Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

When the Canon 1D Mark III came out so many years ago, I had this idea like most of us did that a pro uses a bigger camera. I was shooting a lot of action sports that required taking a lot of frames per second, so the 10 frames per second were super important to me. That camera was a whopping 10 megapixels, and I thought it was more than I’d ever need. In truth, I’ve blown up prints from that camera to over eight feet wide and they still look great, so perhaps it’s all the megapixels I’d ever need.

It was around that time that I left to travel across the arctic with National Geographic and explorer Will Steger on a 1,400-mile
dogsledding expedition. I took that camera, with three batteries that I managed to ration, a few 8 gig cards, and a G9 point and shoot as a backup. The thing people don’t really understand about expedition dogsledding is that you’re not riding the sled, you’re skiing along side it, or running.   After 1,400 miles of carrying a six-pound beast of a camera on my shoulder, I decided my need to have something small and lightweight outweighed my need for a “pro” body, and at this point I was transitioning away from action sports and into photojournalism.   Timing was good to make the switch as the 5D had just come out and I couldn’t have been happier.

Flash forward about eight years, and I still had never really thought about getting a bigger camera again. I’ve stuck with the 5D series and never looked back. I hadn’t paid much attention to what these bigger, pro bodies could offer. So when I was deciding which camera to take with me to Iceland, my first impulse was to get a high megapixel camera that could do well in low light like the Canon 5D SR.  It wasn’t available for me though, and my contact at Canon suggested that I take a look at the Canon 1D X Mark II.   It has excellent low light capabilities, in part because the sensor is a “modest” 20 megapixels and won’t heat up as quickly as a higher megapixel sensor will. It has the larger batteries that would minimize the need to recharge it while I was traveling and living out of a van, and it was burly and weather sealed so it could take Iceland’s unpredictable weather. I’m glad that it could because I did end up getting caught out in the rain and it was on loan.

They also sent me the EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM to play with since my main goal on this trip was to photograph the northern lights. It has the advantage of being ultra wide, but not a fish-eye, so I can capture more of the sky without having crazy distortion in the image.

When it all came together, it was very last minute.  My girlfriend, Amber, and I had been up looking at the sky for hours and had seen no lights, so we went back into the van and fell asleep. Hours later, Amber spotted the lights, and we rushed outside half prepared and scrambled to set up our tripods.

We ended up having quite a bit of time as the lights stuck around for a few hours. I learned a couple key things in the two hours I spent with the auroras above. The first thing I learned was that long exposures are not ideal for the constantly moving lights. If your exposure is too long, the lights will show up as just a blur of color, but with a high ISO, and a short exposure, you get the crisp details in the lights that make them look so fantastic. That’s where a camera like the 1DX Mark II becomes really valuable as it can handle those ISOs and the image won’t be grainy. I also experimented with the lenses and ended up sticking with the 14mm since the auroras stretched across the sky. A longer lens, even if only slightly longer, wouldn’t have been able to capture the full scene.

When the lights were at their most intense, they lit up the landscape below, adding enough detail to the landscape below to make the images more interesting.

If you’re looking to photograph the northern lights, I’d suggest going in winter when the days are longer, renting a campervan and chasing clear skies more than looking at the aurora maps. Even if they’re up there, you won’t see them on a cloudy night. Take a camera that can handle the high ISO with the widest lens you have available, and if you feel like you’re getting skunked, just wait a couple hours. In the meantime, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Iceland, which I talk about in my last post.