How to shoot northern lights
A story from Lapland

Last winter, 2013, me and some friends decided to go up north to Lapland. Not to a skiing resort, neither to any bigger city for a spa holiday. We wanted to go to a place which has as little city lights as possible, preferably a big open area facing north and the possibility to travel as close as possible to this place by car. Why? You might ask.
To be able to film northern lights of course =)

After a bit of research and asking around we decided to go up to Lokka. It’s a small village by a large artificial lake. The town is located at the south coast of the lake which gives a nearly perfect view to the west, north and east. Because of the size of the village, there are hardly any people moving around on the lake at night time, and even the lights in the centre of the village turn off at some point in the late evening. In other words: an almost ideal location.

The friends I mentioned earlier are Jonas Lemberg, Joosep Matjus and Karl Purga. All except Karl have been mentioned on this website in different articles and situations. Two Finns and two Estonians, 5 days, 3000km, and a small cramped Toyota Yaris which, apart from people, was filled with clothes, cameras, tripods and skis.

Our plan was to meet in Porvoo in the morning, pack the car and drive up to Lokka without really taking any breaks other than refueling the car and grabbing a hamburger at some random petrol station. After some 800km we called our contact person who lives in the village and he kindly informed us that there’s no shop in the town center. I asked how far it is to the nearest shop and his reply was; not that far at all, just about 90km south from our village. What a relief.
We decided to stop by Kuusamo to buy food and some liquids that keep you warm on cold winter nights.

It was already getting late. Our stop in Kuusamo took longer than we thought, possibly because of the Easter holiday. The road we were driving on kept shrinking and the sky got darker and darker. Suddenly someone said something along the lines of “weird clouds moving over that bog over there”. Someone else just exhaustedly agreed from the back seat. 15 minutes later when we passed the next bigger open area the same person announced that these clouds are moving in a funny way. Instead of going straight in one direction as clouds usually do, these ones were wobbling a bit. At that point we decided to stop the car and look around more carefully. It was our first northern lights sighting. The moon had just risen and it was just dark enough for them to slowly and gradually appear over the sky. We didn’t feel tired anymore, even though we’d been sitting still in a car for over ten hours. We just ripped out our cameras and started shooting in pure excitement. We did our first northern lights shots and also our first mistakes when shooting, I’m going to talk about this a bit later.

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Another hour wasted and soon someone realized that if we don’t start moving soon again we wont get to Lokka before midnight. We still had to meet our contact person and get the key to the cabin we were going to rent.

We arrived in Lokka around midnight and found our cabin where the key was already waiting in the door. A nice small wooden house just beside the lake. We could almost shoot our timelapses directly from the porch if we wanted to. Even though the cabin was pretty small, it was well planned and I’m sure there could have easily fit double the amount of us. There was even a sauna and a roofed Laavu kind of building for barbecuing.
In the end that evening we didn’t manage to shoot any northern lights anymore. The sky had gotten cloudy and we were exhausted from all the driving, about 19 hours all in all. We just made a small dinner and tried out some Estonian magic potion before falling asleep.

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Photo by Jonas Lemberg

The next morning it was sunny and about -25 degrees Celsius. As you might know it’s not possible to see northern lights in daytime so we went to explore the village and the surroundings instead. The first thing we noticed when we arrived to the village, it’s about 1km walk from the cabin, was that it was almost completely silent, not a single person could be spotted. Far away on the other side of the river a distant motor saw could be heard, but that was about it. We walked on the main road through the Village in hope to find our contact person’s home, which we found but nobody was at home. We continued and suddenly there was a pack of reindeer standing in front of us. It was the tame version of them but still quite a sight. Beautiful animals. On our way back to the cabin we finally met a human. He told us the reason why the village was more or less dead at the moment: a reindeer race was held in the neighbor village up north (around 130km away) and in the south neighbor city there was a festival dedicated to dry meat. He was a friendly guy who suggested that we should go and check those happenings out. It sure was a bit tempting, but we still came all the way up here for a mission, which was to film the northern lights. Until now we had only gotten some blurry underexposed stills.

