Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

December 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

If you ask any landscape photographer what there top 5 bucket list locations are, without a doubt Iceland will be in that list. And then if you ask that photographer to drill down on the "what do you want to photograph?" - the Northern Lights will most likely feature quite high on that list. 

The internet is a wash with incredible images and videos of the Northern Lights - those green streaks of wavy lights. You would be forgiven to think that it was easy. You just turn up to somewhere far north, Iceland, Scotland, Canada, Norway etc, point your camera skywards, and away you go - incredible images that will get you hundreds of likes on instagram. 

Well the reality is very, very different.

For a start, you need to be in a location where the northern lights occur, during the period in which they occur. In Iceland this is between October and February. It had been a 20 year ambition for me to visit Iceland. I won't bore you with the story as to why it took me 20 years to get there. However, when I finally did pull the trigger on going, I was absolutely certain I wanted to go during the period when the northern lights were visible. I chose November, and friends and family thought I was crazy to take a vacation during a period of the year when it was likely to be cold, wet and windy. And indeed the conditions were exactly that, cold, wet, windy, with sleet, ice and snow on occasion. Not to mention the fact that what was left over of hurricane Oscar hitting south to south eastern Iceland a day after I arrived. 

The view over the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik tells the story - stormy clouds, rain and cold. 

The lake at the park had started to freeze over.

I was in Iceland for just 6 days. This isn't enough time to really do any justice to a country the size of Iceland, and with the incredible natural beauty it has on offer. And given I was there in November, with such variable weather, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights were really in the hands of the Viking Gods! So I decided to try and stack the odds in my favour by going on a dedicated tour to see the Northern Lights. There are some advantages and disadvantages to taking a tour and I will explain in this blog. However the overwhelming advantage of taking a tour is that they are experts, they run the tours on the nights they think you will have a good chance of seeing them, and if the lights do not deliver, they rebook you on another tour the following night, or another night on the duration of the stay to get you a chance of seeing them. 

With that decision taken I got my kit together and headed out on a dark Reykjavik night to the number 10 bus stop in the centre of the city to be picked up by my tour operator at 9pm. The average yearly temperature in Iceland is -1C, which maybe higher than you expect, but this is only the average. Whilst I was there in November the one factor that made the temperature feel colder was the wind chill. I therefore layered up; thermals, thick socks, long sleeved t-shirt, fleece polar top, thick coat. Then hat, scarf and my photographic gloves, which are one of the best investments I've ever made! The finger and thumb tips fold back which allow me to change camera settings without my hands becoming blocks of ice. In terms of kit, I went out very lightweight with just the Panasonic Lumix G9, 8-18mm f2.0-4.0 lens, the 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 lens and my tripod. 

Before I set out from the hotel I checked the forecast at the following website, which is the Icelandic Meteorological Office. To see the Northern Lights, you need dark and partly clear skies. The website gives the forecast in terms of sky visibility by cloud level (low, middle and high clouds), together with the potential strength of the lights on a 10 point scale. The night I went out, the whole of Iceland was covered in low and middle clouds and the strength level was 3. I wasn't optimistic.

Once on the bus however, the tour operator was optimistic. The night before the strength level was 4, and they had a good sighting. However the issue for me was that this night, there was a lot of cloud. This is one of the advantages of going with an operator. They'd looked at the forecast, they were in constant communication with their central office who were monitoring the forecast, they guided us to an area South of Reykjavik, where the skies were clear. Around 9.45-10.00pm we parked in a lay by at the side of a road. There were a few other buses parked with tourists and the odd car that came along the road from time to time. I had no idea where we were. It was pitch black and difficult to see the surrounding area...

As a photographer the first thought in my mind was "is there any foreground interest?". There wasn't. It seemed for all it's landscape glory in Iceland, we were parked up next to a flat area in all directions. The first 45 minutes or so was utter chaos. With two bus loads of tourists, of which I was one, but the majority of whom had limited photographic expertise, it was a free for all, as everyone walked down to a small rest area and tried to jostle for a space to start shooting the start of the light show, which at that time was relatively week. During this initial phase, people were walking in front of each others lenses, using their phones as torches, and then more cars and vehicles parked up shining their lights in the direction of where we were set up. I decided to abandon ship. I walked back up the path to the car park. I decided that there were less people up there in the car park, and if there were drivers with their lights on, at least I could politely explain that there were lots of us trying to get a photo with no light pollution. In the end, the vehicle lights were turned off, I found myself a good spot and I started to really soak up what was in front of me.  

