How do you photograph the Northern Lights? It’s a question that most people don’t realise they should be asking until they find themselves standing under the aurora borealis staring at a camera screen which refuses to show anything other than the pitch black of the night sky.
It’s a question I found myself wishing I knew the answer to when I saw a green shadow crawl across the sky from my hotel room in the ski town of Ruka in Finnish Lapland earlier this year. And one that four hours later, lying in the snow in full ski gear at 2am clutching a GoPro in a waterproof case, I finally felt more than capable of answering.
The Northern Lights are one of the world’s great gifts; up there with the pyramids of Egypt and mates who occasionally fall over inanimate objects. Which is why if you’re ever lucky enough to have the opportunity, you’re going to want to get a snap or two to remember the experience.
So, are the lights particularly hard to photograph? Well... the truth is, no, not really. But only if you know what you’re doing and know which settings to use.
By the end of the night, I would have sieved through the majority of the settings on my GoPro HERO 4 Silver – the one with the screen – and shot some of the best and worst photos I’d ever taken in the process, ultimately culminating in the beauty above. But when I first noticed the aurora borealis in the skies above, I didn’t have a clue where to start.
Let the trials and numerous, numerous errors commence.
In the Beginning...
I wasn’t expecting to see the Northern Lights when I touched down in Finland. The forecast didn’t look particularly promising and the locals weren’t too optimistic about our chances.
Now, while this was a shame, I wasn’t particularly grief-stricken. Like most people, the lights had been on my checklist for some time, even if that checklist has always been more of an ever-changing lucky bag than a fully-formed list, but the trip as a whole to Finland had been somewhat of a dream; trekking and snowshoeing through boreal forests, skiing and playing with huskies and reindeer.
The lights would be the cherry on top of what had already been an exquisite cake – we’re talking Black Forest Gateau as oppose to Jaffa – so when they did first make their appearance, at 8.24pm at night after a delightful dinner, I quickly told my mate Colin to cease his terrible chat on Facebook messenger and headed out to the cold of my hotel balcony.
“Big man sees a little aurora borealis and all of a sudden he’s too good for the chat," Colin viciously mocked on Messenger. But right he was. I was in heaven now. I lifted my camera phone up to the skies, where slivers of gleaming grey and green hung over the hotel opposite and the mountains behind it and snapped a shot, ready to silence Colin.
It turned out like this, and needless to say, it went unsent.
I dropped my phone and decided it was time to take up the GoPro HERO 4 and head out in the cold to do some exploring and see the lights in the wild. Presumably it was just my battered phone which was incapable of picking up the lights and not my pitiful camera skills.
Of course, I soon disproved this theory as I struggled around the town of Ruka, snapping away at the sky with my GoPro and producing little more than a couple of captures of some hotels and the occasional blurry green wisp.
This was a startling reminder that by trade I am indeed a journalist and writer rather than a photographer. So how was I going to get the results? To shoot like a nature photographer, I had to think like a nature photographer.
I retreated to my room, restocked on battery life, stuck on my ski jacket, salopettes, gloves and a hat. Then, I proceeded to try and answer my questions in the manner many a wise man would. I Google’d it.
This wasn’t particularly helpful it turned out, as there wasn’t a whole lot of information online, but I did get some good tips that would prove vital when I headed back outside around 10pm. It’s crucial to stay away from artificial light when shooting the lights, for example. You need to take your shutter speed back to 15 or more seconds to capture the lights, and this exposure doesn’t mix well with artificial lights. Stick pro-tune on, then put your ISO on 800, the white balance on 3000k and follow those tips and you’re flying (now don’t say we didn’t give you any actual advice!) - though different conditions demand different set ups.
A Lesson Learned
Armed with more layers, more battery life and that all-important can-do attitude back out I went into the snow. It was nearing -20 and at this point I was looking like some sort of petrol bomb-wielding football hooligan with a scarf over my mouth and a hood covering my beanie-clad head.
I walked to the edge of town, away from the lights of hotels and bars to a spot where only an unlit cabin lay before me, and deep snow surrounded everything. I followed the steps above, setting my shutter speed to 15 seconds, and then set my GoPro to night lapse mode so it would snap away continuously.
I sat back and waited for my camera to turn me into an internationally renowned photographer, which, of course, it didn’t – but it did capture the lights successfully and provide enough of a shot to prove I wasn’t talking bullshit when I went back home.
But this wouldn’t be good enough for Mpora – the snow in the foreground of the photo could’ve blinded our readers (look below at your own risk). It looked like a bit like something from a D-movie sci-fi film starring Nicolas Cage and an alien made of play-doh.
I knew what the problem was now, though. It was all about the light. The moon was heavily present in that last photo and without it upsetting the white balance and shutter speed, the snow would go back to its sexy self and I could get the photo of my dreams. Right? Right.
I tested the theory by pointing the camera quickly away from all forms of light – directly upwards to the sky, and voila, I had myself a photo of the Northern Lights. Albeit not a very impressive one. But now the formula was in place, it was time to find the perfect setting.
It was about 1.30 in the morning at this point, the temperature was creeping down and battery life was drawing low. I didn’t have long.
I headed past the cabin I had previously been shooting at, took a turning and found myself at a T-Bar which seemed perfect in every way; the backdrop of the ski run, the beautiful drooping forests of Finland bursting with colour and the perfect lighting for the shot.
I set the camera up to take a snapshot on night lapse every 15 seconds and lay back in the snow to wait. It was a beautiful night, and without a doubt an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
Thankfully though, I’ve now got this beautiful series of snaps of the scene just in case my memory does ever fade. I smiled in surreal astonishment as I checked the monitor on my GoPro HERO 4 Silver, looked back at the Lights and waddled back to my hotel room as the camera died, so that I could finally go to bed and do something similar.
You don’t need to be a top photographer to take a great picture of the northern lights, you just need to know what to do. And when your backdrop is as stunning as the Aurora Borealis and the snow of Finnish Lapland, you know you'll have no need for filters when it's done.
Settings for final photograph: 12MB wide, Night Lapse mode, continuous shooting, shutter speed 15 seconds, ISO 800, white balance 3000k.
Thanks to Visit Finland. Stay tuned to Mpora for more features from Finnish Lapland, coming soon.