On my recently concluded Norway Photo Tour my group and I had only photographed two photo sessions with the aurora, we were all hoping for one last chance. Then it happened, on our very last night in Norway, we were treated to our third photo session with the aurora. Our guides took us to a remote location that we had all to ourselves. The evergreens and mountain backdrop were exquisite to me. I love trees and snow so I was instantly happy, plus the aurora had already started illuminating the sky. The activity was not intense at first, which was fine, as we all had to get our compositions and focus worked out.
As soon as we had all gotten set up, it was as if mother nature knew and started the show. We were all gleefully jumping for joy when the first wave of beautiful colors danced across the sky. At one point we were turning around and photographing front and back every few minutes! It was magical. No it was epic!
Because the light was so bright and filled the sky I was able to reduce my ISO from 3200 to 1600. When photographing in conditions like this it is important to keep an eye on your histogram and evaluate the light so that you are not overexposing or underexposing the aurora.
If you don’t raise your ISO high enough and you let your shutter speed get really long, the stars can be blurry and the aurora may lack definition. If you underexpose your image with high ISO—I call that the kiss of death; when you bring up the light in post processing on a grossly underexposed image you will introduce a lot of noise. It is better to use a higher ISO in the field and nail the exposure (ETTR-expose to the right). It is also important to use manual focus. For an image like this, I start off with my settings: Manual mode, manual focus, ISO 3200, F/2.8, 8-10sec. exposure, 3200Kelvin, then make changes where needed depending on the light.
For the above image, I used my Canon 5D 4 and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 III lens. I also brought my Sony ar7III with me to Norway but the buttons are very close together making it hard to fumble around in the dark with bulky gloves, so I used my Canon gear. Mostly because I needed to help others and would not have as much time to set up as I would have liked and I haven’t used my Sony gear that much. It is extremely important to know your gear very well when trying to photograph in the dark, especially with a group as you can not put on your headlamp or flashlight as often as you would like.
Sometimes, you will find that a vertical composition will work best with an aurora. It is good to have an “L” bracket on your camera so that you can easily switch from portrait mode to landscape mode depending on the shape of the aurora lights. I like to take a shot, look at it carefully on the back of my camera to check all corners of my composition making sure what I want to be in the shot is, and what I don’t want is not—like someone’s tripod legs or body.