Shooting the Northern Lights in Lofoten: Lessons learned (Part 2)

Shooting the Northern Lights in Lofoten: Lessons learned (Part 2)

We were in Lofoten, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, but far enough south that the nights are dark enough to see this amazing display. It was September, within the optimal Northern Hemisphere fall and winter time frame of September to March. September also offered fall color and warmer temperatures than full on winter (although we were still quite bundled up!).Okay, you are in the right place at the right time of year, you’ve chosen a shooting site, scouted it out in advance, your aurora app or guide or the locals indicate conditions are fortuitous, how do you capture the magic happening overhead?A checklist of Northern Lights shooting essentials:

  • Tripod
  • Fast, wide angle lens
  • Remote shutter release or self-timer
  • Pre-focus
  • Wide open aperture
  • ISO 800 (as a starting point)
  • Long shutter speed-depends on intensity of the display-4-20 seconds
  • Manual technique
  • Optional: Adjust white balance to Kelvin 3200 (can be done in post)
  • Warm clothing and comfortable and secure footware, suitable to your locationRemember, you will be working in the dark, so advance preparation is mandatory.  You do not want to be fumbling with equipment when the show is happening overhead, so the first order of business is:

Choose the widest angle and fastest lens you own.

I shoot with a Fuji X-T2.  I was VERY happy with my choice of lens, the Fujifilm XF 16 mm f/1.4 WR (weather-resistant) lens.  Although we were fortunate our night with the dancing lights was not windy, raining or snowing, Northern Lights shooting situations may well include any of these complicating conditions, so the choice of a WR lens adds a measure of reassurance.  16 mm was wide enough and f/1.4 fast enough to accomplish what was needed.  In addition, this lens lends itself to pre-focusing, as the focus can be locked with a retractable clutch feature.Steve was less happy with his choice.  He was shooting with a Nikon D500, and started out with a fast 24 mm lens, AF-S 24 mm f/1.8G ED lens.  Good for low-light situations (fast), but not wide enough.  He ended up switching to the Tokina Fisheye 10-17 mm f/3.5-4.5 DX lens, which he made work, but with some compromises.  Although wide enough, it is not particularly fast and at the 10mm end of the range, is fish-eye, meaning he had to spend time in post-processing straightening out curves to create a rectilinear effect.  Since our return, he has acquired the lens he was wishing for during this shoot, the Tokina SD 11-20 f/2.8 (IF) DX lens.Not a hand-holding situation!These are long exposures, so a TRIPOD is essential.  Preferably, a good, sturdy, tall enough tripod that you know well enough to operate in the dark!  We were shooting on a sandy beach, with waves washing in and out around our feet, a shifty support.  At times, I perched on a flattish rock just big enough for me and the extended tripod.  I constantly reminded myself of the precariousness of my perch, not wanting to step too close to the edge and found myself in the surf with a sprained ankle.  Other times, in the surf zone, shots had to be timed between waves and the tripod stabilized by hand as water swirled around the legs.

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