Ok, so this is not a photography blog but many wilderness areas are, almost by definition, beautiful. Capturing these stunning places with good photographs is naturally high on most travellers’ agendas.
The northern, or boreal, forest is a beautiful wilderness environment. It’s a winter campers paradise! In winter it is harsh, yet enchanting and you’d be justified in visiting just to sample this terrestrial beauty. Anyone who travels to northern lattitudes in winter also stands a very good chance of seeing something extra-terrestrial – the aurora borealis, or ‘northern lights’. I have been lucky enough to have worked in northern Sweden every winter for quite a few years and I have seen aurora every time I have visited. I know one person, however, who has visited northern Sweden, Alaska and Canada and never seen this natural wonder.
If you are lucky enough to see aurora, it’s worth making the most of this experience by taking good photographs. When I first went to the North, I had only a disposable film camera. Camped out in the forest, I lay awake in my ‘snow grave’ looking up at the stars and caught my first glimpse of the northern lights. I didn’t even attempt a photo with the disposable. I just soaked up the scene and committed it to memory.
When I started photographing aurora I was using a 35mm camera, a Nikon F100 SLR camera with a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S lens. I used Fuji Provia 400 film with exposure times of 30-40 seconds at f2.8. If this means nothing to you, don’t worry about it. I don’t worry any more either. I used to worry about things like ‘reciprocity failure’. Getting good results using 35mm film was harder than it is today, using a digital camera. When I got my slides (remember them?) back from the lab, many of my shots were under-exposed. Below is one of my first successful shots. This was taken in northern Sweden in 2004 using Fuji Provia 400 and is a scan of the transparency (slide).
These days I use a Nikon D200 digital SLR and with this camera I’ve captureds some really nice shots of aurora. Below is an image taken in 2008. ISO was set to 400. Again the lens was my Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S. This time the lens was set to f3.5 and the exposure was for 20 seconds. It’s a compressed version of the 15MB orginal.
If you haven’t realised already, to get crisp shots at exposure lengths of 20-40 seconds, you must use a tripod. I use a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod (I can’t remember the model as I’m not that much of a geek but its quite light for a full-sized tripod) and a cable-release. This ensures no camera shake. It also means you don’t have to hold a very cold camera in temperatures that are often minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Celsius.
If the technical details haven’t stopped you reading already, let me tell you that you don’t need a fancy camera or any technical knowledge to get good shots of aurora any more. You can get good images of aurora with compact digital cameras. It is important to follow a few simple rules, however.
1. Turn the ISO up high. Somewhere between 400 and 800 ISO (this increases the camera’s sensitivity to light);
2. Turn the flash off (a flash will just illuminate the foreground, spoiling the shot);
3. Don’t worry about f-numbers or exposure lengths. If the camera is on automatic, it will do this for you;
4. Hold the camera REALLY still;
5. Even better, use a tripod (you can use a mini, pocket-sized, tripod for a small compact digital);
6. If you are using a tripod and the aurora are not changing too quickly, use your camera’s timer setting, so you are not touching the camera when it takes the shot. This helps eliminate camera shake;
7. Review your shot on the screen and if it’s not good, take another one!
If you follow these 7 rules, you can take really good shots.
So, with some forethought and making just a little more effort with the shot, you can capture what could be a once-in-a lifetime experience. But don’t get so hung up about photos that you forget to pause, take a deep breath and marvel at one of this world’s most amazing natural phenomena. Remember to soak up the scene and commit it to memory.