Tips & Hints
The Lofoten has several nice, cosy and affordable campsites. Camping in the wild is also allowed, but you should do it with decency. Don’t stay too near houses, don’t leave any litter or empty your chemical toilet. There are plenty of opportunities to get rid of garbage and waste in a proper way. If you don’t find them you can visit a campsite for a night.
Renting a cabin on a campsite or fishermanscabin (rorbuer) is possible too. They offer the necessary comfort and are often in beautiful places.
Several hotels can be found on the Lofoten. There are lots of holidayhouses and cottages for rent, like ours.
Visitors of my website who plan to travel to the north frequently ask me how to photograph the northern lights. It is easier than it seems. Any hobby-photographer who prepares a bit can make beautiful photos of the northern lights, without huge investments. This information is meant for those hobby-photographers. The experienced already know what to do.
The first time I photographed aurora borealis, I had no idea how to do it. I had a Canon 40D, Canon EF 17-40 f/4.0 L lens and a tripod. You will not succeed without a tripod, so it is essential to bring one. The northern lights were pretty strong and I just turned the button to the 'landscape' function, in which the camera determines itself iso, aperture and shutter speed and the flash doesn't pop out. I used the auto-focus (AF) on our house where lights burned and pressed down. The camera chose iso 800, an aperture of f/5.6 and a shutter speed of 10 seconds. The picture was not bad at all. It can be that easy!
Nowadays I do it differently. Now I shoot in M-mode and determine the iso-value, aperture and shutter speed myself. These three values influence each other. With a higher iso you can use a faster shutter speed. You can generally use only the maximum aperture, so the smallest number, in order to maximise light. Fixed values cannot be given because light conditions vary. A full moon on snow already provides a lot of light. There are weak and strong northern lights. Sometimes aurora borealis starts so early that the sky is still relatively light and even low iso-values and relatively fast shutter-times can do the job. On site you must make choices.
But you need to start somewhere. During a normal dark night, with a half moon on the snow and moderate northern light I often start with 640 or 800 iso, aperture 4 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. Check the screen of the camera to see if the picture is good enough. Anyone who understands how the histogram works, looks at that and tries to see whether the photo is properly exposed. If the image is too dark you can choose a shutter speed of 20 or 30 seconds. When it is too light, you can increase. A picture that is a little overexposed is better than an underexposed image. If you later need to reduce the exposure on your computer, you get less noise in the picture then you need to expose more.
Focusing is a different story. Focusing on the aurora makes no sense – it is never sharp and it moves. You need to take something that is stationary to focus on. My first picture worked out well with autofocus (AF) because the house under the northern lights was illuminated. But if you are in an empty and dark landscape with vague northern lights, your camera won't find anything to focus on. This must be done manually. Those who have trouble with that, a far away lamp of a house, lamppost or moon can be helpful for AF. If that is done, directly switch the button on the lens to MF and do not move the focusing ring. It is a must to remove the UV filter from the lens, especially with artificial lights in the distance or if the moon comes anywhere in the image. The filter will cause ugly light spots in the picture.
An aurora picture with something in the forefront can be nice. That can be anything, but it is extremely important that it is sharp. Even with an aurora on it, a blurry picture is just ugly. I use a flashlight to shine on the object that I want to focus on. The autofocus then focuses on the light spot and I put the button to MF again and create a new composition.
It is best not to touch your camera on the tripod when you take a picture, because you can easily get a vibration or movement which causes blur. You can use a cable remote control and use 'bulb' in the M-mode and determine the shutter speed yourself. If you don't have a remote control, use the timer and a fixed shutter speed of the camera, which in the event of a 40D goes up to 30 seconds. The very serious photographers even shoot with their mirror up in an attempt to avoid any vibration.
This all seems like a hassle, but really it isn't that bad. First explore your camera in a comfortable place like your home. It is advisable to choose the settings of your camera before you go out into the night. Put it to 'landscape' or 'automatic'. If you want to put the settings manually, what I can advice, put it at a high iso in the M mode, take the widest aperture (the smallest number) of your lens and choose the preset 10, 15 or 20 seconds or bulb. Please check carefully at home where you can find all the settings, because if you're outside in the dark and cold and have to explore your camera for the first time, you definitely don't have much fun to experience the northern lights as you would have wished.
