Beginner's Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights
I would consider myself a novice photographer - self taught and trying to get better through my own experimentation. I've also not had very much experience with night photography but I learned that you don't have to be a professional, you just have to be prepared. For beginner photographers looking to capture the Northern Lights, you need to understanding which settings to use instead of worrying about experimenting on the spot. In preparing for our trip to Iceland, I knew that I wouldn't know all of the right manual settings that would work best but I could rely on other people's experience and the settings they used themselves.
The one thing I did know going into it is that I would need a tripod. I ordered this one from Amazon, and it worked perfectly for the Northern Lights and has been great ever since. It's also under $25.00 so even if you only end up using it this time, it's worth it - without a steady stand, your night photos will never come out. That much I knew going into it.
We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights one of the three nights we were in Iceland although their strength was low that night. We used this website to predict the activity and the photos below are about a 2 or 3 on the spectrum. Unfortunately, this was our last night so it was all we got. If the Aurora activity was stronger that night, my pictures would have been more powerful, but for what we got I'm happy with how they came out.
Here are the settings I used after comparing a few different sites. I also added some notes on what these terminologies mean (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) so that you can understand why you are choosing each setting.
1. ISO to 1600 minimum (ISO controls the brightness of your photos)
2. Camera needs to be in M for manual
3. Set the lens to the widest aperture f2.8 for example. (Aperture controls exposure (the higher the aperture the brighter the exposure and vice versa. It also controls depth (how focused your foreground and background are - the larger the aperture, the shallower the focus, think a blurred background and a sharp foreground image). The aperture is expressed in "f-" or just "f". What's confusing is the larger the aperture, the smaller the "f" number. So f2.8 is a larger aperture than f8. In a darker environment, you will want to use a larger aperture to brighten the image.
4. Set the shutter speed to 20 secs. (Shutter speed is the length of time your camera shutter is open and responsible for brightness as well as stopping or blurring motion).
By the way, this website is great for beginner photography questions and really helped me understand more about these settings.
Here are two of my favorite shots before and after editing. I use a combination of Photoshop, Photomatix and iPhoto. These were both edited in Photoshop.