How to photograph the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring displays. For many like myself, viewing the lights in person is a lifelong dream and to be able to photograph the Northern Lights is simply the icing on the cake. It can be challenging to try and capture the lights, but these simple, non-technical steps will help you take some stunning photographs of the aurora – all you need is the right gear and some preparation.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Northern Lights (Pic from www.chiefscientist.gov.au)

Gather your gear

When photographing the Northern Lights, the choice between a point and shoot camera and a DSLR is obvious. You will need a DSLR to capture the lights as a point and shoot is simply not advanced enough for this type of photography. Choose the fastest lens you own – f1.8 is best, but up to f3.5 will also work. These numbers are located on the lens itself, and is usually displayed as a range. The ideal lens is a wide angle fast lens – I used a 10-18mm f2.8 lens during my recent trip to Norway, purchased specifically to shoot the lights. Next, you will need a sturdy tripod, preferably with a ball head that lets you tilt and move your camera 360 degrees. You should also invest in a remote or a cable release to eliminate camera shake. Get to know your gear and how they all work together before you start aurora hunting!

How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Night shots are not that difficult to capture, given some practice (Pic from www.digital-photography-school.com)

Practice night shots

Switch your DSLR to manual mode – the big “M” on the dial at the top, near the button. To be able to shoot the lights, you must learn how to shoot in manual. Shooting in manual allows you to fiddle with the buttons and dials on your camera as much as you like. All you really need to know is how to change the ISO, shutter speeds and f-stop settings. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The general rule of thumb is the higher the f-stop number, the darker your photo will be. Similarly, the higher the shutter speed number, the less light your photo will have. Getting the perfect night shot is a balance between the f-stop and your shutter speed. For example, a photo taken at f8, shutter speed 1/200” will be darker than an identical photo taken at f3.5, with the same shutter speed. Play around with combinations of these settings to get a feel for how to adjust for light.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Camera set up (Pic from www.ephotozine.com)

Prepare your camera

Now that you’ve got your gear and gained some familiarity with your camera, it’s time to prep your camera to photograph the Northern Lights. As the lights are really only available to be seen in the far north or south during the colder months, this means that you’ll be shooting in the dark, and in the cold i.e. challenging conditions! Therefore it’s important to set up your camera before night falls – it can be hard to do so in the dark! First, set your focus to infinity by turning the focus ring around your lens to just left of the infinity line (see picture below). Once your camera is focused, turn off auto-focusing (usually a little switch by the side of your lens, or within your camera’s settings) and use masking tape to secure the focusing ring into place.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Setting your focus to infinity (Pic from www.i.ytimg.com)

Now that your camera is properly focused, it’s time to set light sensitivity. A setting of ISO 800 generally fits all situations, though if your camera is a professional quality DSLR, it can go as high as ISO 1600. Similarly, set your f-stop to as small a number as it can go. Next, screw on the tripod’s head onto your camera, turn on any image stabilisation features your camera may have (VR, or vibration reduction, on Nikons), and place the entire camera into a ziplocked bag. Place it somewhere outdoors, in a secure area until you’re ready to begin chasing the Northern Lights. This acclimatises your camera to the cold and eliminates condensation that would otherwise form inside the lens.

How to photograph the northern lights
My attempt at photographing the aurora

Shooting the Northern Lights

After all your careful preparations, to actually photograph the Northern Lights should be relatively stress-free. These steps below should, given average light conditions give you some workable images; however it’s important to note that conditions change depending on location, the moonlight, the brightness of the aurora itself, and your camera, so it’s best to use these steps as a baseline and adjust your shutter speeds as required.

  • Attach your camera to a tripod and set it up. Be ready to move if the aurora appears in a different patch of sky. Consider composition – what’s in the foreground? How much sky can be seen through the viewfinder? – as you set up.
  • Experiment with some practice shots before the lights turn up. Start with a shutter speed of about 30 seconds (the shutter speed should display as 30”) and check the resulting picture. Is there enough light? Is the photo focused? Is the composition pleasing? Are there competing light sources in your picture, like light pollution from nearby cities?
  • Once the lights arrive, begin shooting, adjusting your shutter speeds up or down depending on how bright, intense and fast-moving the aurora is. As a general rule, the brighter and faster the lights are, the faster your shutter speed should be.

There is no fast and hard rule to photographing the Northern Lights and good pictures depend on getting the right balance between ISO, f-stop and shutter speeds. The following table gives you a good baseline of combinations to start with, but as mentioned above you will need to adjust your settings depending on the conditions.

f-stop ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
2 15 secs 7 secs 4 secs
2.8 30 secs 15 secs 7 secs
4 60 secs 30 secs 15 secs

Source: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis (Made Easy)

The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon, and their appearance depends on your timing, and the level of solar activity. There are number of tips for spotting and photographing the Northern Lights – if you follow these, you’ll maximise your chances! Finally, it can be too easy to focus too much on getting the perfect picture instead of just stepping back to enjoy the show. Every now and again, stop, step back and marvel at the light display of the aurora borealis – one of nature’s many marvels.

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6 Comments

  1. Great tips!! Will definitely make sure we look back at these when we make it to the Northern Lights – one of our ultimate travel goals.

    1. It’s definitely worth going to see – and standing around for hours in the cold waiting for it! 🙂

  2. I’ve seen the Northern Lights once. It is amazing. I’m a cell phone shooter so I don’t have many of the cool features a real camera has. Yesterday I saw an add for a device for your cell phone that gives you 4x optical zoom and some other cool features. Have you ever seen one of these?

    1. No, can’t say I have! Not sure how an app can give optical zoom unless it’s a physical piece you add on to the phone’s camera? They are getting better and better but I still find there’s no substitute for a DSLR! 🙂

      1. Hi, yes it is an add on device. Nothing beats a real camera though.

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