How to Photograph the Northern Lights – Tips for Beginners

Anyone who visits the north will more than likely want to see and photograph the northern lights. You will have seen the amazing photographs from other peoples trips and want to take home your own memories. Photographing the northern lights need not be complicated and it is possible with any type of camera if you know a few of these tips.

tree with northern lights behind

Quick Set Up for Photographing the Northern Lights

  • Learn how to do all of the steps in advance of going out looking for aurora
  • Check the cloud cover, aurora forecast, weather conditions and moon phase
  • Find a safe location
  • If others are already at the location when you arrive dim your headlights and avoid using a torch
  • Have your camera on your tripod and facing north
  • Set camera and lens to manual focus and manual settings
  • Lens should be focused on a distant light or infinity (or pre-focus in daylight)
  • LCD screen brightness turned to lowest setting
  • Remove all filters
  • Turn off noise reduction settings
  • Set white balance to 3000 Kelvins
  • Shoot in RAW so you get the best results
  • Set the delay timer to 2 seconds
  • Aperture set to f/2.8 or as low as possible
  • Exposure set to 10 seconds for bright aurora, 15 seconds or longer for lower intensity or slow moving displays
  • ISO set to 1600 as a starting point
  • Take photograph and check focus and settings before continuing

Finding the Northern Lights

Where are the best places to Photograph the Northern Lights

This is the hardest part – getting yourself somewhere that is perfect for viewing the Northern Lights. Generally the further north you are, the better your chances. The best places are in Alaska, North of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and on occasions the UK.

READ MORE: BEST PLACES TO FIND THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

What Time of Year is Best for Photographing the Northern Lights

Mid-September through to March provides a good time frame for aurora hunting and photography. At this time of year the sky is dark enough for the lights to be visible. During the summer months the sky never really gets dark enough for the lights to visible.
There is some belief that the northern lights (or the sun) are more active around the equinox. There is no firm evidence of this, but is certainly been true in my experience.

Can I photograph the northern lights iF there are clouds?

clouds masking the northern lights
Northern lights with clouds

To be able to see and photograph the northern lights the sky need to be clear. This is probably one of the most frustrating parts of aurora hunting. If it is cloudy, it is still worth keeping a look out as the lights can show through a break in the clouds even if it is just for a short while. High wispy cloud cover can add a beautiful dimension to your photographs of the aurora borealis.

Does the Moon Cause Problems for Photographing the Northern Lights?

A full moon can wash out the aurora as it is really bright. However it can be used to illuminate the landscape and add another dimension to the composition.

YayImages \ FinePhotoWorks

Aurora forecast and Photography

Despite what the forecast may say it is always worth going out to look for the aurora. Some of the best displays are on “quiet” nights when the Kp forecast is around 2. The further north you are, the less activity that is needed.
It is also worth taking a photograph even if you can’t see the lights with your eye. The camera is much more sensitive and the northern lights will be visible on a photograph before you see them yourself. This is especially the case the further south you are.

READ MORE: UNDERSTANDING THE AURORA FORECAST AND FINDING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Equipment Needed to Photograph the Northern Lights

Best Camera for Photographing the Northern Lights

As with any photography, the camera you have with you is the best for northern lights photography. However, if you are looking to buy a new camera or borrow a camera then make sure you can use it in manual mode.

Being able to control the aperture size (f-stop), shutter speed and the ISO manually is a massive help when getting really good photographs of the northern lights.

If you have the money, then a full frame camera will give the best photographs with the least amount of noise (grainy appearance), however it is possible to get fantastic photograph with any camera if you know how to use it.

Best Lens for Northern Lights Photography

The best lens for northern lights photography is one that covers the widest area possible so you include as much of the landscape and the sky as possible.

There are two factors that you need to look at when choosing a lens. The focal length and the aperture size.

Focal Length

In the ideal world you want the widest-angle lens you can get. Ideally between 10mm and 30mm. If you have a 50mm lens then this is fine, it just means you won’t get as much of the sky and landscape in the photograph.

Aperture Size

To get the best photograph of the northern lights then an aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6 is ideal. This will ensure that you keep your ISO low which reduces the noise in the photograph.

