Northern Lights and Winter Night: Local Photographer Gary Macleod

Capturing the Aurora

My passion for photography started when I was about 12 years old, however it was not something that you would shout from the roof tops about whilst growing up back then. Living on the north coast of Scotland, in the small village of Portskerra, always meant that in winter the Northern Lights were a phenomenon we saw regularly. Although, being so young at the time, I never truly appreciated how special they were and I would often hear people saying, “The merry dancers were bonnie last night.”

As life went on - I moved to the village of Tongue, got married and had two wonderful daughters – I fell in and out of love with photography, with cost being a major factor back in the days of film. Then, like so many others, my passion reignited when digital photography arrived. I shot most subjects but my true passion was with landscapes, seascapes and of course capturing the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, which is no surprise considering where I grew up and now live. Seeing the Northern Lights is a luxury I have living in Northern Scotland, one that so many in the UK do not have - I know of so many people who have travelled to Scandinavia to witness them and even that is not always guaranteed. So for me, being able to literally see them from my back door is one thing in life I will never take for granted.

Everything I know about photography is self taught over decades of time and experience and even in writing this I’m by no means saying I’m an expert. The images I have captured of the Aurora Borealis have been through many, many years of both mistakes and successes and, just like everyone, I’m learning something new every time I’m out with my camera – I learn something from every failure as I do for every successful image. I would like to share some tips with you which you may find useful if you are looking to capture the beautiful Northern Lights.

First and possibly the most important tip would be to look out for your own safety. Never put your personal safety ahead of getting an image! You are out in the dark so you need to make sure you are aware of your surroundings and if you are going alone, make sure someone knows where you are heading and take your mobile with you fully charged. There are so many different pieces of equipment, many people would become overwhelmed as to where to begin. Starting off with your basics such as a camera (yes, I have actually left my house without it before), tripod, memory cards and fastest wide angle lens you have. You will also need spare batteries which you will want to keep close to your body as the cold weather can drain these very quickly, a head torch preferably with a white light and a red light (red light helps when working at night as your eyes don't need to re-adjust to the darkness) and a cable release or self timer. Lastly, the Glendale Skye App which lets you know of any solar activity leading to possible aurora sightings.

As for my sitting settings I would start like this:

With my ISO settings I would usually start around 1600 and adjust around that. As we are shooting at night we need a high ISO to allow the sensor in camera to gather as much light as possible without too much digital noise being created in the image.

Manual focus is essential as if you leave it on auto it will continuously hunt for a point to focus on and in the dark that is going to be near impossible. Because I use wide angle lenses, if I focus just short of infinity I’m assured of everything being in focus and set my lens to it's fastest, but optimum aperture - on my Samyang that's usually f2.2 – but with a little trial and error you will find the best setting on your particular lens. I set my tripod on solid footing and make sure my camera is level, there is nothing worse than a wonky horizon that you need to crop to get straight, which also means losing part of your image and finally get as far away from artificial light pollution as possible as to maximise the natural show that is happening.

For most of my images my compositions have been pre-planned. This could be anything up to years in advance whereas others maybe only days. I could see something in my daily travels with work and think “Yes, that will be nice with the aurora.” I like to have some foreground interest to compliment the Aurora, sometimes buildings or boats and others using part of the landscape, the coast and the sea. Another very important thing to remember, which is very easily forgotten, is to take a minute to step back from your camera to look up to skies and enjoy the most amazing sight on our planet (my personal opinion) with your own eyes. It truly is amazing so you should log it into your own personal memory card, your mind. Once you've witnessed it I guarantee you will be hooked just like me.

If that sounds too daunting or complicated for the beginner, do what I did all those years ago and give it a go. With digital technology you have results instantly and can learn very, very quickly from your mistakes. We are so lucky to live in a part of the world where light pollution is minimal so to be able to step outside and gaze at the stars and the milky way and see the wonders that nature provides makes the north of Scotland such a wonderful place to live and the reason I love it so much. So get out, look up and enjoy… And hopefully capture mother nature at its best.

Photos on this page by Gary Macleod.

About Gary Macleod

Gary Macleod is a local photographer based in the village of Tongue on the north-west coast of Sutherland. To discover more about his photography and view his full portfolio of spectacular images visit his website and follow him on social media.

View more posts by Gary Macleod