How do professionals photograph the northern lights in Iceland

JUAN MARTINEZ

April 2, 2017

How do professionals photograph the northern lights in Iceland

Landscape photographer Hallgrimur P. Helgason tells us his best tips on how to photograph the northern lights in Iceland

The northern lights have been a fascination for many people all over the years. Also, everybody knows that the most beautiful views are by far located in the remote island of Iceland. My friend Hallgrimur P. Helgason has probably taken the most beautiful images of the northern lights and in this articles he will give us some tips on how to photograph of the northern lights.

Spotting the Icelandic lights

We were driving on a long road in the middle of a cold night. There is no light of a town nearby and a clear starry night is your only companion. Then, from one moment to another, the sky transforms into a dance of lights that transform your drive into a scene from a sci-fi movie. We were not sure what it was and simply made us stop and marvel a spectacle only nature can create. Only after a few seconds we realized these were the northern lights – a little miracle which last only a couple of minutes, but it becomes an unforgettable experience.

Seeing the northern lights can happen anytime during winter. We can either be at dinner in our hotel or stargazing on a clear night. With such a short time it is nice to be prepare and photograph the northern lights in a proper way. Well, Icelandic photographer Hallgrimur P. Helgason is telling us some of his secrets and shows us how to take that perfect photograph of the northern lights while traveling in the land of ice and fire.

Here are some of Hallgrimur best tips and some of his favourite photographs of the northern lights taken right in his home country: Iceland

Wear proper clothing

Icelandic nights can be very cold. Dress warm and don’t forget to use gloves, preferably some you can use on the camera without taking them off. Bring as well some extra batteries (fully charged) and keep in your inner pocked for warmth as they discharge more quickly in the cold.

photographing Norðurljós Northern lights in Iceland during winter
When photographing the northern lights, you will have to go out and spend time in the cold. Be prepare for it and avoid getting sick
Photograph of Norðurljós, Iceland

Get out from the city lights

Go out into the dark away from city light pollution. As well take into consideration that you won´t see an aurora every single night. To increase your chances of finding one when you are chasing, check out websites like Aurora Service which can tell you which chances are, you will see an aurora- Of course, take also into consideration that the night must be clear.

Read more: Road trip in Iceland – Tips and trick to make the most of your journey

The less light pollution you have, the clearer the aurora. It's true that buildings and houses create better compositions, but that is a risk you have to take
The less light pollution you have, the clearer the aurora. It’s true that buildings and houses create better compositions, but that is a risk you have to take

Learn your camera settings

To be able to control the settings on your camera you must set it on manual mode (M). And you must lock the focusing on infinity (recommend you Google it if you don’t know how). A remote control is good, but if you don´t have one, don’t worry,  I often use 2 sec. self-take to avoid any shake.

Read more: 6 countries for travel photography lovers

Hallgrimur P. Helgason is probably the best photographer of the northern lights in Iceland
Hallgrimur P. Helgason is probably the best photographer of the northern lights in Iceland

The proper equipment makes better photos

I recommend a wide lens preferably with f/2.8 or larger aperture. A good example could be the Samyang 14mm lens, which is very good, affordable and it’s pin sharp on f/2.8 (not all lenses are). Another plus is that it’s a manual lens, which means that the aperture and focusing are set on the lens and not on the camera.

Read more: How to improve your drone photography and take it to the next level

How to take photos of the northern lights in Iceland
How to take photos of the northern lights in Iceland

What happens when you photograph the northern lights with a smartphone?

Most smartphones are useless for catching that colorful perfect image. However modern smartphones let you change the settings to manual and other even let you photograph in RAW. Find out if your smartphone has a manual modus and start learning how to use it.

Read more: Stargazing in Jamaica is more than just seeing stars

It's impossible to photograph the northern lights with a smartphone professionally. However, you can give it a try.
It’s impossible to photograph the northern lights with a smartphone professionally. However, you can give it a try.

Bring a tripod

Without a tripod is going to be impossible to get the right photograph. Take always a tripod with you and photograph with the lowest aperture possible with an exposure time from 10-15 seconds depending on how clear the aurora is.

Read more: How to photograph the milky way when traveling

Take long exposure photograph with a tripod. Results of the northern lights will be way better
Take long exposure photograph with a tripod. Results of the northern lights will be way better

As you can see, getting the perfect photograph of the northern lights is not rocket science. However, it is a mix of patience, knowledge and and luck you will be able to soon capture amazing photographs of the northern lights.

photographs by: Hallgrimur P. Helgason

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