Photographing the Northern Lights: The Composition

With just a bit more planning and foresight, I could have dramatically improved my images. Scouting out my locations in advance would have made abig difference in the dynamic quality of my photographs. While I was pleased with my choice of a basic tree line as my foreground, a more dramatic foreground would have enhanced the photographs. A lonely cabin, a lake reflection, or an entrancing waterline would all certainly have given the images more impact. Both ice or water reflections can be relatively simple to find and they help provide real intensity and drama to an average composition. Unfortunately for my first Northern Lights outing, I was somewhat hampered by my lack of experience and constrained by my schedule. This combination undoubtedly caused me to miss out on catching some stellar photos that a more seasoned northern lights photographer would have easily captured.

If you have the time and the means, an advance location scouting expedition is one of the best tools when searching for the right composition for northern lights photography. If you don’t have the time however, don’t despair – a strong foreground element is not always required to capture the drama of the Northern Lights or create an interesting composition.

The main idea of the fixed and familiar foreground is to give the viewer the proper orientation, and to help the bring the viewer’s eyes into the subject – the northern lights. Don’t forget, however, that even without the visual anchor of a foreground, you can still create strong, if somewhat abstract, Northern Light photos. In addition to needing less location planning, the absence of the foreground element will allow you a greater amount of camera freedom. While you pan across the night sky unfettered to any fixed foreground, you can twist or turn your lens and still get interesting and creative images. Some of my interesting shots were taken pointing straight up!

Search the skyline for natural patterns, abstract shapes, and compelling compositional patterns, because they will all be there, especially in an intense northern lights storm. Keep a keen eye on waves, curves, bold beams and all the other interesting patterns then allow your camera to range freely. When your camera is busy capturing an image, use the exposure time to search for patterns for your next shot. Think ahead and don’t be afraid to improvise! Shift your camera mid-photo if you’ve spotted something that you think is better than your current shot. Unplanned motions or double images can sometimes create compelling images!

Flowing out from above Aurora Borealis

Flowing out from above Aurora Borealis

I’ve discovered that it’s often in those lucky “accidents” that I’ve shot some of my most inspiring images.  These improvisational shots can serve any number of fun functions –website backgrounds, time lapse animation, possibly even a YouTube video.

Another helpful tip is to let your vision adjust naturally to the darkness. This way, you’ll be able to see the Aurora Borealis and all its colors and patterns much more clearly. Try to avoid exposing your eyes to unnecessarily bright lights. Turn down your camera’s LCD to its lowest brightness setting before you begin and don’t forget to adjust the brightness on your cellphone. Better yet, stash that smartphone for the duration! You’re there to create magic, not text messages.

Remember to look for faint reds and other vivid colors to give your photos that punch you want and the pop they deserve. You may also need a dim flashlight to work in the dark. One simple trick is to cover your flashlight lens with any cheap red cellophane you’ll find available in most hardware or craft stores. A dim red light is your best friend when working at night!

To sum up, if you want the auroras to be highlighted by an impressive foreground, planning and foresight will definitely help you capture such a scene but remember that even without a foreground, you can still create compelling northern light images. The challenge is to capture the lights so that they are presented in the way you want them to be. Carrying out the tips in this article will aid you to overcome that challenge.

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