Northern Lights – Take 2

Anyone can photograph the Northern Lights with a smartphone, but unless you have a sophisticated one with night mode or similar for low light shots, the result can be poor. A DSLR mounted on a tripod with wide angle, wide aperture lens and the ability to take long exposures should provide reasonable images. But don’t hesitate to have a go even when conditions are less than perfect, you may be surprised! I consider myself fortunate to have viewed both Northern and Southern lights on several occaisions.

Here are my results, taken with Nikon D750 Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 at ISO 3200 and 6400. It was further complicated, shooting from a moving ship hence the use of higher ISOs to permit faster shutter speeds from 2 seconds upwards. However, I managed to capture some good detail.

Further information for night time photography below the images.

All images copy write and marked in the file – you may use providing you credit me in this blog. All images reduced so click to enlarge.

To photograph the northern lights or anything at night time, set up as below before you go outside:

  • Practise operating your camera in the dark, beforehand to remember where all the switches are located to change settings such as ISO. D850 owners rejoice in illuminated buttons!
  • Please switch off your onboard flash, It is somewhat thoughtless to use flash as it achieves nothing. It spoils night vision and may also ruin other peoples photographs.
  • A good solid tripod is essential The larger the better, with a decent ball head to hold your camera rock steady. I use a Manfrotto 190CX3 carbon fibre although a larger one would be desirable its handy for travel with a Sirui 30x ball head which is excellent.
  • Switch off vibration control, reduction or image stabilisation if your lens has it (VC, VR or IS) does not work with a tripod so switch it off, usually the switch is on the lens.
  • Use your widest prime lens or set your zoom to its widest: 15, 17 or 20mm to capture the most sky.
  • Set the widest aperture – f2.8 or f4.0 or as wide as you can set to let in the maximum amount of available light.
  • Turn off auto focus then manually focus to infinity the switch is usually on your lens.
  • Set the highest ISO that works best with your camera: 1600, 3200 or 6400. To find this you may need to expirement or just know that your camera works best at a certain ISO. Too high and your images will be noisy. I may try 12800 next time which is pushing it but the D750s high ISO performance is excellent.
  • Use Mup – Mirror lock up. The Mup setting lifts your mirror on the first shutter release press, the next press releases the shutter. This will help to reduce vibrations as the mirror lifts. If you have a remote trigger, use it as it avoids pressing the shutter release which may induce vibration.
  • Experiment with shutter speed, start at 5 seconds then check and adjust.
  • Nikon users with D750 or D7100 or similar may like to save their night time settings to U1 or U2 for instant recall.

Find a good place, away from any light sources with a solid base for your tripod, avoid wooden decking as it will spring if anyone walks on it. Ensure you make other people (if any are nearby) aware you are setting up your tripod, although regrettably some can be less than considerate and stand right in your way or kick your tripod then reach skyward, releasing a blinding flash! Did you get that Honey? – Nope, I can’t see anything. Sigh!

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