Now down to the technicalities. How can you photograph the lights? Well for a start, when I looked up in the sky, I couldn't see any green lights. The strength forecast was 3 on a scale of 10. And whilst the lights were certainly there, they were not these green luminescent waves I was expecting. Instead the sky had these milky white streaks. So that was the first surprise. But at least I could see where to point the camera lens! I decided to use the 8-18mm f2.8-4.0 lens to give me as wide a view as possible. One of the challenges with the Lumix systems is that the lenses do not come with a manual indicator to show infinity focus. Infinity focus is really important because you are photographing in the dark, and your camera (normally) cannot focus on a specific subject in the dark. Panasonic has a way around this which I will mention in a minute. The way I work is that I use manual focus and then in live view on the screen, I use the focus bar and set focus to the point the focus bar colour changes. This is the point between the red and white (with the red being on the left side of the bar). Now the Lumix G9 has another trick up it's sleeve. If you have a G9 and go to page 87 of the manual you will see the following displayed...

"The focus indication is displayed as [low] in a dark environment, and focusing may take longer than usual.

If the camera detects stars in the night sky after displaying [low ], Starlight AF will be activated. When focus is achieved, the focus indication [star] and AF areas in focus are displayed. (Starlight AF cannot perform detection on the edges of the screen.)"

So there is an option, if you put the focus point in the centre of the frame, to allow the camera to automatically detect and focus in Starlight AF mode. But this is automatic. I discovered this feature after returning from Iceland. When I received my G9 I didn't get a manual, because the G9 was part of the launch kit from Panasonic do I got the bare body and that's all. So I was always learning "on the go" with the camera in hand. But after doing some research online I found out about this Starlight AF mode. I intend to give this ago for my next astro project and to see how well it performs. At the very least this gives an alternative option to trying to manually focus the lenses using the MF bar, rather than an infinity meter on the lens itself. Once I felt I'd achieved good focus, and this was through firing off some test shots, I made sure there was no way I was going to disturb the focus ring on the lens. I then put my camera into AWB (auto white balance - yes, I chose to use an auto mode and let the camera chose the white balance...I know I can correct this in Lightroom as needed after the event), and into Manual shooting mode. I varied my ISO between 800-1250, and a shutter speed of anything between 6-10 seconds. I did some experimentation on shutter speed and found that even at 6 seconds there was a very good balance between picking up the lights and the stars. The fact that the stars came through in the image at 6 seconds really surprised me, because from previous experience of shooting astro photography, I'd always worked at around 15-20 seconds to get a good exposure of the stars. I'm no expert, but I would guess that the fact we were in a very remote location with very little light pollution most likely contributed to the good results at 6-8 seconds. I didn't have a remote shutter release, so I used the G9 in built 10 second timer mode. This allowed me to press the shutter and allow the camera to stabilised before the image was taken to avoid any camera shake. The camera was of course strapped down to a tripod, and on that tripod I have a hook which allows me to hang my camera bag, providing extra wight and stability onto the tripod legs. Finally, in camera noise reduction (NR) on of off? Well, I leave it on. It does increase the wait, if you have an 8 second exposure, the noise reduction kicks in for another 8 seconds, but it does a good job and I would say is important for shooting astro images with a small sensor camera such as the G9. 

With the technicalities explained, here are the best results:

I am particularly happy with the last image in the series I have shared here. There is a really good combination of green lights, with red lights, clouds, stars and a couple of trees on the very flat landscape we were surrounded by. I am by no means an astro photography expert. I have some experience and I would say that my skill level is "above average". A few years back I spent two successive years in the South West of France shooting the perseid meteor showers and doing astro timelapses from stills. This allowed me to cut my teeth in astro photography, so to speak. But I realise I have a long way to go to perfect the art. 

I also think the results really dispel the myth that small censored cameras are no good in low light. Yes having a small sensor camera does mean there are certain challenges when shooting night skies and stars. However, with a little knowledge and camera craft the results are very very acceptable in my opinion. Whilst I am disappointed that the foreground composition is relatively dull, and that's due to the fact we had very limited choices in our shooting location, the results of the lights themselves I am very happy with. I am looking forward to returning in 2019 and hopefully shooting the Northern Lights again with the Lumix system. 

Until next time...




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