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At the main road

We decided to go back to our cabin and make some dinner. It’s interesting how much you need to eat when it’s this cold and you move around carrying equipment. After the dinner we tried to take a nap, it was going to be a long night.

Once the sun started to set, we went through our plan how to set up everything to have the best chance getting something worth watching.

The best way to film northern lights is actually very simple, it’s like the absolute basics of moving picture. You should use a stills camera; a dslr camera where you have the possibility to choose your settings and lenses accurately is great.
In Europe we have the 50hz system which means that the standard frame rate is 25 or 24 frames per second, depends on if you are making TV, cinema or animations. We decided that our final footage is going to be 25 frames per second. To have 10 seconds of footage will then be 250 frames which in reality means 250 stills photos on your dslr. 10 seconds would be barely enough but it’s better to be on the safer side and take at least 30 seconds of footage per shot. In this case 750 stills photos are equal to 30 seconds of footage.

After that you just put all the stills after each other and export it as a movie file. That’s what timelapse is about.

Okay, so why not just film with a video camera, or use the video function which can be found in the most dslr’s at the moment? Now we are at the core of astrophotography neverthless astrocinematography… if there even is that kind of a term? :D

To be able to record northern lights you need light. Of course, you can’t just light them up with a flash or a torch. It’s themselves who need to shine. If you’ve never seen northern lights in real life and only on photos you might think that they are some kind of crazy big colorful shining cloud wobbling over the sky. Actually that’s more or less how they are. It’s just that they are still too faint for the camera’s sensor. It is possible to shoot northern lights with a very light sensitive video camera but you will most likely run in to a lot of problems, such as very noisy pictures. You would have to boost up the gain so much on you camera that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t even recognize a star from all the electronic mess the camera produces.
When you record in 25 frames per second you can’t physically have a longer shutter speed than a 25 th of a second. It’s also called the 360 degree shutter angle. So in that sense the only way to get more light is to have a insanely super light sensitive lens, and there is no such lens.

What to do then? Forget about that this is a film you are shooting and about all the rules regarding that as well. Think only about stills photography, what choices do you have?
The smartest way is to lower your shutter speed. IF we suddenly are not making movies, there’s no reason why there should be any limit on have long you can expose a shot.

That said, the best way to set up your camera is to open up your aperture to max (the lowest value possible) Put the ISO on something 1600-6400. It depends a bit on what camera you use. Some higher end ones do better shots at high ISO than the lower end ones. We had the Canon 600D (rebel t3i) with a Tamron 17-50 f2,8 and the Panasonic GH3 with its kit lens, the 14-140mm f4. These are not super high end cameras or lenses, which meant that we had some struggles, the same struggles you will have if you use this kind of equipment. I’ll come to that shortly.

Now the most peculiar, the shutter speed. There’s no exact shutter speed setting or any way to exactly know what it should be before testing that.
Here’s a short list on how to set the “correct” lighting, before any northern lights has appeared:

– Rig the camera with those settings described above on a sturdy tripod.
– Aim the camera at the sky.
– Set the shutter speed at some 6 seconds or so.
– Take a shot.
– Let it expose for those six seconds without moving it.
– Look at the shot.
– Do you see stars? (I’m now imagining that it’s a cloudless night) Then you are on the right way.
– If you don’t see stars, set the shutter speed even slower. Maybe something around 15-30 seconds.
-Do you see stars now? If you don’t, then you’ve probably forgot the lens cap on.
– Take off your lens cap and try again.
– Now you’ll see stars

This is the first step to get an idea on what settings you are going to shoot with. If you are able to capture stars on a stills frame then you will certainly be able to capture the northern lights as well.