We have had guests in late August who took acceptable pictures of the first northern lights with a compact camera. But the results will be better with a SLR camera. Once I landed at Canon, but Nikon has excellent cameras also of course. I started with a Canon 40D, a very nice camera, but with a 1000D I think you can get almost similar results. All successors of these types do certainly a good job.
Even better, but more expensive, are so called full frame cameras. They can easily be used at iso 1600 without too much noise in the picture. The Canon 5D MKII and Nikon D700 had and have excellent reputations in this field. They now have successors in the form of the Canon 6D and Canon 5D MKIII and Nikon D600 and Nikon D800. Therefore now used 5D MKII's and D700's are on the market at prices that bring these super cameras closer for many. And there is nothing wrong with a used, but good camera.
I now use nowadays a Canon 6D (N), coming from a 5D MKII. The 6D might be a bit better, with lesser noise from iso 1600 and up and certainly lesser colour noise, but the 5D MKII is still a great camera. But even the 6D I try to use under iso 1600. Only if the northern lights move fast and I want to freeze the movement, I go iso 3200 or 6400 for higher shutter speeds. I've even used iso 12.800 and to my big surprise that wasn't so bad at all.
I've got a Canon 1D Mark IV as well and that one is almost as good, if not just as good, as the 5D MKII for northern lights. But because this is a 1.3 crop camera one needs quit a wide lens. A 16mm or even 14mm lens for example would be nice. That certainly counts for 1.6x crop camera's like a 700D, 70D or 7D or so.
Remember that often the aurora on the picture is even more beautiful than you actually see. That's a technical story, but it comes down to that the sensor in the camera often captures more light and colors than you can see with your eyes. Some photos have more purple than I saw with the naked eye.
Take a look at the pictures above and see which lenses are used. That gives you a impression.
A bright wide-angle lens is preferred. But again, that you only can take great pictures of northern lights with the most expensive lenses isn't true. For a long time my Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5 USM was my fastest lens with f/3.5 as the maximum aperture. And that lens is doing excellent. Even more pictures I have taken with my Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4 L with the largest aperture f/4 and it has never disappointed me.
With the cheap standard lenses which are supplied with cameras, I have no experience. But I am convinced that they are perfectly capable to capture aurora's. As long as you well expose and have good focus, with roughly a Canon 1000D and a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens you certainly will have very acceptable images.
I have changed my Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4 L for a Canon EF 16-35mm F/4 L IS, which is a bit sharper towards the edges. This lens, certainly in combination with a camera you can use with higher iso's, gives very good results and is a serious wide angle on a full frame camera or even on a 1.3x crop camera like the Canon 1D4.
But of course it is always possible to do it better and more expensive. Are you willing to invest heavily, then a bright wide-angle zoom lens comes in the picture with an maximum aperture of f/2.8 like the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM, or a fixed or prime lens, like the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II. Not everybody is very enthusiastic about that lens, because the transform stars into coma's.
On the other hand, Samyang makes lenses which perform excellent and make a star a star: a point, not a coma. These lenses focus only manual, but in terms of sharpness they are as good or sometimes even better than the much more expensive counterparts from Canon and Nikon. I use the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC quite often and it is said to be one of, or the best astro-lens at the moment. It costs around 400 euros (I bought a second hand one for 200). I use it if I really need a serious wide angle, when the northern lights are high in the sky. At an aperture at f/2.8 it is sharp already. Focussing to infinity can be hard, because this lens focusses past infinity. But if you have found the sweet spot, the lens is excellent.
I love my Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T * ZE (bought that second hand too) a lot. This lens suits me excellent! Fully open at f/2.8 it is very sharp and shows often surprisingly many details in the dark landscape. Also this lens is only with manual focus, AF is not in place, but 'infinity' really is infinity, so focussing in the dark is a peace of cake. Beautiful colors.
