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Aurora Photography in Iceland

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I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming trip to Iceland to practise our photography skills. To read more about the trip have a look at this post: https://spwilliams13.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/iceland-gcse-photography-tour-2017/

I have written previously about what to bring on a trip to Iceland in the winter (https://wp.me/pRO7H-As) but here I want to go a little further.

This video is a time-lapse of hundreds of individual photographs taken one after the other and then combined to create a film which condenses several hours down to just a few seconds.

 

Photography Equipment

  • Interchangeable lens camera. A compact or phone camera will not produce worthwhile results.
  • Wide angle lens, with a wide aperture (f2.0 or 2.8 ideal). This will allow you to capture more of the sky and short exposure times.
  • A sturdy tripod to keep the camera still for long exposures.
  • Weather tight camera bag. If you have any silica gel packs this will help control moisture. If you have been out in the cold ensure you put your camera back in the bag before coming back inside, leave it there over night so that it warms up gradually, this will reduce the risk of moisture damage through condensation caused by rapid warming.
  • A head torch with a RED LED. The red is better for night vision and will allow you to see more of the night sky. Once we are in a position all torches will need to be turned off in order that we don’t ruin each others photos.
  • A spare battery which you should keep in an inside pocket so that it stays warm. Cold batteries lose their charge very quickly.
  • A lens cloth to keep the lens elements clean and smudge free.
  • A small towel in case your camera gets wet.
  • It is worth downloading an app to forecast aurora activity (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/aurora-forecast/id539875792?mt=8) or use a website such as: http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/

Night Photography in winter

We are hoping to capture the northern lights during our photography tour and preparation for this is critical; if you plan to simply turn up on the evening and capture the northern lights, even on a very good night, you will be very disappointed with your results unless you have practised the techniques before.

The first thing to try is to go out somewhere that is dark during a cold winter night. You may need to persuade your parent to drive you, or if you live in a village a nearby foot path off the street or church yard are good places to start. We are all used to street lights and perpetual light wherever we are and it can be quite disconcerting to experience real dark for the first time, in the cold whilst also trying to take a good photograph. It is well worth planning ahead and choosing a cold, clear night which will be most similar to what we hope to experience in Iceland. The Met office (https://www.metoffice.gov.uk) will give you a very good idea of temperature and cloud cover before you set out to ensure the trip is worth while. You should plan to be out for at least an hour, this will allow you to test your clothing to ensure you will be warm enough in Iceland: layer up and avoid cotton (e.g. jeans) as this will get very wet, won’t dry quickly and you will freeze. The first thing to get cold will be your fingers (as you will need to use your hand constantly to take photos) and your feet so ensure you have good walking boots with thick socks and gloves or preferably mitts with a wool or silk liner (the mitts are much warmer than gloves and will allow you to slip your hands out quickly to change a setting more easily than heavy gloves will). In Iceland, if we are fortunate to get a clear night and a good display we might well be out for three or more hours, this practise is a good way to check to see if you and your clothing are ready.

The second thing is to try taking some photographs whilst out in the dark and cold without using a torch. Using a torch is an absolute no no as the light will ruin everyone else’s photographs. You therefore need to know where all the controls are by touch alone and to do this you need to practise many times.

In preparation for a night shoot, set your camera up in advance. The aurora may not be around for long and you don’t want to have to waste time setting your camera up or ruining everyone else’s photo by the need to use a flash light.

  • Screw in the tripod mount base onto the camera so that you can simply slide the camera into place when in position.
  • Set your camera’s ISO to 1600 or 3200. This will allow you to keep exposure times short. If you expose for more than around 20-30 secs the stars will move and you will have trails rather than pin-pricks of light. If we have good aurora a long exposure will mean a green smudge in the sky rather than the nicely defined dancing lights we see.
  • Put your camera in manual mode and set the exposure time to 8-10 secs. You can fine tune this once you have taken a few photos. Use your camera’s histogram and check that you haven’t under or over-exposed, your LCD is much brighter than the photo will be on a screen, so don’t rely on it alone.
  • During day light, set the lens to manual focus and focus it on a distant object, if possible tape the focus ring in position. If you have a focus guide on the lens the infinity mark will be roughly correct but temperature can affect this so best to take an image of a distant object and check  it is sharp by eye. It can be very difficult when it is dark to focus accurately on stars or the aurora, this will mean you end up with blurry photos.
  • Set white balance to day light but also shoot in RAW so that you can adjust later in processing.

Composition

A good photo of the aurora needs thinking about. What is the foreground, mid and background that gives the photograph an interesting composition? Mountains and trees make good mid ground interest. You could always partner up with someone else and use yourself for foreground interest and with a little light painting (avoiding contaminating other people’s photographs with your stray light) to illuminate yourself.

This photo has myself light painted for about 0.5 secs with a torch, a mountain range provided some mid ground interest with the aurora arching in the background. There is a little too much foreground in this shot but I couldn’t resist capturing myself in front of the aurora.

Aurora in Iceland

Are there any leading lines that draw your eye up to the aurora? Alternatively try shooting straight up and capturing a more abstract image of just the aurora and stars.

This image is three photographs stitched together to form a panorama. The road, fence and line of trees provide a leading line to the houses and mountain with the aurora stretching into the sky dramatically in the background. I’ve tried to keep to one-third foreground, two-thirds background to give the image some balance.

Aurora in Iceland

Try and avoid taking the same photograph hundreds of times. Move around try different shots, different angles and get a good range of photographs whilst you get the chance as you might not get another.

This was a challenging capture. It is 12 photos stitched together. I liked the leading curve of the edge of the lagoon to the mountain range and then growing out of that the vast arch of the aurora. It is perhaps missing some perspective – a single person – at the bottom would have given the viewer a greater sense of just how vast this scene is.

Aurora in Iceland

In this photo (a single frame) I built on the composition above and added the person at the bottom who was stood taking a photograph, this gives the image the sense of scale but in the process I lost the vastness of the aurora from the shot above. Landscape photography is often about compromise as the different elements of a mountainous photograph cannot be easily moved!

The following shot was my favourite from this trip. I loved the way in which the shore line led to the mountain, helped by the reflections of the aurora which also lead the line to the mountain with the aurora erupting out it like a volcano – this image is the one I choose to print for my living room wall.

Aurora in Iceland

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