The second step is the hard one, it’s about predicting something, something that even the best technology on Earth only can predict (not know) 8 minutes before it happens. This length of time might sound familiar. It’s about the time it takes for the light from the sun to reach earth. The northern lights are basically particles from the sun, traveling at the speed of light and hitting the earth’s magnetic field, causing a disturbance which can be seen by the naked eye around the poles. This is the secret behind the northern lights phenomena.
Knowing that, it’s more or less impossible to know anything that will happen more than 8 minutes in the future. But still it’s possible to put this particular 8 minutes information to good. There’s even apps for your smart phones that keep you up to date on what’s happening in the magnetic field and on the surface of the sun. For example if you get a reading in you phone that in 8 minutes there’s going to be a huge solar storm burst, you can even reposition your camera to a new motif. The higher the readings are, the more of the sky will usually be covered by the northern lights For example: there’s been low readings for the past 2-3 hours and you’ve been shooting some slowly moving northern lights in the north horizon and suddenly get a notification that in 8 minutes there will be a huge solar storm.
You will then even have time to change cards, reposition your frame so that it’s more covered by the sky and even fasten the shutter speed a bit.

This is a good thing to know and can be very useful if you’re lucky. BUT this is also a frustrating strategy with which you will easily get very disappointing results.
We shot overall around 4 nights with two cameras, but somehow we couldn’t avoid making the same mistake over and over again.
I’ll come back to that soon.

So to sum everything up. You can do a quite good setup before you see any northern lights by following the description in step one. In step two you have to adjust again, this time more precisely when the northern lights appear or by being very good at predicting how strong the lights might be.

That’s how you can take stills of northern lights. Sounds quite manageable, don’t you think? Just don’t think too much about the freezing coldness and that warm sauna waiting for you in the cabin.

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Photo by Joosep Matjus
Northern lights in sunset

After we had gone through our plan and equipment we carried everything out on the icy lake. There were still some rays of light from the sunset while we were crawling through the belly high snow. Once we arrived at the first potential location we set up the cameras. It was still pretty light but you could already begin to see some stars in the east horizon.

While I rigged my camera, which was not that easy considering the amount of snow, I took a long exposure shot, about 10 seconds, just for fun to check out that everything worked as it should. The photo turned out almost overexposed, as anticipated, but to my surprise I could see northern lights in the LCD screen even though it was not possible to see them with the naked eye. This was a good discovery. Now we could already aim the cameras at the most certain direction and even frame it how we wanted.

We did our first short time lapses like that. They were short because of the first “mistake” we made. This is something very logical but hard to think about in all the excitement of being able to shoot your life’s first northern light timelapse. Because we started the time lapse before the sun had properly set, we messed up the exposure and just 10 minutes later everything was underexposed.

Let’s think about the technical details again. As mentioned earlier you need to get 25 frames to get one second of moving footage. We wanted to get around 750 frames per scenery which would be a 30 second video clip.
The problem we had, was that our lenses were not light sensitive enough. f4 on the Panasonic was not really enough and the f2,8 on the Canon was barely enough. The only way to not get too much noise was to lengthen the shutter speed. I think I had something around 15 seconds per frame and one second between the frames for the camera to have time to properly save the last frame. That means that every frame took 16 seconds to make. 16 seconds x 750 frames = is 12 000 seconds which equals 200 minutes which then means that producing a 30 seconds long video clip, you need around 3,5 hours of actual time.

This can result in some big technical and visual problems like:
– Battery life
– The change of weather
– Too fast moving northern lights
– Unsharp and smudgy northern lights
– Very shake sensitive setup

I noticed something else as well. I don’t have any scientific evidence that this would be the case. But somehow I got a lot of noise in the shots even though the ISO wasn’t that high. After googleing a bit at home I found out that it can be because of the sensor heat. When exposing a long frame, the sensor will be active the whole time which results in the heating of the sensor, which then will appear as noise on your shots.
As mentioned, I don’t know if that’s true and I know that it’s not wise to believe everything you read on the internet but still, this was the feeling I got while post processing the footage

Back to Lapland. We had a mission and we went to Lapland for a reason. Still it was a trip aimed for traveling with friends, have fun and do camera tests. We were not paid for doing this and the equipment we had was our own personal cameras and tripods. No sliders or any fancy lenses.
This is one of the reasons we had some problems with exposing and so on. Still, without doing that trip I would surely make most of the same mistakes with whatever equipment I use. This trip really was worth more than money. An excellent experience which gave a lot more confidence to do similar paid gigs in the future.

