In Search of the Aurora Borealis: Capturing the Northern Lights

There are some moments in travel that truly take your breath away. They are moments that make every airline delay, every long car ride, and every questionable meal truly worth the journey. Last night, I experienced one of these moments when I witnessed a three-hour long show of the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights.

Mývatn, Iceland By: Courtney Nachlas

You may be thinking what I was thinking as these neon green strips danced over my head – that is unreal. After capturing these photos with my Nikon and sending them along to my friends and family, I received a lot of questions about this natural phenomenon. The most commonly asked one is – do the lights really look like that in person?

The simple answer is no. When you actually see the Northern Lights, your eyes cannot see the same light and colors that your camera can capture at night. (This article explains why our eyes cannot capture the light.)

However, the camera’s ability to capture the lights is actually one of the reasons the lights have become more popular in recent years. As our photographic technology increases, so does our ability to take pictures of the lights. These photos float around now, making them a popular bucket-list item. Having said that, different people see different things when they look at the Northern Lights, so you may see brighter lights than I do. This specific display of lights (one of the brightest displays of three that I’ve seen), looked pale green. Still beautiful and breathtaking, but not exactly what you see on the back of your camera. Now, in my opinion, this is half of the fun of taking Northern Lights photos. You never quite know what your camera is going to capture until you look at the back of your screen. It’s as if your camera is decoding a secret message written in the night sky.

Mývatn, Iceland By: Courtney Nachlas

Photographing the Northern Lights:

Getting these photos to show up on your camera is a whole different ball game. In order to capture these photos, I had to allow my camera to take the photo for 15 seconds to let in enough light. The ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity) was set to 1600, which is high enough to capture the light in the dark sky.  As the aurora gets really bright at times and then fades, the ISO gets adjusted as well.   The F-stop on my wide angle lens was 1.4, which means it is set to let in as much light as the lens will allow.

In English, this basically means that your camera is taking this photo for a very long time at a wide angle to allow all of the Aurora’s light to come into your picture. It’s also important to not touch your camera when it’s taking these photos. I used a tripod and a remote to take the pictures for me, so I didn’t have to shake the camera – eliminating any blurry light photos.

Whether you’re a photographer or not, the Aurora Borealis are an unbelievable sight and everyone should experience them. I know, for me, dancing in my narwhal costume under the Northern Lights was a highlight of the trip.

Mývatn, Iceland By: Skarpi Thrainsson

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