Over-photographed: Northern Lights

Photographing the Northern Lights or Southern Lights has become extremely popular in recent years. How do you make your images stand out?

If you’ve ever been out photographing the northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis) you’ll know how lucky you need to be just see them. Getting your first picture in focus and without under exposing or blowing the highlights is pure excitement. But how do you create images that don’t just look like everyone else’s? In this instalment of our Over-photographed series, we look at some ideas for creating less clichéd pictures of this incredibly unique phenomenon.

What are they?

Swirling greens, reds, pinks and more greens light up the cold night sky as the sister of the sun and the moon races across the night sky, in her multi-coloured chariot alerting her siblings to the dawning of a new day; a celestial duel between good and evil dragons who breathe fire across the land; the spirits of dead friends and relatives trying to communicate with those they have left behind on earth; brave and intrepid warriors venturing southwards whose torches reflect in the heavens; revontulet the arctic fire fox running across the sky with its tail sweeping up snowflakes, creating sparks that catch the moonlight as it goes…

But, really, what are they?

These are just a few of the stories our ancestors in different parts of the world came up with for the southern and northern lights. We now know that the enigmatic colourful lights are created by the interaction between charged particles from the sun and the atoms and molecules of the earth’s atmosphere.

The majority of the particles are deflected away from the atmosphere, but some become caught in the earth’s magnetic field and accelerate towards the north and south poles. The gentle undulating patterns of light we see are caused by the earth’s magnetic field reacting with these particles from the sun.

Where can I see them?

You can see Aurora activity nearer the magnetic poles. Popular places to see the northern lights (aurora borealis) include Lapland in Finland, Abisko National Park in Sweden, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, Greenland, throughout Iceland and the northerly reaches of Canada. They’ve even been spotted in Scotland and England as far south as Norfolk. And, if the Greek and Roman myths are any indication (Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn), it must’ve been visible in southern Europe at some point in history, too.

Witnessing the southern lights (aurora australis) is a trickier proposition. There’s less landmass with a good vantage point to see them but it has been known in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina, Tasmania in Australia, the southern reaches of New Zealand’s South Island and Antarctica. 

If you’re intent on photographing the northern lights, you’ll need to become familiar with the Kp scale or Planetary K-index, which measures the intensity of magnitude of geomagnetic storms. You can get apps that forecast it which will help in planning your aurora adventure. 

How did they rise to stardom?

The lights themselves have probably been around since the dawn of time, hence the vast array of stories and myths about them. But for photographers attempting to capture the phenomenon on film, they’ve remained fairly elusive until the feedback loop of digital camera technology made it much easier to achieve.

Battery life, mechanical failures in cold temperatures and not of knowing what you’d captured with your chosen settings until the film is processed, all made photographing the aurora with film cameras a tricky business.

TPOTY founder Chris Coe says: “We didn’t really see aurora images among the entries until about five or six years ago. I suspect it’s a combination of being easier to photograph with digital cameras and a huge rise in aurora destinations opening up as tourist draws in their own right. Solar flare activity, which emits the charged particles, has also been at its peak in recent years, though it’s now waning towards the low end of its 12-year-cycle. It’s become a bucket list experience that many tour operators have capitalised on.”

The aurora doesn’t look as intense to the naked eye as it ends up looking in the resulting image. These three versions of the same image show three different approaches to colour balance – 1) Tungsten 2) Cloudy 3) an attempt to show what the naked eye saw © Diana Jarvis

And this is no bad thing because, without a little local knowledge and a good photography tutor, it can remain elusive even if you get yourself out into the cold, dark northern (or southern) night. Chris also adds: “It’s important to realise that the aurora doesn’t look as intense to the naked eye as it ends up looking in the resulting image so understanding how to capture them effectively on camera is more than a point-and-shoot process.”

What do typical pictures look like?

Photographing the northern lights means reacting to something with a different temporal perspective – you’re capturing time as well as the scene in front of you. It’s like pictures of light trails from cars speeding along the road: movement and time lead to a picture of something the naked eye could never witness. This can easily result in images of a swirly green messy mass against a pitch-black sky. 

What’s the problem?