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Photo by Joosep Matjus

The Panasonic camera’s battery was unbelievably good. In unprotected -25 degree Celsius it just went on taking frame after frame for hours. Sometimes there can be a huge problem with batteries in the cold, they can run out of power in just a couple of minutes. But not these ones. The Canon did pretty well too. About half of the time what the Panasonic managed to do, but it’s a question about the batteries. If this would have been a paid gig with a budget, we would have used some external power source for being able to shoot for days without charging.

The weather was the next problem. It somehow seems that the weather always is a problem when I’m around. Let’s not exaggerate, we had some cloud free hours every night and some clouds crossing the frame often gives a nice visual effect. But because the exposure time was so long and the weather was changing quite rapidly between cloud free and total grayness we didn’t ever manage to do more than 1 or 2 30 second long video clips which had northern lights from the beginning to the end.
Luckily 30 seconds is not a rule, it’s just a goal to be on the safe side.

In the end everything seems to come down to your equipment regarding the problems listed above. If you are not able to have short intervals, everything in the frame will move fast, sometimes too fast. It’s always easy to make things faster in post but more or less impossible to make them slower. This particular thing was often quite visible in our footage as well. Due to the long exposure the northern lights had time to move a bit too much, which means that those beautiful curtains often visible in northern lights photos were smoothed out, looking like blurry clouds moving over the sky. You did probably notice that I wrote “often”.

Being that far up north, at that time of the year, at that solar cycle, it’s almost guaranteed that there’s some northern lights visible. It’s just that they usually move very slowly in the northern horizon. This is a good thing if you have the same problems with exposure as we had. It was pretty easy to shoot and get a pretty decent result with these lights even with shutter speeds between 10-20 seconds. Sadly that was also a thing we didn’t understand instantly. I think it was just on the last night we finally stopped shooting the most visually beautiful northern lights and tried with the small ones in the horizon instead. A good thing to remember for future shoots.

It’s a mental problem, really. Why would you ever aim the camera at the least beautiful, most boring thing in the horizon, when you have the whole sky filled with something that looks like fireworks in slow motion?

That was about our thoughts after the first night. Sauna really is a great invention. What can possibly be better than sweating together with friends in 80 degree Celsius after a freezing cold night of shooting?

The next day we met our host and contact person for the first time. He’s a reindeer farmer with Saami roots who makes his living by farming and Eco tourism. He even breeds racing reindeers which we went to visit in the day.
He offered us the opportunity to spend one morning in his hideout. Everyone was not very excited about the idea, but in the end me and Joosep decided to give it a try. There was a possibility to see sea eagles.
Jonas and Karl seemed more interested in going to the dry meat festival.

On the second night of shooting we changed locations. We took the car and drove a bit further west. There we found some kind of a dam (It’s hard to tell when there’s about a meter of snow) without any street lights. The night before we had some disturbance by easter holiday tourists driving around on snow scooters in the middle of the night.

At this location we got to be completely alone. This was also the location where we got the best shots. The weather was good all night and the northern lights were quite active all the time.

Another thing we discovered was that the northern lights seem to be most active in the beginning of the night and in the early morning, just before sunrise.

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Photo by Joosep Matjus

We took this into consideration and went earlier to sleep than the day before. I woke up before sunrise to go out and start my morning time lapse but now it was cloudy again.

Jonas and Karl were still sleeping when me and Joosep were sneaking to the hideout. It was just before sunrise and the eagles where not there yet.

Skiing through deep snow with cameras and tripods on the back is quite a sweaty thing to do. We noticed this all too well once we crawled inside the hideout and started to wait for the eagles. In about an hour we experienced a new kind of cold which bit us down to the bone. Our socks and t-shirts were drenched in sweat and when they started to get cold our bodies had a hard time to produce enough warmth to keep both ourselves and our under clothes warm. This resulted in an experience that was no so pleasing. After about 5 hours we had to go back to the cabin. We had promised to bring back the car so the other two could go to the dry meat festival.
Joosep, however, wanted to stay longer. We hadn’t seen any eagles yet and when we opened the door to the hide they were actually sitting behind us all the time. Obviously they got scared of us and flew away. We then used the fooling technique. Joosep stayed in the hide while I walked back to the car and drove away. This usually works because birds are not too good at counting.
When I arrived to the cabin the other two had a nice warm breakfast waiting for me. Meanwhile Joosep was chewing on frozen candies.

