22 Apr 2014

Capturing the Northern Lights

I was recently lucky enough (after lots of trying) to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights, in their full glory in south-eastern Iceland. I've seen them on a number of occasions, but the first time I saw them properly was six years ago in Sweden, when I had neither the equipment (an entry-level SLR with lousy low-light noise, a point-and-shoot and no tripod) nor the technical know-how to capture them. Since then I've learned a lot and upgraded my equipment, allowing me to be ready should the skies clear and the lights present themselves. I got a little bit of practice on my last trip to Iceland, but this year was when I really got to put the gear and the knowledge to the test.

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 25 secs   

I learned a fair bit from various other blogs that I dipped in and out of, so thought I'd reciprocate and give a few basic tips - from useful equipment to useful techniques.


1) Tripod
Every shot you will take will be a long exposure, so a sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity. I guess you could rest a camera on something, so a beanbag might do. But take a tripod. Make sure you tripod is sturdy enough to hold the weight of your camera and lens (I have a lightweight one which is handy for hiking but useless for holding my 5D with a heavy lens, like the Zeiss I rented or the Canon 24-70mm I have).

2) Warm clothes
Northern lights are visible in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere when it's dark - usually from the autumn to the spring equinoxes. It is possible to see them all year round if it's actually dark, but the further north you go, the less darkness you get in the summer. In order to see the lights, it also has to be clear (or a bit cloudy, in which case you may get a glimpse through the cloud). As a result of all this, it's likely to be cold - often extremely cold, so waiting for the lights to appear may be a rather chilly business. A warm car is helpful while you're waiting, but once you actually start to see the lights it'll become addictive and you'll be out for some time. Take a lot of warm clothes - lots of thermal under-garments, thick socks and warm gloves, hats, scarves, down, etc.. Don't underestimate how cold it can be. You don't want to have to curtail your photography (or just enjoyment of the spectacle) because you didn't wrap up warm enough. No amount of warm clothes will keep you warm for hours, so eventually your feet will freeze and you'll give up for the night.

3) A camera with good low-light capability
In order to capture the lights you need a camera with great low-light capability, so not too much noise at high ISO levels. I have a Canon 5D Mark iii which certainly has this feature. If you're going up to the arctic in winter and don't have a decent camera, it might be worth renting one, which if you shop around might not be as expensive as you think. Otherwise, a mid-range DSLR will probably be adequate, but you'll have more noise to deal with in the shot (which might make it look grainy).

ISO 2000, f/8, 8 secs  
4) A fast wide-angle lens
As well as a camera with good low-light capability, you will also want as wide a lens as possible, with as low an f-stop as possible, in order to let as much light in as possible in as short a period of time. The wide-angle will be useful to capture a sky full of lights and stars, as well as a bit of foreground to add some interest. Again, if you don't have such a lens, consider renting one (I rented a Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 lens from lensesforhire.co.uk and was extremely glad that I did!). Obviously such a lens will be good for all round landscape photography too, which if you're in a country that gets northern lights, the chances are the scenery will be pretty nice in the daytime too. During my research for lenses, I learned about a thing called coma which is where stars are a bit blurry - the better the lens, the less coma you're likely to get. I didn't get this with the Zeiss. If you're not blowing up the photo it probably won't matter too much, but just something else to bear in mind.

5) Torch
You'll be fumbling around in the dark to get set up, so a head-torch (or flashlight) is a great little accessory to have with you (don't rely on your iPhone torch as the battery will probably run out and you might not have a spare hand!). The torch can also be used for shining on something to try to focus (if it's close) and also to do a bit of light-painting - lighting things up briefly in the foreground (be sparing with this!). If you're near a road a car may drive past and do this for you...

ISO 1600, f/2.8, 20 secs (with car driving past)

6) Spare batteries
Batteries wear out more quickly in the cold, but also if you're doing long exposures, so make sure you're fully-charged before you set out and have a spare or two. Consider the non-branded ones for cheapness, but remember that they also don't hold their charge as long (in my experience anyway). I also got a car-charger this year, so was able to recharge batteries as I was driving along.


A lot of this will come down to practice, the available light and your equipment, but here are a few tips on technique.

1) Get to know your camera, lens and its focus
It's impossible to focus properly in the dark, so it's a good idea to play around with the infinity end of the lens to get an idea of where you'll need to focus (and set it to manual, otherwise the poor thing will whizz in and out trying to focus but failing to!). If you focus on infinity itself, it's likely that any foreground will be out-of-focus; the focus spot for distant landscape will probably be just a fraction before that. If you've got something closer in the foreground, obviously you'll need to move off the infinity marker even more and a good torch might help to focus it (it's tricky!). Once you start shooting you should review a few images, zoom right in to make sure they're in focus, and try again if not until the landscape looks sharp. Also play around with the ISO settings inside in a dark-ish room so that you can see what kind of noise each high ISO produces. Also google it, to see what other people say about the camera!

