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Photographing the Aurora Borealis - Photographing the Northern Lights can be a challenging but rewarding experience. Photographer Sigurdur H Stefnisson is somewhat of a master when it comes it the Auroras, capturing not only the lights but interesting foregrounds too. Here he gives ePHOTOzine a little bit of advice about photographing this amazing light.
The Auroras are created by electrically charged particles that make thin air look shiny. They can cover the sky completely or form in small strips that look like they're dancing across the sky. Sigurdur started photographing the Northern Lights back in 1985 and thanks to the National Geographic he is now known as the Aurora photographer.
"After one of my shoots showing auroras and a volcanic eruption was chosen as one of the 100 best photos ever published in National Geographic the name stuck to me," explained Sigurdur.
To photograph the Auroras you have to find them first. The Auroras can be seen from quite a few places but Sigurdur takes his photographs in Iceland.
"You can see the Auroras from September to April as long as the sky is clear. We have Auroras here on most clear nights and you are most likely to see them around midnight. I would say your chances of a clear sky are better in March and April and then again in September but nothing is certain when it comes to Icelandic weather. The whole of Iceland is right under the Aurora oval so there isn't a place here better than the next, you can see the Auroras from anywhere. Remember to check sites such as the Space Weather Prediction Centre to see how likely it is you will see the Auroras."
Next you need a good location because even though you are photographing something in the sky, having foreground interest on the ground will create a better picture. Having just an image of the sky gives no scale and to someone who has no special interest in the Auroras they can just look like a series of colours painted onto the sky which is not visually appealing. Sigurdur rarely takes a shot without some sort of foreground interest. He sets man-made objects against the natural phenomenon which creates great contrasting images. In fact he believes foregrounds are so important he goes in search of one he likes and waits for the Lights to appear behind it.
"The Aurora often appears without a notice so it is usually best to wait at a place that has good foregrounds in all directions. You wont usually have long to wait but patience helps, while waiting you could shoot some nice scenes without the Auroras. The auroras don't move quickly. Many people who have seen them on TV think this but usually this is because they have been shoot with time lapse technology so they are shown at 50 - 100 times their normal speed. The main problem is that you usually don't know in which direction they will appear so you have to move quickly finding a good foreground."
Doing your location research during the day would be a good idea and you could always get tips from other Aurora photographers and groups. Don't forget that the sky needs to be interesting too. Keep your eye on the skyline for shapes and colours that will look good against your chosen foreground. The faint reds which can appear will add punch to an image, Sigurdur said this can be hard to see but if you keep your eyes away form bright lights they will become clearer.
An ideal spot for this sort of photography will have an interesting foreground and no or minimal light pollution.
Light pollution can ruin a beautiful image so Sigurdur makes sure he's always at least ten minutes away from town and city lights. Also choose a location that has no cities towards the North as this is the direction you will be facing. Vehicles going past can cause lens flare on a long exposure so don't set-up near a road either.
Having the right equipment can make your task a lot easier and Sigurdur says a tripod, cable release and a good DSLR are essential. Also depending on where you are warm clothing may also be needed and remember batteries don't last as long in the cold either.
"I carry a 12v-240v converter in my car so I can charge my batteries up when I'm out."
Once you have your chosen location and the lights are in the sky the tricky part starts. Even with modern day digital cameras taking a photograph of the Auroras can be tricky and time consuming.
"They are out of range on the light meter of the cameras so you have to experiment. In the past using film this was a problem but today with DSLR it is quite easy. They also differ in brightness too so you have to change your camera settings until you find one that works."
Sigurdur shoots on Nikons and has both the D2x and the D3. His typical settings sit around Ff2.8, ISo400 on a 15 to 40sec exposure. Wide angle lenses also ensure you get as much of the sky in as possible.
"For Aurora photography I only use wide angle lenses. I usually use 14-35mm lenses, 28mm on my DSLRs usually. On my old Pentax 67 I used 35,45 and 55mm lenses."
When it comes to post-production work Sigurdur keeps it to a minimum only correcting the exposure occasionally. Reducing noise can also produce a better end result too.
Taking photographs of the Aurora can be an enjoyable experience. Just remember to go out when the solar storm is strong, find an area with interesting foreground objects and most importantly enjoy taking these unusual landscape pictures.
Visit Sigurdur H Stefnisson's website for more information.