Photography Tips; Photographing Northern Lights

Guest Post by Alison Bailey

The Aurora displayed, three out of the four nights on a recent trip aboard the Hurtigruten ship, the MS Richard With. It seems right to share this good fortune, and provide a few tips for photographing Northern Lights.

There are plenty of informative articles about capturing the Aurora, and I certainly read a few before departing. One thing that all the guides failed to explain however, was….. how to capture decent images from a moving ship!

Hurtigruten do offer a specific Astronomy Voyage, with the service of an expert astronomer. He explains all about the Arctic night sky, and it’s a very popular trip. There wasn’t a specialist Astronomer on board however, so it was down to me to figure it out for myself.

“The idea is to record the Aurora as it happens”

The first thing to consider was a tripod; I have a very good, sturdy tripod, but it is like carrying scaffolding. So a lightweight travel version, suitable for purpose was duly purchased before the trip. Using a tripod is essential at the shutter speeds I would be shooting at. Photographing Northern Lights is not especially difficult on land, as there isn’t any movement. A tripod mounted camera, allows long exposures, keeping the shutter open as long as required. This isn’t possible on a moving ship, and building a gyroscopically controlled tripod head specifically for the task was impractical, so it was down to good old juggling ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

Photographing Northern Lights; the aurora borealis in Hurtigruten, Northern Norway on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography bailey photo 400 northern_lights

Beginning of an Aurora off the Bow

The idea is to record the Aurora as it happens, which essentially means, shooting a moving object, from a moving platform which makes it rather challenging. The stars need keeping sharp, or they turn into wiggles (I have a few of those!). Also in the examples with the ship included in the image, I wanted the water slightly blurred, so the ship’s movement was clear. I determined the correct ISO by test shooting from the deck, in the dark without any Aurora present. An ISO setting of 1600 seemed to offer enough sensitivity to record the night sky, without the images becoming too noisy.

Timing is crucial!”

Aperture; simply use the widest available! On land, using super long shutter speeds I’d happily be up at f8/f11. Not here however, f2.8/3.5 allowing fast shutter speeds are the order of the day. Take the AF off, and manually focus the lens to infinity. In this case, I allowed the camera to choose the appropriate shutter speed, but listened to ensure they remained around the 2 second mark. This was also determined by experimentation, shooting one of the ports as we were leaving, so there was some additional light around. These early tests ensured I was in the right ball park when the Aurora appeared.

Photographing the Northern Lights; The aurora borealis from a ship in Hurtigruten, Northern Norway on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography bailey photo 100 northern_lights

An Aurora off the stern

Another aspect that seemed fairly critical was my shooting position on the ship, where the ship’s movement is reduced is best. If it is moving, port/starboard; the middle of the deck, and shooting from the pivot point worked best. When moving bow/stern; if the Aurora is visible from amidships, was preferable. Timing is crucial! As the ship crests a wave there is less movement at the top, and bottom of each swell, that’s the time to shoot.

The crew of the MS Richard With are fabulous at letting passengers know if there is any activity, but as Captain Tommy Eliassen pointed out, they can only see what is in front of the ship, so frequent trips on deck are also recommended.

Winter and the Arctic Light is a huge draw for visitors to Norway, and having had the pleasure of experiencing it for myself, I can see why.

Photographing Northern Lights; The aurora borealis from a ship in Hurtigruten, Northern Norway on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography bailey photo 200 northern_lights

A difficult capture from amidships

The Aurora are unpredictable, appearing at different times, and there aren’t any guarantees they will appear at all, so preparation, and quick reactions are key to success. My camera was always setup on the tripod, ready to power up, and shoot.

It’s cold out on deck, so thin gloves are a necessity, as changing settings maybe required. Having warm clothing, and camera ready can mean the difference between getting good images, or not. Especially if the Aurora is faint, as it was our first night.

Photographing Northern Lights; The aurora borealis from a ship in Hurtigruten, Northern Norway on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography bailey photo 300 northern_lights

A faint first night Aurora

The final tip I offer is to use as wide-angle lens, and simply point it at the sky if you think there is even a hint of an Aurora. We simply can’t see them as vividly as the camera. The best way to find the right part of the sky quickly is to use the camera. Once the little streaks of green and/or pink that signal the start of some Northern Lights activity are found, set up the camera to point in that direction, then keep shooting while enjoying the display.

This was a dream fulfilled; I remember seeing them as a young child, with my parents, in Scotland, and always dreamed of seeing them once more. Now I have photos as well as memories.

Alison Bailey finishing the coast to coast bike ride on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography

Finishing the Coast to Coast

Alison Bailey

I started as a photographer at the tender age of three when my Dad gave me my first camera, a Kodak Brownie. I crawled around ‘taking pictures’ of everything, even though there wasn’t any film, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

I’ve worked as a Lab Technician specialising in Pathology to the promised land of Olympus cameras, and even a spell in law enforcement. I’ve returned to my first love now however, specialising in wedding photography. I predominantly use digital today, but the traditionalist in me still loves film, and the skills required to develop it.

* All photography by Alison Bailey, © Copyright of BaileyPhotography 2014

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Comments 5

  1. Kathryn Burrington

    Great advice Alison and superb photos too. I felt so sorry for people who just didnt have the right equipment to capture the lights at all. Your preparation before and during the trip certainly paid off.

  2. Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

    These are great tips! I know a couple of people who have seen the lights but weren’t fully prepared for how to get the best out of their photography and either ended up disappointed or paid huge amounts for professional photos – I’ve never seen them but I really hope to do so one day and will take these tips on board when I do!

  3. bobbie gristwood

    I have just booked a trip on Hurtigruten for this time next year, but already getting excited! I have a DSLR and a Manfrotto Befree tripod which is fairly sturdy but packs up very small, so hopefully I will be prepared! Reading articles like yours is very helpful.

    1. Iain Mallory

      Hi Bobbie, I’m also off again with Hurtigruten, I travel to Swedish Lapland and then onto Svalbad later this month. Incidentally, I also have a couple of Beefree tripods, my go to for travelling, though I’ll also be carrying a carbon 190 for this trip to provide the additional stability. I’d also suggest a fast wide-angle prime if you can stretch to it, maybe a lens hire company would work. I’m glad you found the post useful.

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