I've seen it recommended to scope out a location during daylight hours, and mark the focus on your lens. The problem with this is that the lights may then turn out to shine in a different place, leaving your plan in shreds. And you may forget the marked spot on the lens, since you'll probably take more shots in the meantime.

ISO 3200, f/2.8, 15 secs
ISO 2000, f/2.8, 15 secs
2) Shoot in M (fully manual) and try out a few combinations
I'd start with an ISO of around 2500, an f-stop of 2.8 (go as low as you can) and a shutter speed of around 10-12 seconds. From this, then review your image and see if you need to increase the time (you probably will, especially if you're in the middle of nowhere, it's hours after sunset and there's no moon, bright stars or ambient light). Don't expose for longer than 30 seconds, especially if your lens isn't that wide, otherwise the stars will start to show movement which just looks a bit blurred. Even for shorter exposures you'll probably see a little star trail movement at the edges of the shot. You want the stars in the majority of the shot to be sharp. The wider the lens, the longer you'll be able to shoot without the trails showing.

ISO 2000, f/2.8, 8 secs 

If the aurora are bright then you can either reduce the ISO (less noise) or reduce the shutter speed. I haven't tried changing the aperture, but you could go to f/4.0 and see what happens. I tend to over-expose each shot by a couple of stops, which seemed to work pretty well. Some of the lights I saw this year were so bright, though, that I ruined a few shots by over-exposing the green light (something I was surprised I could do!). If there are any lights in the shot, they will come out extremely bright, so you'll need to compensate for that by reducing the exposure time (or hoping you can reduce them in post-processing).

ISO 2000, f/2.8, 20 secs

3) Make sure there's something of interest in the foreground
It is quite tricky to compose in the dark, and also to focus, as mentioned above. Try to find a location which has something of interest in it, though, above which the lights can do their thing. Trees, mountains, icebergs, water, huts, you, etc.. add to a shot, although they obviously introduce the difficulty of exposing and focusing correctly. Some people take multiple exposures including one with a lighter foreground to blend with a darker shot of the sky; others just correct in post-processing (I do the latter - seems to work okay if you've over-exposed a little). Don't forget to try portrait shots as well as landscape.

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 25 secs

Having said all that, sometimes it's good to just lie back on the ground and look up at the lightshow and capture just that...

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 25 secs

ISO 1600, f/2.8, 6 secs

4) Do a trial shot with high ISO
I have a new little trick to help me with composition. Turn the ISO right up to 25,600 (or as high as yours will go), then compose the shot and review. Each shot at this high an ISO will only take a second or two, so much quicker than trying a longer shot only to find out that the composition is awful, or it's not in focus. Once you're happy, turn the ISO back to a less noisy one and take your long shots.

5) Try a few different locations
It is easy to get caught up in the moment, and just photograph the same view over and over again, worrying that if you move on the lights may stop. They may well do. Staying put might work well if the lights are interesting and moving around a lot, changing direction and colour, but sometimes they are fairly static and each shot will just end up looking the same. Tear yourself away, drive a couple of km, or even walk to a different spot - look for a different foreground. Look behind you! Bear in mind, however, that the lights are usually found to the north, and are mainly visible, then, from west to east across the horizon to the north, with little to see in the south. If you've found yourself a nice subject to the south it's less likely that the lights will be low enough in the sky to be included.

ISO 1600, f/2.8, 20 secs

6) Shoot in RAW
Always shoot in RAW. Just do. Not just for northern lights; always! Makes post-processing so much easier. I once read that you should use daylight white balance for shooting northern lights, but I tried this and it gave a dreadful colour cast (which is obviously changeable if you shoot in RAW). I always used to use Auto White Balance, and then adjust in post-processing if need be, but now I customise it and use K=4200 or thereabouts, depending on the light and colours of the scene. Without RAW you're stuck with the white balance you've shot with and it's a lot harder to adjust.

ISO 1600, f/2.8, 20 secs
7) Always use a remote shutter-release or 2-second delay timer
Any movement from pressing the shutter will risk reducing the sharpness of the shot. If it's windy it might be an idea to check that the camera's strap isn't moving around causing slight vibrations to the body; same with the tripod - with some you can hang a bag beneath it to make it more sturdy. Some people recommend using the mirror lock-up, but I haven't found it makes any difference. If you don't have a remote release the 2-second delay timer works fine.

