This way there is less to think about and if you’re not a whizz with manual mode, it’s easy to get a decent photo straight away. You can see some examples of shutter speeds in the screenshots.

 

At night, the camera will often struggle to focus – as it is dark! So, I usually set the focus to manual and then to infinity. When I first started taking pictures at night, I let auto focus take over and for starry skies and the northern lights, I was often disappointed with the results. With a phone, you will need to make sure it is very steady,  and tap the screen in the sky area so that it can also focus effectively on infinity.

ISO and Aperture
You can see from the screenshots that the ISO the camera has set does differ. Sometimes, I have played with EV levels up or down and this can impact the ISO. Generally, I find the best results is not to change other settings – concentrate on the shutter speed, focus and keeping the camera still.

 

I have tried Aperture priority too – but have not found better results by using this mode (normally an ‘A’ on the mode selector). You may notice that my lenses are all at F4 – this is the lowest they go. If you have a lens that goes lower (my phone goes down to F2.8) which is better for low light then you may get a less grainy photo – it’s worth experimenting for sure.

Lights Loch Fleet 3 screen shot
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Where to Go
The easiest thing is just to pop into our garden – the bottom tier is a great spot. As you can see adding the house in the photo makes for a more interesting shot – this was also taken from the bottom tier of our garden.

Alternatively try the Struie Viewpoint or Loch Fleet as can be seen above and below. Just look north! Perhaps, with a little bit of west too.

The Milky Way
Don’t forget there’s other things in the night sky other than the Northern Lights. There’s the Milky Way, the moon, planets or even a moon bow if you’re really lucky. The Milky Way and planets can be approached in the same way as the Northern Lights from a photography point of view. A moon bow or the moon itself are an entirely different story…