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A photographer’s guide to the Northern Lights

The Nordic sky, pitch-black just a moment ago, now has a faint tinge of green across the horizon. I know from experience that the sky might come alive with a breathtakingly beautiful display of lights at any minute. I toss a couple of logs onto the fire, put on warm clothes and secure my wide-angle lens (with a fast shutter speed) to the body of my EOS RP. As I step out of the cabin, I’m greeted by a biting cold of at least 20 degrees below zero – and, true enough, a blazing sky.

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Harri Tarvainen is a professional photographer specialising in outdoors and action photography. Together with his Insta-famous, curly-coated retriever Kaffe, they hike in nature and take great photos. You can follow Kaffe’s adventures on his Instagram account @kaffegram. You can also check out Kaffe and Harri's tips for pet photography, urban action photography and capturing the magic of the changing seasons.

Taking a successful picture of the Northern Lights is a long-time dream of almost every photographer I’ve ever met. I know that many of those who’ve experienced the phenomenon first-hand are now hooked for life. The feelings of excitement and respect for the aurora borealis regally blazing in green and purple right on top of you are hard to put into words. I might be imagining it, but sometimes I believe I can almost hear the lights – and I know Kaffe agrees with me.

For our current trek, we’re headed to Lapland, Finland, where the conditions seem promising for a photo field trip to see the Northern Lights. A six-hour car journey is followed by a couple of hours of skiing before reaching our destination: a small cabin in the wilderness. Our travel takes a while since both mine and Kaffe’s rucksacks are full of warm clothes, food – and camera gear, of course.

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A quaint cabin is our accommodation for tonight. The size and weight of your gear is more noticeable when hiking, so it’s essential to choose light but versatile equipment to take with you. The full-frame EOS RP offers top quality in a compact package.

Prepare well

North of the Arctic Circle, you can see the Northern Lights on approximately three nights out of four, so with a clear sky the probability of catching them on camera is high. I always start my hunt for the perfect picture by checking the Northern Lights forecast. You can download a free app (for example Aurora Forecast) on your phone showing the forecast for the lights, sign up for a Northern Lights alert to be sent to you as a text message or check the Northern Lights forecast on the weather service. Remember to check for cloud coverage as well – if the sky is cloudy, you won’t be able to see any lights. The next step, if the sky is clear and the aurora activity looks promising, will be finding a spot with as little light pollution as possible. City lights, cars and street lamps make sighting the lights harder, so I’m heading away from residential areas.

The most optimal weather conditions for aurora sightings usually also mean Arctic temperatures, and you get even colder when standing still waiting for the lights to appear. For a longer hike I pack my bags with warm drinks and heat packs to bring my fingers back to life. Since the cold quickly creeps up under warm clothes as well, I usually have two quilted coats on me at night! Even if, in best circumstances, the solar storms make the area look almost as bright as in daylight, you might still want to prepare for darkness with a headlamp. It also makes it a lot easier to operate the camera if your torch is on your head, and I’ve found that the torch on a phone quickly dies in the cold, so you might not want to solely rely on that.

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A tip for the moments spent waiting for night-time and the auroras! The white surface of the snow acts as a huge reflector during the day, lighting up the shadows. In wintertime you can get impressive daylight pictures even in direct sunlight.

Adjust your settings

Even though I often use the so-called semi-automatic settings (Av, or Aperture Priority Mode), you need to adjust the settings manually when photographing the aurora borealis. Before leaving to take pictures, adjust your camera to the following settings:

  • Shutter speed: 20 seconds
  • Aperture: f/4.0 (the smallest possible f number is the best option; in a fast lens the largest aperture might be something like f/1.8)
  • Sensitivity: ISO 2000

If the photo looks too dark, you can crank the shutter speed up to 30 seconds. On the other hand, if the photo is too bright, you can turn it down to, for example, 10 seconds. Sometimes I like to accentuate the blue tones of the night sky by setting my camera’s colour balance to fluorescent light. It’s usually a good idea to tweak the brightness and contrast a little after the photoshoot. Taking RAW pictures gives you more options when editing the photos afterwards.

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A wide-angle lens is the right choice when the Northern Lights appear in the middle of the sky, right above the photographer. This picture was taken with an EOS RP camera with an EF adapter and a 14mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens.

Pick the right gear

Capturing aurora borealis requires a slow shutter speed, so a sturdy tripod is a must-have. The compact, full-frame EOS RP deals smoothly with higher ISO sensitivities too. This allows you to use a quicker shutter speed, so you can capture sharper images of the flashing lights. Using a quicker shutter speed also enables better use of people – or in this case Kaffe – as models! A fast, wide-angle lens is the best at capturing the auroras flaming right above your head. The Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 MACRO IS STM, for example, works well together with the RP and has a sufficiently wide focal length for when the lights are a bit lower in the sky.

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The EOS RP performs well in cold weather, but you should remember to store the icy camera securely in its bag before returning indoors. A back-up battery is an essential piece of equipment for the winter photographer.

Plan ahead

Don’t take an icy camera straight into a warm indoor temperature. The condensed moisture is harmful to the camera, so take it out of its bag only after the difference in temperature between the camera and the room has sufficiently stabilised. The cold air poses yet another problem for your gear as the capacity of the batteries drops. In winter photography, a back-up battery is an essential extra piece of equipment that you should try to keep in the warmest place possible.

The aurora borealis can be moody! The show might start in minutes and end as abruptly. Sometimes the lights fill up the whole sky, sparkling in different colours. Other times you might only see a faint trace of green far in the north and sometimes – if you get unlucky – you get nothing. Photographing the Northern Lights requires a bit of luck, and you should take every encounter as a gift from the skies. If the lights refuse to come out, you could try to snap a picture of the starry sky or even of the Milky Way in the dark. If the sky is cloudy, you can turn your headlamp from a mere tool into a magnificent prop to paint the dark landscape with different lights and shadows.

Good luck hunting for those Northern Lights!