8) Post-processing
I do most of my processing in Photoshop Elements 12, which has Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) for converting the shots from RAW to jpegs, and then I use the Editor for a few more tweaks. In most packages you'll need to follow a few common steps: adjust white balance (to make the colours look "true" and realistic (and usually cooler if you're using AWB)), reduce noise (although not too much or you'll lose stars and detail), adjust the exposure, levels, clarity, contrast, adjusting shadows and highlights (especially if the lights are a bit blown out), etc. Shooting at f/2.8 and in the dark, at least you don't have to worry about dust spots. Not being able to see what you're shooting, though, will mean that you might still need to straighten out your horizon or crop bits and pieces here and there, even if you've done a test shot at high ISO.

ISO 640, f/2.8, 5 secs


There are loads of websites that give aurora forecasts, but bear in mind that even if good light activity is forecast, you may still not see it. Ditto with weather forecasts - remember that they're just forecasts, and may be wildly wrong (especially in somewhere like Iceland!). And sometimes the forecast is for no lights and then you hear reports from others that they miraculously appeared. Grrrrr! Even if the forecast is for low levels (under Kp=2.67) you might still get a good show in the distance. There are countless aurora alert twitterers, so have a search and follow some for up-to-date tweets!

Here's a couple of sites I've used:
http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/communities/space-weather-enthusiasts (where most of the info used on other sites comes from - lots of detail I don't understand!)
http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/ (up-to-date aurora activity)
http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe (the long term one isn't very accurate)
http://www.f5wx.com/#!/page_aurora (good set of info, but for forecast over Minnesota, USA)
http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ (for Iceland)

For weather forecasts in Iceland, I use these (not always accurate!):

Sometimes you can still get a good view even if there is some cloud, so don't let that put you off altogether. The yr.no site seems to be pretty good all round, although never trust a forecast more than a couple of days away as it always changes in the meantime.

Also useful for Iceland, is to check the road conditions, especially if there's been any snow:


1) The lights aren't that green in the flesh!
One thing that I have learned is that the lights are not as bright to the naked eye as what you see in photographs. Although I saw a great spectacle this time around, the colours were still muted. There was a tinge of green and pink, but really the lights do look a bit like streaks of cloud. If lights are forecast and the sky is clear, head out and do a few test shots. You may not see the lights, but the camera will find them with a long exposure! And then you never know, they might get brighter.

I think it is important to manage people's expectations, so I've processed an image to show what the lights look like to the naked eye:

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 8 secs 

And what they look like to the camera (with a little bit of post-processing too):

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 8 secs

2) You may well not see them!
I've spent about 30 days in Iceland in late March, which is a good time of year for auroral activity. I have seen auroral activity during that time on about 4 occasions. The reason for this is 1) it is usually cloudy, and 2) there isn't auroral activity all the time, even if it is forecast. The further north you are, the better the chance, but also bear in mind that you may not see them. Try not to be disappointed and base your whole trip around trying to see them.

3) Try star shots instead.
If it's clear and there are no lights, try to take some star shots instead. You could try doing multiple (maybe 60) shots of 30 seconds each. If you want a circular effect find the north star as the stars revolve around that. Again, make sure there's something of interest in the foreground. An intervalometer is useful for star trail shots as you can programme it to take a certain amount of shots of the same length with a short interval in-between. You could also try to get a shot of the Milky Way.

4) Be aware of the moon
If there's a full moon there will be a lot of ambient light, which will make the lights more difficult to see and photograph (although shutter speeds can be reduced as there is ambient light). Some people suggest that if you're going to somewhere like Iceland in autumn then the moonlight will help to light up the foreground as there is less likely to be snow. If you go in the second half of winter there's more likely to be snow - if there's moonlight there may be far too much light reflected off it. Use a tool like The Photographer's Ephemeris to plan when the moon will be around - even if there is a full moon, look at the moonrise and moonset times, as the moon could well be below the horizon. This year I went just after the full moon, but checked that the moon was below the horizon during the evening and early hours.

5) Make your trip about something else
If you see the lights it will be an added bonus, but as mentioned above, try not to build a holiday or photography trip around it, as you might well be disappointed. Iceland tourism adverts play on everyone's desire to see the lights, but often fail to deliver - fortunately Iceland has enough to offer during the day so that you can't really be disappointed. Just set your expectations at a realistic level!

