“What settings should I use to photograph the aurora?” is a question often asked by new aurora photographers. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, since auroras continuously change in brightness and structure (often within seconds) over the course of an evening. Therefore, aurora photography in Iceland requires constant alterations to camera settings.
An investment of time is required to learn how to adjust camera settings responsively during night photography. Therefore, I have aimed the following guidance mostly at photographers who already understand basic camera operation. The information is based purely on my own experience of what has (and hasn’t) worked for me for aurora photography in Iceland. Other people may have different opinions, and the best settings will also vary according to the specifications of your own equipment. However, the information below should provide a good basis from which to get started. If you require more specific expert advice on aurora photography then I recommend booking a professional aurora tour in Iceland. A quick internet search will reveal tour sites. They should be able to offer one-to-one tuition for you. For more general guidance on aurora-watching in Iceland please visit practical advice on how to see the northern lights in Iceland.
Click on one of the questions below to find the relevant information:
I strongly recommend the following:
Consider removing the neck strap (and anything else loose) from your camera, as it will move around in the wind and may cause shake that will blur your images.
Cover the view finder to reduce light getting into the camera. Many DSLRs provide a handy rubber piece to fit over the viewfinder. Don't forget to attach it! Or just use some tape.
Remove any filters from the front of your lens. They will cause horrible distortions (rings) on your images.
Dim the brightness of the LCD screen on the back of your camera. This will both protect your night vision and help you to prevent under-exposure when gauging image brightness from the back of the camera (though I strongly recommend learning about, and using, histograms to evaluate your exposures in the field).
You will receive different answers on this depending on: (1) who you ask; (2) what equipment they use (which probably isn't the same as yours); and (3) the circumstances in which they are used to photographing the aurora (someone who photographs distant auroras in the UK will use different settings from those photographing strong, overhead, auroras in Iceland or Norway). Additionally, when shooting auroras at high latitudes then you need to be prepared to alter your settings multiple times over the course of a substorm, and consequently, no single group of settings is universally-appropriate for all auroras. Practice makes perfect and the exact settings you select will also depend on your personal preferences for striking the balance between: (1) freezing the motion of active auroras; and (2) achieving a well-exposed foreground in your image. In practice, there is a trade-off between these two points, unless you are fortunate to have high-end camera equipment allowing lots of light in so that you can do both simultaneously. The following information is intended as a starting point only.
The answer is, as little as is necessary. I use Lightroom to process my own images, and in most cases I limit the adjustments to (sometimes) correcting the white balance (WB), reducing noise, and adding small amounts of saturation, clarity and vibrance. The aim should always be to get as much correct "in camera" as possible, and limit the tweaks needed for processing. I shoot all of my RAW images on "auto WB". Sometimes during processing I adjust the WB slightly, in order to correct the foreground area of the image with regard to light pollution. This is because artificial light often makes clouds, snow and vegetation appear a more orange colour than they actually were when the image was taken.
Personally, I like my aurora photographs to represent as closely as possible what I saw with my naked eye, while accepting that a camera will always capture a more intense overall appearance due to its longer exposure time. One limitation in this regard, is that humans vary in how sensitive their eyes are at perceiving the colours of the aurora. Thus, while I could process a photograph to look similar to what I saw with my eyes, this may not reflect what the person standing next to me saw with their own eyes.
Good luck, be safe, and remember to look up from your camera regularly and watch the aurora with your eyes. This is particularly important when the aurora is dancing across the sky - the photograph will never be as good as what you see and keep forever in your memory, trust me.