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How to Photograph the Northern Lights and the Night Sky

Last week I found myself sat by a campfire beneath a star-filled sky, with a gin & tonic in hand, in the depths of the Masai Mara. I spent 4 brilliant days of my trip to Kenya on safari, spotting leopards in trees, watching lions feast on freshly caught prey, gushing at all the baby elephants, giraffes, lions, warthogs, gazelles. On our final night we did a walking safari on foot, finishing with a classic savannah sunset view and sundowners, and it was idyllic. As the stars began to twinkle, I started to play around with a camera, wondering if I could capture them. iPhone cameras may be good for many basic shots, but they just can’t do night photography. I was understandably far from any internet connection, so I resorted to combing through my memory of a 10-week photography evening class I completed three years ago, trying to remember the magic combination of settings that would allow me to photograph the night sky.

My own camera is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 bridge DSLR, which is nice and compact for travelling, although I bought it over 5 years ago and there are much newer, more advanced cameras on the market. Panasonic for example have a whole new range of (Professional) Full Frame Mirrorless Cameras. My Panasonic Lumix, despite not being the very newest, does still capture the night sky as long as you know the right settings.

I found this out during two trips to Iceland in 2015. I was lucky to see faint signs of the Northern Lights on both trips! On my first visit to Iceland, I failed completely to take any meaningful photos whatsoever, fumbling around in Automatic mode without a clue. So I was lucky that someone else in our group had got their act together and took the amazing photo below.

On the second visit eight months later, on a whistlestop blogging assignment for Kayak, I got my act together in advance: researching the correct settings needed to capture the moment! Although it was only faint, I managed to take the below photo.

Shot with aperture of f-3.5, 8 second exposure, and ISO-12800 without a tripod (a good example of why a tripod is handy!)

If you’re in the Arctic and keen to capture the Northern Lights, here’s the magic combination of settings for your DSLR, that should allow you to photograph the night sky. You’ll also need to be lucky and have a dark, cloudless sky with high aurora activity, and there are good websites that forecast and track the Northern Lights, such as Aurora Service.

How to photograph the Northern Lights and the night sky

  1. Find a solid object or a tripod on which to place your camera: this is to make sure the camera doesn’t wobble or move even slightly during a long shot. You want the camera to be completely still, and holding it with hands alone will produce a blurry image.
  2. Put your DSLR in Manual mode: marked by an “M”.
  3. Set a high ISO, such as 1600: this controls the camera’s light sensitivity.
  4. Set the lowest Aperture possible: this is marked by F-numbers such as “f-2.8”, and the lower the number, the wider your lens is open, which allows in as much light as possible.
  5. Set a long shutter speed: ideally 15-20 seconds long, and you can play around with different lengths once you have the Northern Lights in front of you. The longer the shot takes, the more light is allowed into the lens, and the higher chance of it picking up the very faint lights in the night sky.
  6. Zoom out
  7. Set the focus to infinity: the symbol ∞ denotes infinity, and means your lens won’t try to focus on something closer. If your camera doesn’t have an infinity option, then try zooming in on the Moon, set the focus and then zoom back out.
  8. Release the shutter: if you attempt to take the photo with a finger, you’ll probably shake the camera which you want to be completely still. To mitigate this, you can set a 2-second timer, or use a remote control if you have one (some cameras offer an app that can do this).
  9. Taking a photo with people in the foreground: the same settings apply as above, but you’ll have to stand really still for the whole length of the shot (15-30 seconds), or you can apparently ask someone to quickly flash you with a torch. Try a few takes to get it right.

Good luck with your night sky photography and capturing those Northern Lights!

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