6) It can be really tiring!
If you're lucky enough to see the lights, or even just out trying, the chances are it's going to be in the very late evening or early hours, or even just before dawn. If you're up for sunrise too this all gets very tiring, so just try to give yourself some time to recover from time to time. On my last trip I was extremely grateful for two separate days of rain so that I could catch up on sleep!

7) You may not be alone...
If you're in a popular destination, the chances are that you won't be alone viewing the northern lights. I was alone on my first night in Egilsstadir, but a couple of nights later in Jokulsarlon I headed down to the lagoon where I expected to see a few other photographers, but in fact found myself surrounded by a coach-load of cackling Japanese tourists. It didn't make for a very ethereal experience... (which it might have been without their chorus). I met someone on the plane home who'd been on a tour from Reykjavik and they specifically asked (and paid more) for a small group trip, as they didn't want to be with a coach-load. It turns out that the small group was one of about 5 or 6 small groups who all turned up at the same place, so not what she had expected either!

Hopefully this has been a bit helpful for you! Please share if it has!

21 Apr 2014

Spring in London

One of the things I love about London is the climate, with its changing weather and seasons. I can't imagine living in a place where the weather is the same day in day out, month in month out, the trees don't change much, and it gets light and dark at 6am and 6pm every day. The variety of weather, foliage and light makes this the perfect place for me to live.

And so we have had a rather early spring this year, after a disappointingly snow-free, mild and wet winter. The crocuses came as early as late January, the daffs were out in February, and the bluebells are out now, even though they're not usually seen before May. Within the past two weeks the trees have changed from their winter skeletons to covered in bright green new leaves, growing by the day.

Here's a few photos I've taken of spring in London this year (and a couple thrown in from last year).


I hope to get a few more opportunities to get out into the countryside to get some bluebell shots, but here's a few from the woods next to my parents' house in Little Chalfont, Bucks.

All of my photos are available as prints; please visit my website - www.sophiecarrphotography.com

16 Apr 2014

The Blue Hour, Iceland

For landscape photographers, the winner of the best lighting condition award always seems to go to the golden hours, those periods after sunrise and before sunset. As a result, most landscape photographs I tend to see in magazines or competitions have a similar look - bathed in a pinkish-orangey glow. You may be in the right place at the right time to try to capture this light, but it's not always possible - the one thing you can't plan for as a photographer is what the weather will do. This may not be a problem if you live close to your chosen subject - you can just visit another day when the light is right, but if you're travelling to take landscape photographs during a short period of time, this can have a big impact.

So, even though the glow of the magic/golden hours can be spectacular, I think it's possible to take/make great photographs in sub-optimal light conditions, which is just as well. Often I prefer non-golden hour shots anyway. Even if the light isn't "perfect" I think it's best to make the most of what you've got; the results can be just as pleasing and possibly more original. One place I keep returning to is a great example of where you are at the mercy of the weather; this place is Iceland. I've travelled there each March for the past few years as I love the time of year; there's still some snow around, there's a chance to see the northern lights, and sunrise and sunset (if there are such things) are at sociable times of day. The light can be magnificent (or dreadful!) at any time of day or night, and there are not too many people about (although the numbers of photographers and tourists are increasing noticeably year-on-year). The roads - once away from Reykjavik - are beautifully empty too.

My favourite place (which if you've seen any of my previous blogs you'll know!) is Jökulsárlón beach - two strips of black sand straddling a river at the foot of a glacial lake, which brings a constant stream of icebergs into the sea, which then bashes them up and deposits them back on the beach, carved into beautiful shapes. I've spent a number of days and nights in the area, and during three trips I've only managed to see one reasonable sunrise. I was lucky enough to see the northern lights there this year, but otherwise the weather has generally been grey, often rainy and misty, with the occasional spot of sun, snow and hail thrown in for good measure. I've persevered though, and always come away with some shots I'm happy with, in spite of the often disappointing and frustrating weather. My favourite conditions, I think, are at dusk or dawn on a gloomy day, when the light becomes blue and moody - the "blue hour" I think it could be called (just checked wikipedia - it appears it is called that anyway!). If my toes didn't freeze I'd probably spend far longer there as nighttime approaches.

This is my "Blue Hour, Iceland" collection, captured once the sun has gone below the horizon. There has been a little post-processing with each image - it's certainly challenging processing rather dark shots.

9 Apr 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 9: Last day around the Reykjanes Peninsula

My exhaustion had got the better of me; no early morning to see the Solfar, but a lie-in instead (a cursory glance out of the window at 7am had showed me clouds anyway). Check-out was irritatingly early (10am) but at least it meant that I was on the road at a reasonable time in order to have a enough time for a leisurely drive out of Reykjavik and around the Reykjanes Peninsula, before getting to the airport to dump the car and check-in.