Chris says: “Many aurora images are over-processed with the kinds of vivid greens that don’t resemble what they look like in real life; they border on a psychedelic light show. Those really limey greens lose the subtler colours of the aurora. When you’re photographing the northern lights the main work is done in-camera: exposure, dynamic range and colour balance.

“Of course, most aurora photography is done on a clear night so movement of the stars due to the earth’s rotation needs to be considered. A tripod is essential and shutter speed should be chosen carefully to achieve the desired effect.” You can play around with the white balance settings to emulate what your eyes are seeing.

A common problem is lack of foreground interest and composition. Chris says: “It’s easy to get excited at the mere sight of the magical lights and overly focus on them. But composition still needs to be an important part of an image otherwise you just get pretty lights in the sky rather than an interesting photo. You mustn’t abandon everything you’ve learned about photography simply because the aurora is both breathtakingly beautiful and entrancing. You need something to balance it out in the foreground, to hang the composition on. That said, there’s one aurora location we see way more than any other and that’s Kirkjufell in Iceland – the iconic, conical mountain in western Iceland.”

One of the most popular places to see the northern lights is at Kirkjufell in western Iceland. While it’s a great place to create a composition with interesting foreground details, it’s also a very over-photographed spot. © Unsplash / huper-by-joshua-earl

Are there winning shots of the aurora?

Yes! Nicolas Raspiengeas’ image of the aurora from Flakstad beach near Lofoten in Norway was part of his highly commended portfolio. He positioned a rockpool in the foreground that he’d illuminated with a head torch. The judges loved how the scene came alive with this foreground detail and a hint of the green aurora reflecting the pool.

Flakstad beach near Lofoten in Norway © Nicolas Raspiengeas

Last year’s overall winner Vladimir Alekseev included an aurora picture in his winning portfolio, too. It showed a man wearing a head torch illuminating a steaming geyser in front of him, taken on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia. The shape of the aurora echoes both the direction of the light as well as the direction of the geyser steam. Chris says: “This image works because it isn’t just about the aurora. The human element gives a sense of scale and the soft light and gentle colours create a scene that is magical and timeless.”

Yamal Peninsula in Russia © Vladimir Alekseev

Another successful image was taken by Gunar Streu in Dundret nature reserve in Swedish Lapland, who was commended in the “Moment of light” category in 2015. This picture nicely negotiates one of the main problems with seeing the aurora; cloud cover often prevents seeing it. The judges loved how the pink and lilac hues on the snow contrast with the warm light from within the hut and the glimpse of magic in the aurora from the heavens beyond.

There’s a wonderful mix of cognitive dissonance in the domestic warmth from a simple hut and the way the lights of the town create pools of peachy light with the peeping aurora behind signalling a magical presence of mystery.

Dundret nature reserve in Swedish Lapland © Gunar Streu

Where else could you shoot?

There is nothing quite like photographing the northern lights but the elusiveness of the aurora and weather dependency mean you’re not guaranteed to see such wonders, even if you’re in the right geographical location at the right time of year. Be prepared to fill your days with other types of photography and don’t be too disheartened if you don’t see them on a short weekend break.

You often need time and dedication just to see them, let alone photograph them, but if you can practise on the night sky wherever you live before you go, you’re in with a good chance of knowing how to set up your camera and react when aurora does put in an appearance.

Chris adds “Remember they are mostly only visible in cold climates so, aside from wearing the right clothing, familiarity with your camera, the required settings and how to put up your tripod in the dark not only saves time but also icy cold fingers! It’s easy to get excited by the experience of seeing the aurora and equally easy not to realise how long you’ve been out in the sub-zero temperatures, so the more prepared you are, the less chance of frostbite.”   

More in the series

We’ve covered a variety of other topics in this series, drawing on the winners of Travel Photographer of the Year for inspiration. From landscapes like Jökulsárlón in Iceland to the people and urban culture in Havana, Cuba as well as iconic architectural marvels like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Taj Mahal in India. Is there anywhere you’d like us to look at next? Be sure to get in touch and let us know.


By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 20 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Sustainbility Lead at the British Guild of Travel Writers.