And further ...
For those who edit photo's afterwards or will do that in the near future its better to shoot in the RAW-mode. When the camera is on 'auto' or 'landscape' it only creates a JPG-image. The advantage of a RAW-file over JPG is that you can process the pictures much better if needed on your computer. With a program like Lightroom or Photoshop (or cheaper alternatives) you can easily adjust the exposure a bit. If the picture has noise, that can also be removed. The high iso mode and slow shutter speeds can easily create noise, ugly 'digital dust', in the image. Even if you think you ever want to edit photos, it's a good idea to shoot in RAW already (with many cameras you can choose to shoot in RAW + JPEG). Not everyone lives under the northern lights or has the money to make a photo trip to the high north later again.
Although it seems like common sense, I do want to advise to bring enough warm clothes when you go out to take pictures of aurora borealis. It involves long periods of standing still on a spot above the Arctic Circle. You should also make sure that batteries are fully charged because they could get empty faster due to the coldness. Make sure you bring lights with you, but beware that you don't blind yourself. And if the photographing does not work out, just put your camera aside and enjoy the spectacle!
Various dark and blurry pictures on the internet proof that even the most expensive lenses and cameras give no guarantee for good photos. Prepare well and know what you do, is the most important.
Photographing northern lights
Canon 40D, iso 800, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L, 17mm, f/5.6, 10 sec.
Canon 40D, iso 640, Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5, 10mm, f/3.5, 10 sec.
Canon 5D MKII, iso 1250, Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE, op f/2.8, 5 sec.
Canon 6D, iso 6400, Canon EF 16-35mm F/4 L IS, 16mm, f/4, 1 sec.
Which lenses for northern lights?
Canon 6D, iso 800, Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC, f/2.8, 8 sec.
Camera for northern lights
Canon 1D Mark IV, iso 1600.
Canon 5D Mark II, iso 3200.
Canon 6D, iso 1600.
Holiday home for rent
From most European capitals the Lofoten Islands can be reached in one day with three aircraft. Fly to Oslo/ Gardemoen, then to Bodø and then to Svolvær or Leknes on Lofoten. At the weekend, it often is not possible to reach your destination in one day. Weekdays are cheaper and who is looking around a bit will find tickets for about 550 euros per person.
Flying from Oslo to Harstad/Evenes is usually a lot cheaper. This is a three hour drive from the Lofoten - but it is a nice trip. At the airport are car rentals and sometimes the bus can be an alternative.
A road trip by car or motorcycle through Norway to the Lofoten is long but beautiful. Passing through Sweden is a little faster, and people who enjoy large forests will prefer this route. Be aware that penalties for over-speeding are very high in both countries, so keep an eye on that. Thats smart too in case of elg and reindeer crossing the road any time. Travellers who are in a hurry and don’t mind long days can drive in two days from Oslo to the Lofoten (Add an extra day when you come from Amsterdam).
Statoil stations in Norway sell nice isolated coffee-mugs for about 20 euros. After purchase you can fill the cup one year long with various types of coffee, tea or hot chocolate at every Statiol-station in Norway for free. After seven or eight drinks the cup is recouped. Other stations have similar actions, but the cup of Statoil appears to dominate in Norwegian cars.
Norway is expensive! Take enough liquor and tobacco with you (45 euro for a bottle of Jagermeister, tobacco costs 25 euros). Coop Obs and Rema 1000 are relatively cheap supermarkets. They sell Kneip, a proper bread for just under a euro. A kilo of frozen Norwegian prawns are a good buy and they are good for a fun and yummy meal. However, outdoor wear is pretty affordable in Norway. For a brand like Bergans you pay a lot of money, but Stormberg and Ultimo Outdoor make good stuff for reasonable prices.
It is possible to stay on the Lofoten and to take a trip on the famous Hurtigruten, the post boats/cruise ships that sails continuously along the entire Norwegian coast. From Svolvaer on the Lofoten there is a bus to Stokmarknes on Vesterålen. There you can pick up the Hurtigrute and embark on a very scenic tour along islands and through fjords back to Svolvær.