Hi! I am a Norwegian 54 old man and I’ve been living all my life in the northern parts of the country, above the arctic circle.

I’ve been told I am one of the best Aurora shooters but I don’t agree to that, though… But I don’t know anybody else that is committed to this kind of photography as I am.

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

How I Got Started

Before I got ill, and on a disability pension, I was working as a technical engineer in one of Norway’s biggest hospitals. So what used to be a dear hobby, has now become more like my daily routine…

I bought my first SLR in 1979, at the age of 16. It was a Minolta with a 50mm lens. Later, I bought a lesser known brand, a Petri with several lenses. Then, after a few years with small, compact cameras, I bought a Nikon D60. This was in 2008. A friend of mine asked me to join him one night trying to shoot the northern lights.

Well – from then on, I was hooked!

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

More of About My Gear

I soon realized the D60 wasn’t capable for night photography, so I bought a D90 a few months later. By then, I had several new photo friends, and around 90% of them used Canon gear. Then I decided to switch to Canon, and bought a 7D so I could borrow lenses and equipment from my friends.

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

I used this camera for several years, and I realized that photography played a bigger role in my life, as I saw my working career ending. So, from my last payment from the hospital, I bought both the Canon 5D mk3, and the new 16-35 mm lens that was just released. Now, I have sold the Canon 16-35 lens, and I use only a Nikon 14-24 (with a Novoflex adapter-ring) for my night photography.

Just last June, I also bought a Tamron 15-30 mm lens as a backup when I sold the Canon 16-35. I haven’t tried it yet for night photography, as by this time of year we get midnight sun. From May to July, the sun is above the horizon 24/7, so there are no nights at all. You can vaguely see the moon late at night when the sun is low on the horizon.

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

There are of course a lot of good crop-cameras, but they create a lot of noise at high ISO. I strongly recommend full frame cameras. Other needed equipment is a sturdy tripod, a wide angle lens (preferably with aperture f/2.8 or lighter), and a cable release shutter. You will also need to turn off auto focus and image stabilizer.

Canon has just released the new Canon 1 DX mk2, a few months back. Despite a terrible price, I decided 2 months ago to buy it. And this is a great camera for night photography!

Shooting the Northern Lights

My camera can easily handle ISO 4000. But I prefer to go as low as possible, typically 1600 – 3200 ISO. White balance set to Auto. Set lens wide open, f/2.8 and focus to infinity.

You can either do a full manual exposure or use aperture priority. If the photo gets underexposed, adjust the exponation compensation.

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

For Canon cameras there is live view, which lifts the mirror, and you can see through the lens. Point the lens onto a distant light source, like a street light a couple of miles away. If there are no light sources, use the brightest star. Then zoom in with live view and do a manual fine adjustment.

A night exposure can last from a second up to 30-40 seconds. The wider the lens are (like 14 mm), the longer you can keep the shutter open without getting “star drag,” but I think it is important to keep it under 25 – 30 seconds, especially if you are doing a panorama. Most wide angle lenses aren’t wide enough to get a great northern lights outburst or the entire Milky Way. 

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

You have to be very precise where you align the tripod and the camera. The tripod has to be precisely levelled. And the tripod head has to allow a smooth sweep from left to right, ( or vice versa). And you have to tilt your camera 90 degrees, and level it with the tripod. A panorama picture typically consist of 7 – 10 single photos. I only use Photoshop for post processing, and most of the time I get it right!

For us, living in the arctic, we’re blessed with the auroras several times a week, weather permitting. The season stretches from September to the end of March. And even at this latitude, the temperature isn’t like the north pole. In my area, close to the coast, it rarely drop below -15°C / 5°F. But I always recommend to overdress. And feet, hands, and head are always exposed. So be aware!

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

I don’t care too much about time when I am out, so mostly I am out for 4-5 hours. But many times, I’ve been out 10 hours or even more.

Editing Aurora Photographs

I do as little post processing as possible… When I do edit, I do all my editing in Photoshop CC and I use Topaz filters as plug-in modules. First I open the file in the RAW converter. I use the brush to do the adjustments in the various places of the photo. Then I set different adjustments for sky, sea, or the auroras. I alter both color tone, white balance, sharpness, and so on. When opening the photo in Photoshop, I usually do the final adjustments of the colors and white balance. And finally, I use Topaz DeNoise for noise reduction.
The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Perfect Aurora Shot?

I am still searching… And soon turning one million photos, I still haven’t nailed it. That is the best about the Aurora shooting. You are never satisfied!

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

The Northern Lights - Frank Olsen

See more of Frank’s work on Facebook and at FAA!

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