I headed towards the airport, but turned off towards Kleifarvatn, which I'd driven along in the rain two years earlier, during a rushed journey back to Keflavik. The road was unpaved in places, but it was open and easily drivable. A big-wheeled van ahead of me turned off towards Bláfjöll and I suddenly became worried that the Inside the Volcano tour might now run in early spring after all but I'd failed to check (I checked when I got home - it's still only running from mid-May until September, so I hadn't missed out!). The scenery was not spectacular along the shore of the lake (I missed the peaks, the glaciers and the basalt columns...) but it was a pleasant-enough drive. There were a few spots where I could have stopped for a little dander and a few snaps, but I was becoming increasingly worried about the car not re-starting, so decided not to stop in what was effectively the middle of nowhere.

I passed the sulphurous hillsides of Krýsuvík, but decided to continue onwards, as I'd stopped there in the rain the last time and a high layer of cloud hung above, so the light was pretty poor. I continued driving towards the coast and then turned towards Grindavik, which turned out to be a very uninspiring town, and was probably only in existence because of the nearby geothermal plant (the effluent of which has produced the world-famous Blue Lagoon). I drove through the town, wondering if there would be anything of interest to see. There were a few old houses, and some rusty fishing boats but nothing to get excited about, so I carried on west towards the tip of the peninsula, hoping for some slightly more inspiring scenery.

Ahead of me I could see a few large plumes of steam from a large geothermal plant at Gunnuhver. I'd passed above this lake and steam vents on the approach into Keflavik a few times and again assumed that it was the Blue Lagoon, but this wasn't a place that you could go for a soak and spa treatments. There was a turn-off and a touristy-looking sign, so I headed down the track to a parking area. There were some boardwalks alongside some yellow crusty sulphur vents and steam pouring out across the landscape in front of me (with the large plumes of steam from the vents at the plant in the distance). I had a quick wander around; if I'd had more time I'd have gone further on towards a lighthouse that sat atop a hill, not far from the south-westernmost point of the country.

Instead I continued on around the end of the peninsula, passing a museum on Iceland's geothermal activities; I didn't stop as I wanted to get back to the airport in good time to re-pack my bag (trying to get an enormous tripod into a backpack is challenging!) and driving anywhere always took me longer than planned. As I drove north again I noticed some surf off to the west and saw a couple of cars parked behind some grassy black dunes. I headed down a bumpy road and found myself at a surf beach. A couple of guys donning wetsuits were just getting back to their cars, boards tucked under arms, and two more were swimming out past the surf in the distance, waiting for the right wave. A couple of men played ball with their excited dogs on the wide beach; a pointer bound up to me, stuck its wet nose towards me, and then raced away again as quickly. It wasn't the prettiest of beaches, but it was nice to stumble upon something a bit different.

A few photos later and it was back to the car, a quick stop in Hafnir to photograph some picturesque wooden houses, before returning to the airport.

I was glad to drop off the car, having a good moan at the man about the petrol cap being stuck, the lack of auxillary function through which to listen to an iPod, the battery running out on the remote key and the fact that is was a petrol, not diesel, vehicle (which cost me about £50 more to run during the trip, I reckoned). He did, however, confirm that there was no damage (always good!) and dropped me off at the terminal building (fully loaded my backpack weighed just under 20kg and the day pack about 12kg so walking wouldn't have been a pleasant option). Having odd-shaped hold luggage meant that I didn't have to join the enormous bag-drop queue, giving me more time to shop and eat and marvel at the sculptures. I bought a couple of bottles of local fire-water (a birch-flavoured schnapps and a blueberry liqueur), some chocolate-covered liquorice, and sat in a café eating a fish pie until it was finally time to depart my beloved Iceland.

The plane left on time, thankfully (no waiting around, no cancellation, no excessive drinking, no horrendous hangover...), and I sat next to a lovely equine photographer with whom I spent the next couple of hours discussing our mutual love of the place.

It always saddens me to leave Iceland, as I watch the coastline and the road across the strange black landscape eventually disappear beneath the clouds. I'd had a great trip, having seen the northern lights properly (finally!), having visited a few new places, I'd had no major mishaps (first day hangover aside), the weather had been reasonable (for Iceland), and I was returning with a selection of shots that upon first review I was pretty happy with. I was tired, excited to review the photos properly, but mostly I was really looking forward to getting home to my beloved London and to my boys. And I know I'll be back to Iceland soon (maybe when it's green and covered with wildflowers, one of these days?). Until the next time...

Click here for Day 8 blog