As I write this, the Polar Nights are upon us here in Northern Norway. For the next month, we are left without the sun. A month of darkness before the sun slowly returns with its beauty.
The Polar Night might sound depressing, but just because the sun doesn’t rise doesn’t mean there’s no presence of light. The light during this period can be magical.
But how can you capture beautiful images during this period? How can you make the most out of low-light situations?
Let’s find out!
What are Polar Nights?
This might be the first time you hear about them, so if that’s the case, let’s quickly look at what polar nights are.
Simply put, Polar Nights are when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for more than 24 hours. How long this period lasts depends on how far north you are. Here in the Lofoten Islands, it lasts for just over one month (December to January), while further north in Longyearbyen, it lasts for almost three.
The lack of sun doesn’t mean pitch-black the entire day. We get a beautiful twilight lasting for 2-4 hours every day. In other words, you can photograph blue hour during lunchtime!
This twilight attracts many photographers to the northern regions during winter. Even locals consider this one of the most beautiful periods of the year.
Where Can You See Polar Nights?
You can experience Polar Nights inside the Polar Circle during winter. That means you can witness it in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. A tiny part of Iceland, specifically the island of Grímsey, is also inside the Polar Circle.
As mentioned, the further north you go, the longer (and darker) the Polar Night periods become. Just south of the Polar Circle, days are still short, but it doesn’t count as a Polar Night since the sun rises above the horizon.
How to Photograph Polar Nights
You need to be comfortable with low light situations when photographing Polar Nights. Because of this, you need to act slightly differently than you would during “regular” outdoor photography.
Three important aspects of succeeding with Polar Night photography are planning, equipment, and camera settings. If you carefully consider all three, you’re on your way to capturing beautiful Arctic images.
#1 Planning the Day
With a limited amount of shootable light, you need to plan your days to make the most of it. Having a plan means you increase the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time.
Driving around is a fun way to explore, but it’s not unlikely that it’ll be completely dark by the time you find a place you want to photograph.
It’s also important to understand that the twilight can last for a few hours. That means you’re not in a rush at the location.
#2 Essential Camera Equipment
Polar Night photography isn’t that different from other genres of outdoor photography when it comes to equipment. If you’ve been following CaptureLandscapes for a while, you already know that I firmly believe that the photographer is more important than the camera. You can create fantastic work with even the most basic camera.
This goes for low-light photography as well. You don’t need a fancy camera or an overpriced lens.
But what you do need is a tripod.
Photographing during twilight means that you’re often working with slow shutter speeds. A tripod is then essential to get razor-sharp images.
A lens with a wide aperture can also be beneficial to allow more light to reach the sensor. This will particularly be useful when you’re photographing the night sky.
#3 Camera Settings
The best camera settings for Polar Night photography depend on the scene and situation. As with most landscape photography, a rule of thumb is to use a low ISO such as 100, an aperture between f/7.1 and f/11, and adjust the shutter speed accordingly.
With those values, the shutter speed will likely be half a second or slower. That’s why a tripod will come in handy.
Now, such a slow shutter speed will cause blur if you photograph a moving subject (this is known as Long Exposure Photography). In those cases, you’ll have to increase the ISO and widen the aperture until you get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the movement.
A solid understanding of the Exposure Triangle is important to find the best combination of camera settings.
Photographing the Northern Lights
Minimal daylight means an increased possibility of seeing and photographing the Northern Lights. An important factor in seeing this phenomenon is the dark night sky. That’s most of the day during Polar Nights.
If the skies are clear, you can photograph the Aurora Borealis already before dinner!
You’ll need a wide-angle lens with a fast aperture (such as the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8) and a tripod. Most digital cameras work fine for night photography, but high-end cameras perform better when using a high ISO.
I’ve written an in-depth article about how to photograph the Northern Lights, but a quick rule of thumb is to begin with an ISO of 1600, an aperture of f/2.8, and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. This might lead to an under- or overexposed image, so you will need to adapt accordingly.
Days might be dark during Polar Nights, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to photograph. The light can be magical during this period, and it often feels like you’re photographing a never-ending twilight (though it lasts for a few hours).
Mastering low-light situations is the key to Polar Night photography. Understanding what equipment and settings to use and having a plan for the day will increase the chances of capturing images you’re proud of.
Now, over to you, how would you handle months of “darkness”?