Foreground exposure

Northern Lights tours in IcelandAn awesome aurora photo usually has something more to it that “just” the lights. As in all landscape and nature photography you really need to think about composition and try to have some kind of foreground in your photo. Snow is great since it reflects light very well, still water (lakes, ponds, etc) are also great with reflection. Running water can give the photo a great dynamic feel and so can still objects and people.

If you want to keep it simple you can always think of the foreground as a backlit shilouette. Just remember that your shutter is open for a long time and in order to get the outlines of your shilouette nice and sharp it has to stand still for the same amount of time. Really still.

If you want to get some detail in your foreground you need to expose it correctly. You have two ways of doing that. The easier way is to have quite a powerful flashlight and have someone lighting it up for you. A method sometimes called Painting with light.
The other way is a bit more complicated. You start by metering how long exposure the aurora needs to really stand out. Let’s imagine that the need 5 seconds with the aperture and ISO you have chosen. Then you meter how long exposure your foreground needs. Lets say that the foreground needs 30 seconds. So you can either choose to have nice aurora in your photo and no foreground, or a nice detailed foreground but the sky just burnt out in some green cloud with no detils.

Or, you could look through the viewfinder, put your hand in front of the lens, or a cloth of some kind, and cover the skyline. Then you take the picture, and after about 20 seconds you start moving your hand slowly upwards, and after 25 seconds you take it completely away from the lens. This way, you expose correctly for the foreground (30 seconds) and most of the sky (5 seconds) and you don’t get a sharp distinctive line where you held your hend. This is a tricky method, but the results can be great.

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