I didn’t feel too sleepy so all three of us went to the neighbour city for the festival. It was a nice spectacle with live music, reindeers, drunk Saamis and dry reindeer meat which cost around 30€ per 100g. Sadly we didn’t have money for that. We bought some American beef jerky from the local super market instead.

After 5-6 hours we arrived back in Lokka again. First we went to pick up Joosep. He was tired and cold but still seemed quite satisfied. He had got some shots of two sea eagles.
After a nice dinner with some evening sauna as dessert we started to work on the lake again.

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Photo by Jonas Lemberg

This was already the third and last night we had left. The next morning we were supposed to go back south to Helsinki and Porvoo.
At this point we already had 2 days of experience on what not to do when you are shooting northern lights time lapses. But again something unexpected happened.

The evening / beginning of the night had started in about the same way as all the other nights. We even tried to concentrate more on the northern horizon than the middle of the sky. This is something what can happen when you have a lack of equipment. I mean cameras.

Our only two cameras which were capable of doing time lapses were steadily snapping shots on their own. Me and Jonas were keeping an eye on them. Joosep and Karl were shooting stills with their own cameras. (that’s why most of the photos in this article is taken by them)

We had already gotten some kind of routine. The coldness didn’t feel cold anymore and everything seemed like it was going fine. Suddenly there was a light in the east horizon, much brighter than the other lights around. It was moving fast, coming straight against us. We realized that this is the biggest solar storm we’ve ever seen, almost exploding against us. Somehow we totally forgot about anything that was called film, video or moving pictures. Just by instinct, we grabbed the cameras and started to reposition them.
The storm came really fast, just in around 5 seconds it had moved over the whole sky, reaching the west horizon, bounced back and crashed in the center where the whole sky burst into a sea of colors. Red, yellow, purple, green, blue and so on. It was like huge wobbling rainbow that covered the whole sky. We were standing on a snow covered lake where all the snow suddenly looked like a mirror of the sky. It reflected the northern lights and lit up the whole surrounding. And as quickly as it had appeared, it disappeared. The only thing that was left was darkness and total silence. Even the snow scooter tourist had stopped their engines and were standing beside their scooters, facing upwards. A truly magical moment which I will remember the rest of my life.

We got very few shots of this solar burst. They were either shaky or overexposed. Nothing that could even come close to the real thing.

After the first shock, everyone just started laughing. It was just so insanely unnatural that nobody knew how to behave. A little bit later we realized that we had just ruined our time lapses.

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Photo by Joosep Matjus

So, my advice is: Have enough equipment. Try to get at least two cameras per person. It’s a way to get double the footage, considered that one clip can take up to almost 4 hours. Try to get a third camera as well. This camera you use for stills photography. It really is frustrating to sit and wait for hours and seeing very nice northern lights at the opposite direction of where your camera is aimed, and knowing that you wont get that in your frame. A designated stills camera is a very good way to kill time. The shots you get with that one can be used for different stuff, like this article for instance.

Another advice would be to use good tripods, heavy sturdy ones. You can easily find these old heavy iron ones very cheap second hand on the net.

Bring some friends together and go try it out yourselves. It’s actually very fun.

In the end we arrived back to southern Finland as planned. Joosep and Karl jumped on the ferry back to Estonia while me and Jonas went to our respective homes.

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Photo by Joosep Matjus

This is a story which is almost 1 year old. I already tried to put something together earlier, but in the end it didn’t work out. It was easier now, when the time of the year is almost the same as when we actually made the trip.

Still, better late than never.

I hope this article wasn’t too long and kept your interest through it all. I hope as well that by reading this you have a chance to avoid making the same mistakes we did. Lastly I hope that you got inspired and want to try it out yourself.

Please drop me a comment below if you liked the article or want to share your own northern lights adventures.

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