The main event when you come to Lofoten in January is undoubtedly the night shooting. In particular, photographing the king of night subjects, the northern lights.
Aurora Borealis, Latin for God of the dawn, is sometimes seen outside of the arctic circle, but within it you have opportunity for intense, overwhelming encounters. That is, if you know where to look.
In Lofoten I simply look north. I use the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app (for both iOS and Android) and turn on notifications for when the KP Index rises. I track the solar activity on the app and see where I’m most likely to find the aurora. Most of all though, I looked up at the sky almost constantly while travelling around Lofoten. It is the most reliable source of finding the lights, as I’ve found the app (and various websites) are only supplementary - a bit like weather forecasts, displaying low likelihood even when stood out underneath light shows.
I also used the Met Office app, or checked the local weather forecast before heading out to see if the sky would be clear.
The misconception of shooting at night often comes in the form of a 30 second exposure. This may be what you need if your aurorae are weak, and they often appear to come in stages of strength.
1. A subtle band in the northern horizon. This is likely the most common form of northern lights. Often mistaken for a thin layer of cirrus or stratus cloud, it's difficult to discern the lights from light pollution.
2. Slightly more widespread lights that shift, move and curl in the sky. They can be seen joining together or in separate locations in the sky. This is the exciting stage, when you hope to see them explode into life. You can easily see them with the naked eye, and the colours of green and pink are obvious.
3. Full aurora. Strong solar activity will see the sky ablaze with vibrant colours that form shifting columns, whirling curves and ripples that extend even overhead. At this point the aurora is so bright even the ground is lit with greens and/or pink.
For any aurora shooting you'll want to set the widest possible aperture on your lens (be that f/2.8 or f/4 for example) increase your ISO beyond 1000 at least and use a tripod. These settings are a constant with almost any night time shooting, so set them and leave them. Only the exposure length changes after this.
Here are some suggested exposure lengths for each stage, provided only as a rough guide:
Stage 1. Around 10 seconds. Longer is fine if your camera can't handle high ISOs very well, as the band won't move around too much.
Stage 2. 2-4 seconds will be your max here. As the aurora shifts through the sky you'll need a faster shutter speed to define the shapes and movements. Any longer and you'll blur the shapes, and it won't look as impressive.
Stage 3. As fast as your ISO allows. With the aurora in full glow everything will be much brighter so you can keep your exposures sub-1 second and if necessary lower your ISO to get a balanced exposure. Ideally we would be shooting at ISO 100 but it's unlikely to be bright enough for that without increasing the exposure length and blurring the shapes.
I have seen green and pink at various stages, so it's hard for me to tell you when to expect different coloured aurorae. Take a look at the shot below that I took in Scotland. To the naked eye this was nothing but a mere glow in the distance, in fact, I thought it was the remnants of sunset (the blue moment) but realised the sun had set hours ago I decided to get a quick shot, and to my surprise I had pink and green. Not only that but I captured the milky way galaxy, the andromeda galaxy (top left), and a meteor with Jupiter below (bottom right).
Green is the most common aurora colour, with red, pink or even blue associated with higher solar activity. As the solar particles interact with oxygen in earth’s atmosphere we get green and yellow colours. It’s nitrogen gas at higher altitudes that intense solar particles excite which produce the reds, pinks and blues.
Getting aurora in Lofoten is hard, even if you are in the arctic circle, there’s no guarantee. But getting great aurora and a good foreground, with the right camera settings whilst battling the cold and hoping for little cloud cover, well that’s a tricky one. Especially when you start adding other galactic elements like the milky way, star trails or meteors. It’s hard to get that all right, so that’s why I recommend a guide to take some of that off your plate. Particularly for the beginner photographer who just spent a big chunk of change on a trip over to Lofoten. It’s better to work with people who can aurora hunt and make the most of your trip, than go all that way and potentially come back with nothing.
There’s definitely more to be had in Lofoten, and this two-parter blog has just scraped surface. I shall be running workshops and tours here soon, so be sure to register your interest via the site if you’re keen to take part.