I recently flew from Toronto to London aboard Iceland Air who circumnavigate over Greenland, making a stop in Reykjavik before continuing onto London. The flight left at 20:10 in the evening from Terminal 3 and I hoped to see the Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) from the window.
I was in luck as I saw tiny wisps of green lights above the clouds. The challenge then started. Taking pictures from an airplane is tough. The lights and reflections from the various panes of glass, 36000 feet high at 905km per hour in the dark make it very difficult to make an image, add a bit of turbulence, a few hundred sleeping people and the task is even more difficult.
Here are my 9 top tips to capturing the aurora borealis from above.
- Get a window seat. The first, most obvious and most important tip is looking out of the window in the first place. Check in for your flight early, get a window seat and try and get a spot away from the wing to have a better view (If you choose toward the back of the plane, you generally are seated first and will have better luck in stowing your carry-on luggage above your seat, if you are towards the front then you are lucky to be in first or business class). The last thing you want to do is clamber over the person next to you to take a picture, or look out of the window and the wing dominates your view
2. Put your camera on silent mode, or quiet shutter mode. Be understanding that those around you do not want to hear the shutter clicking away.
3. Take off the lens hood. Placing the camera flat onto the window will help reduce glare. To further reduce glare, pull the blind down to leave a gap large enough for the lens to poke through. Wrap the airplane blanket, or your jacket around the lens to cover the surrounding areas of the window to minimize any further glare.
4. Find the best way to support your camera. To capture the aurora, I would normally have my camera set up on a tripod, but this is not an option here. As the airplane is constantly moving, any vibration can affect your images. Get yourself in a position to hold the camera still, with the seat reclined, I was able to lay sideways allowing me to keep my elbows tucked in tight and minimize camera shake. This was more stable than sitting. I also recommend using ‘live view’ on your camera so to not contort oneself in such a small area.
5. Use a large aperture. Let as much light into the sensor as possible.
6. Use a slower shutter speed. This was my biggest issue. Capturing the lights requires a slower shutter speed. With a lot of trial and error, I found that I could balance at 1.6s. Taking multiple shots of the same frame allowed me more ‘winners’.
7. Increase your ISO. It was very dark and I was pushing the capabilities of my Nikon D750’s ISO to capture these images.
8. Use Manual Focus. Autofocus will keep trying to focus on the aurora, but it is very difficult, using manual focus will help. You can use the wing as a focal point to help with this.
9. Capture the sunrise. Don’t forget, once the light show has passed, you may have the opportunity to capture the sunrise. Being above the clouds, the light is phenomenal and allows for nice warm images.
Have you seen the aurora borealis from above ? Have you tried taking photographs from an airplane at night?
How did you get on?
And remember to follow my journey 🙂