Shooting the Northern Lights on Film
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
This is an article I have wanted to write for a while. Especially due to the fact that I couldn't find much documentation on shooting the Northern Lights on film. And while there are plenty of articles and material on shooting at night, there are a few things I think should be discussed in relation to shooting the lights specifically. This was, and is still, a dream come true for me and I wrote down many of these notes knowing it won't be the last time I go in search of catching the lights on film.
So diving into it, I am aiming to outline items specific to the topic and therefore won't be hitting on everything about 'shooting film at night'. Most of things you've read about shooting at night will likely apply: i.d. bring a tripod, shutter release cable, light meter, higher iso film, etc.
A real key to the whole process is doing some research ahead of time and tracking the aurora weather report. To track it, I largely used the Aurora Reach app. I found it gave the most updated intel and most accurate forecast.
Other Apps Used
While the other apps used did provide a map view of where the aurora was supposed to be visible, I found that its forecast for the evening wasn't as accurate as the Aurora Reach app. And as we didn't have a great chance (less than 30% predicted chance at times during the best day), we were checking periodically throughout the day and frequently as the sun went down. Aurora Reach also allows you to search by city. This also might be a reason that it gave better results as we knew what city we would be in at the end of that day.
These tips might sound obvious but I believe are helpful for shooting the Northern Lights for your first few times.
Location scout ahead of time
You don't want to be frantically searching for a spot when the time comes to shoot.
Look to the north. Again, rather obvious but when scouting during the day, think about where the lights may be. And more times than not, you'll be facing north when you see them that evening.
Have 2-3 spots picked out just in case the lights are more vivid in different areas
Depending on your luck, you might only get a chance to shoot in one location. When I shot them, the lights were only visible for about 5 minutes. So you'd be hard-pressed to location hop.
I definitely recommend gloves. My hands were frozen that cold night. So were my ears for that matter. As beautiful as the lights were, it's not exactly weather for a picnic.
Don't be discouraged by forecasts with lower percentages.
The night I shot the lights, the forecast was around 35% during the day and went down to as low as 26% at night, and yet we still saw them.
Don't be discouraged if the lights are barely visible to the naked eye!!!
Probably this biggest advice I have to give. The longer shutter speeds you'll need to shoot at will capture more of the northern lights than your eye can. I think the photos came out better because the lights were as strong as they could be.
The largest part of this blog post's discussion will revolve around the trifecta of exposure: ISO, Aperture, and most of all shutter speeds. I had searched a good bit to see if I could find any resources on proper exposure for the Northern Lights on film and came up mostly empty. The only article I could find was this rather old website entitled SHOOTING THE AURORA BOREALIS. And the writer, Dick Hutchinson, creates a neat chart that gives some decent references for shutter speeds. However, I would caveat the chart with the fact that I would adjust the shutter speed between 1 and 2 times overexposed. Definitely give the article a read as well!
Bump shutter speeds by 1 to 2 stops from what the table shows.
When determining how to shoot the Northern Lights, the keys really lie with shutter speed. Light trails tend to start around a shutter speed of 30 seconds. So you want to select a film with a proper ISO that will allow you to have a range of shutter speeds that suits what type of image you want. I recommend shooting at least an 800 ISO film. This is to allow your shutter speed range to be between 8 and 30ish seconds (depending on your lens). I shot Cinestill's 800T with Canon's 35mm f2 FD lens on a Canon A-1. My shutter speeds ranged from 8 to 45 seconds. I wouldn't shoot any film under 800 ISO. Would have liked to have shot a roll of Portra 800 given the chance.
I didn't do this but I would love to just slip this in here and note that it would be something I'd love to try when shooting the northern lights. Maybe even pushing an 800 film to 3200.
One thing that was helpful was that my girlfriend was shooting with her Sony A7 IV. Not deliberately but I was able to take note of what her exposure was. I still metered and referenced the table from above, but it was something that gave me an extra level of insight. I really wanted to nail a Northern Lights photo on film.
Light meters are a must when night shooting. However, on the night of shooting, it was giving an exposure of 6 seconds for ISO 800 at f2.0. I felt this was criminally under-exposed. I use the Sekonic L-308X-U FLASHMATE light meter. Which is a great pocket light meter but it's definitely not a high-end light meter. This is when I was very glad I had done research beforehand on what exposure to do.
Film is getting rather expensive. Shooting film can be around a dollar a frame at times (if not more depending on what camera you are using). I don't normally take multiple shots of the same thing. I like the notion and process of taking a single shot and waiting to see if it came out or not. But when I do find something I absolutely know I want to capture, I'll often do what is called 'bracketing'. This is when you shoot multiple photos of the same shot at different exposures. Normally in reference to bookending a properly exposed photo with a photo that's a stop of exposure in each direction, and therefore, bracketing the correct exposure photo with an additional two photos. In this instance, I knew I was going to commit the whole roll of Cinestill 800T to this so I shot at several different exposures.
I'm just going to go through a few of the photos I took and comment on the exposure and things I liked or didn't like.
Before I put the roll of Cinestil 800T, I had two shots left of Portra 400. This is an unedited frame taken at 15 seconds.
Here is another 15s photo but edited to try and get anything out of it. I only show to say that I think the tungsten balanced film of Cinestill 800T was a much better film for capturing the dark tones of the night.
Here is a longer exposure. Perhaps 40ish seconds. You can see the light trails start. The other negative of having such a long exposure is that the Northern Lights become muddied as they dance and it gets captured. There is a balance between a shutter speed that captures more than the eye can see and not having such a long shutter speed that it starts muddying the bands of light together.
A similar photo to that one above.
~30s exposure. I love the streaks of light here and the exposure is much better but it's still a bit too muddy.
An 8s exposure just to test and bracket across all the exposures I wanted to try.
Here it's just slightly overexposed I think. Compare to the photo below to see the difference.
I think this photo is my favorite and the best exposure. I shot it at 24 seconds.
Found that 15-24 was the right exposure for 800T and shooting at f2. It does well to overexpose color negative film. Plus it's night photography and we have a tripod. So mess around with a few different exposures.
I've said this many times, but the best advice is to just go for it. We almost didn't. It was cold, windy, there was a low chance of even seeing it. We were heavily tempted by the relief of the hotel after a day of hiking and traveling to stay in. Brave the elements and go out and hunt for the photo. There are definitely better photos of the Northern Lights, this is just my adventure. Go have yours.
Contact Sheet of all the Cinestill photos.