Intense Solar Activity
The first time I saw the Northern Lights was at home in a Northern borough of Reykjavik. A friend, who was driving from Keflavik, phoned to say that they were in the sky. We (the family) all stood in the front garden to gaze up at a luminous green streak which stretched across the late September sky. Some of my friends in England have always wanted to see the lights and in response to my gloating about this one, which I found to be only mildly impressive, a friend asked if I could take a photo of the famous Aurora Borealis.
My girlfriend has a 35mm SLR (single lens reflector) camera, but she joked “the best way to get a picture of the Northern Lights is to buy a postcard”. I used to take photographs in my younger days so I thought I should at least shake the dust from her old Olympus OM10 and see if I had some of the magic left in my eyes. I had developed an unrequited love for the Reykjavik mountains and the way they catch the autumn sun at that time of year, but as soon as I loaded the camera and ventured to the bay in North Reykjavik, all I seemed to catch was rain then clouds, and then it got dark. The seals in the winter bay became my next pursuit and the occasional bright afternoon blessed me with some rewarding pictures of both the seals and the mountains.
I took my camera, which had become a new appendage, up to a farm in the North of Iceland just after the first great snow storms of this winter. There was a whole weekend with no clouds and snow covered landscapes at my disposal, and whatsmore, every evening the Aurora Borealis put on a fantastic light show. Yes, this time I was impressed and highly excited as I set up the camera and tripod for about 60 pictures. I was opening the shutter for about 5-15 seconds (which was just a guess), but my aperture was set to f/22 (the smallest hole for the light to get in). My ignorance just lead to my frustration because when I went to collect my processed pictures.. not a single exposure was successful. Of course this meant that my insane running around with a tripod in the snow and freezing my fingers at 12:30 a.m. and –22°C was just so that I could inspect a set of empty negatives. I was frustrated to the point of delusion. I thought that if I looked at them enough times, a red streak would appear. I even thought about painting one with the computer photo-shop or... or... buying a postcard.
Weeks went by and I wondered if I would ever get that perfect chance again. I filled those weeks and the gaps in my knowledge by studying night photography techniques and putting them into practice. I discovered what a mistake it had been to have such a small aperture – the Northern Lights are not as bright as they seem – our brains make them appear as bright as stars, but they are in fact nowhere near as bright and so they need every bit of help to get into one´s camera lens. I spent many nights photographing the mountains in the dark and practicing with long exposures from 40 seconds to 8 minutes. I invested in a new lens which is fixed at 28mm (fairly wide angle) and an aperture which opens to f/2.8 (quite a big hole) for around 50 quid. I also bought a cable release with a locking mechanism so that I am able to hold the shutter open for long periods without jogging the camera. I had also made up a small book with suggested shutter speeds for capturing the lights and the moon and the stars and snow covered landscapes in the dark... etc. etc.
Then, one night (I hadn´t been out for several days because it just rained) I went out because I saw a gap in the clouds. I went to the bay with the camera and set up my tripod for a night of long exposures. Then, to my surprise, a flash came across the skies from nowhere (actually it was from the west) and suddenly the clouds were breaking up and the Aurora dominated the moonless night. I quickly changed to my large aperture lens and started making exposures of 50-100 seconds whilst scanning the sky for the next strong point of the light display. It was a fantastic light show, but the best part, to my luck, was a brilliant tri-colour display of green, purple and pink right above my head just as I was changing film. But, I cannot complain – how many people have their camera mounted on a tripod when a Northern Light show begins?
Since then I have started experimenting with slightly more expensive slide film. Fuji’s Provia 400F is famous for having no reciprocity failure up to four minute exposures and so this makes it an ideal film for the northern lights. The grain of this film is also very good for am ISO400. I have also bought an older camera – Olympus OM1. This is a classic camera and probably one of the best for night photography because is has a mirror lock-up and an open shutter doesn’t use any battery power, because it is a clockwork camera.
I have found that by using fast slide film, I am able to have a shorter exposure and therefore capture a truer representation of the shape of the aurora. However, a longer exposure will capture more of the colours that are not normally visible to the human eye.
The picture “straight-up” was taken with a 50mm lens with an f/1.8 aperture. I just pointed the camera at the height of the activity and although I could not see the red, I knew that the camera would capture it with a 25second exposure time where a 15 second exposure would have happily recorded what I saw. Longer exposure times are good for capturing some of the foreground detail. This is good for demonstrating the huge scale of an aurora display.
Essential tools for capturing the Northern Lights
- Camera – with a ‘B’ or ‘T’ setting so the shutter can be opened for 30-150 seconds. Some automatic cameras have a programmable shutter speed.
- Lens – wide angle is great, the shorter the better! Most of my pictures were taken with a 28mm standard. Maybe tape the focus to infinity (symbol like an ‘8’ on its side). f-stops – a lower ‘f’ number allows more light into the camera and therefore reduces the exposure time.
- Filters – don’t use any. They can cause strange reflections due to the strange frequency of the aurora.
- Tripod – keep it sturdy on a windy night by a) taking the strap off the camera and b) weighing it down with a bag of rocks or beans or anything.
- Cable release – you can buy one from most good camera shops with a locking mechanism to leave your hands free for soup or cigarettes.
- Film – ISO200-400 is best anything faster is too grainy and anything slower means that the aurora will probably change before the picture is taken.
A wise person will take
- Plenty of film – there is nothing worse than seeing the best part of the light show when you have wasted all your film on the warm-up!
- A hot drink – a flask of hot-chocolate – take it and you will see.
- A torch/ flashlight – to see what you are doing when changing film, checking the aperture, checking the focus etc. You can also illuminate some of the foreground during the exposure.
- The first frame of a new film of an over-exposed bright light – yes, this will let the developer know where your frames are and stop them cutting your dark negatives in the wrong place.
- Warm clothes – many layers. Standing in the same spot in the icelandic winter nights shouldn’t be under-estimated.
- Stop-watch – to time your exposures. I just counted in my head (beware this can lead to madness just as much as becoming the Aurora’s special friend).
Many people travel to Iceland just to see the Northern lights and many people want to take photographs. If you can get away from the city lights on a cold clear night and you are prepared and patient enough to wait for several hours, there is a good chance that you will capture them. Once you have captured them, they will have captured you. They can re-emerge a couple of times in the same night, they can remain for hours or they can disappear in a few seconds. Don’t bring your camera into a warm house without putting it into a plastic bag to keep the condensation off it. Lastly, if anybody offers to sell you the Northern Lights don’t give them any money. If all this fails – buy a postcard.
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