Darren Hamlin: A Guide to Shooting the Northern Lights

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All images by Darren Hamlin. Used with permission.

Photographer Darren Hamlin is based in Sweden and first got into photography after the birth of his son. His interest in photography came from a friend he met in the press who dealt with war photography. After reading the Bang Bang club and getting into street photography, he turned his lens towards the sky.

“I will now hike for two hours to maybe get a shot at sunset, or I will be on the backside of the mountain on a steep waiting for a skier, and all I can say to myself is ‘shit, I am from London, how did this happen’ with a big smile on my face.” says Darren in his pitch email to us.

After leaving his day job, Darren started his own photography company. He shares many of these images on his blog and Instagram. Lots of his Northern Lights photos are incredible, and we wanted to talk to him about shooting the spectacular natural occurrence.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

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Darren: My father was into photography when I was a child and I have fond memories of him turning the bathroom into a darkroom, with this strange red light and the smell of chemicals. I remember the plastic tubs stacked up and boxes marked “Ilford”. It was a memory that stayed with me through life, although never really knowing why. In a full circle kind of way it was only when I became a father that I really dived into photography, head first.

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Phoblographer: What attracted you to landscapes?

Darren: Well, in all honesty it was circumstance. We decided to move from Stockholm, eight hours north to a place called Åre, in the mountains. Originally I am from London. I was really into street photography, living and coming from cities. I was shooting with a Fuji X100, and also old rangefinders, like the Yashica Electro 35 and an Olympus XA. When we decided to move to the mountains I sold the X100 and went with a Nikon D600, and started shooting landscapes and action photography. Now I would not change it for anything. When I visit London it’s great to shoot some street photography, no pressure, just fun.

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Phoblographer: You live in Sweden, so you always have great access to shooting the Northern Lights. While many photographers usually shoot skies and landscapes during the golden hour, the Northern Lights is at a different time. What times would you say would be the best for shooting the Northern Lights?

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Darren: Yes, you want the sky as dark as is possible and away from any artificial light. Generally the skies are dark enough from September through to early April. There are many theories as int the best time, but in my experience just keep an eye out for clear weather and then get out there and see what is going on. There are apps that can help with northern lights forecasts. It can hit at anytime, so you have to be ready.

Phoblographer: How much time is usually spent scouting out the perfect locations before you actually set up to shoot images?

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Darren: Not enough. For me now it is all about the location, and my future northern light shots will hopefully reflect this. It does take planning, but more often than not a solar storm can hit with little notice. In a perfect world I would get myself to somewhere like the Lofoten Islands or Saltaluokta, somewhere quite dramatic, but it’s not always possible.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use. How does it help you get the Northern Lights?

Darren: A decent tripod is the starting point. Something solid, and if your hiking a lot the carbon fibre tripods lower weight is a big plus. Another tip is to get a tripod that has a foam grip somewhere. Not always, but quite often it will be cold, maybe extremely cold. It is not always possible to keep your gloves on all the time and when it’s -20 you do not want to be touching metal.

I was using Nikon full frame bodies, D600, D3, cameras with good ISO performance. Last year I switched system for all my photography to the Fuji XT1. This was primarily due to weight, but I have been very pleased with the Fuji system.

In regards to lenses I go as wide and fast as I can. The wider lenses tend to lend themselves well to northern light photography, giving a big sky feeling.

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Phoblographer: How much work is usually done in post-production to make the greens and other areas of the photos pop more? Do you work with specific color channels?

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Darren: As little as possible. Most shots are at ISO 800 to 1600 or higher so I will do some noise reduction and sharpening. Then, I really just go by my eye and play around with the RAW file. You don’t really want the the photograph to be an unnatural representation of what you saw, as the camera’s sensor can pick up what the human eye cannot.

Phoblographer: Do you feel that typical landscape composition rules apply to the Northern Lights? We’d guess no, because of the fact that most of the photo is usually showcasing the sky, no?

Darren: Well, I have thought a lot about this. Next winter, I will not so much be looking at the sky, but what is in the scene. A climber, a skier, an old barn. There are many northern light photographs out there now, and to really stand out I think the scene and or the setting have to be special, so I guess I am saying that composition rules really do apply. Of course, rules are made to be broken.

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Phoblographer: Every photographer takes photos that they don’t like. To you, what makes for a great Northern Lights photo?

Darren: Hmmm, one where maybe the are not the main subject of the photograph, but part of a bigger story. Personally I have not taken a northern lights photograph that I am really happy with. There are many out there, but when you see one that stands out, you just know, straight away.

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