Best Tripod for Northern Lights Photography

As these photographs are being taken at night then time the shutter is open will be longer than normal. This means that any movement that you may make if you are holding the camera will be seen as blur.

It is best to use a tripod or at the very least a support. This could be a table, windowsill or even a bin! So long as the camera is stable when the photograph is being taken then all should be good.

If you are just starting out then some of the smaller and cheaper tripods are more than enough, although they will have their limitations with stability. This is especially an issue if it is windy!

YayImages \ JamenPercy

Other things needed

As well as your camera you will need plenty of battery power and memory cards. This is not the time to run out of either. You will be using your camera in a harsh environment so make sure you have the right equipment and spares with you.

Battery

Make sure you have at least 2 spare batteries and keep them in your coat pocket. Cold batteries will drain their charge really quickly so keep them warm.

Memory cards

In the excitement of the light show it is possible to take hundreds of photographs. Make sure that you have enough memory to last the night.

I always find it best to start the night with a new and empty card so you know you have more than enough space.

Shutter Release Cable

If you don’t have a shutter delay setting on your camera you will need a cable to prevent blurring of the photograph caused when you press the shutter button.

Head Torch

When you are in the middle of nowhere a light is essential, especially if you have timed your trip perfectly and there is no moon. A head torch will allow you to keep your hands free. Red LED torches are good as they allow you to keep your night vision.

Can I take Photographs of the Northern Lights with my SmartPhone?

With the advances in phone cameras it is now possible to take photographs of the northern lights on both an apple iPhone and an Android.

The newest iPhones and Samsung phones as well as a number of others have a built in Night Mode which will allow you to get a photograph of the northern lights.

If you are going to use your phone then it is worth investing in a small phone tripod such as the Joby Gorillapod. This will help with the movement that may happen if you are just holding your phone.

Getting Set UP for Aurora Photography

Taking a bit of time when you arrive at a location will mean that you can get your photographs more easily.

If you have the chance visit your chosen spot during the day to work out the best place to position yourself and work out where any hazards may be.

If you are with a guide or on a tour find out as much as you can about where you are going to be so you can have some plan in your head.

It is also worth setting the focus on your camera and turning off all the various bits and pieces so the settings are all ready before you arrive.

These are the things you need to check are done in advance:

  • LCD screen brightness turned to lowest setting so you are seeing an accurate view of the screen against the dark. Without doing this the image will be much brighter than it will appear when viewed normally
  • Remove all filters as polarisers and any other filter can affect the image
  • Turn off noise reduction settings as these aren’t needed
  • Set white balance to 3000 Kelvins
  • Shoot in RAW so you get the best results

There is nothing worse than forgetting to do something (usually LCD brightness for me!) and then having awful photographs when you look at them the next morning.

When you arrive just take a moment to enjoy where you are, sit and watch the sky and take time out to enjoy the experience.

northern lights over a snow hut in Finland

CAMERA SETTINGS FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS

The aurora can move quickly and get brighter quickly. Check your histogram and exposure settings to make sure that you are using the optimum camera settings for the conditions is essential. Don’t be afraid to make changes.

Lenses and focusing

Learn how to focus your camera in the dark. If you aren’t confident then you can do it in daylight and tape the focus in place.

To focus in the dark, set the camera up on the tripod, flick the lens to manual focus and live view.

Find a light in the distance, a building, car headlight or even someone with a torch will work. Focus on the light and check it is sharp at x5 and x10 magnification.

Once you have a sharp image do not touch the lens again!

Aperture Settings

To allow as much light in as possible, having a lens or camera that allows an aperture of f/2.8 is ideal. If your camera does not allow a setting this low, then select the lowest you can.

Having the larger aperture will keep the shutter speed and ISO much lower which will reduce noise and improve your images.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed will need to be adjusted depending on the speed of movement of the aurora. If they are moving rapidly you will need a shorter exposure. If the exposure is too long then the lights will just be a blurry mess on the image.

If the lights are bright and moving rapidly then a 3-7 second exposure should be a good place to start

If the lights are not moving or are just a low level glow then you will need a longer exposure and may need to be 30 seconds or more.

Longer exposure times may lead to star movement so it is a fine balance.

READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH STARS

ISO

ISO will affect the quality of your aurora photograph. The lower the ISO the less grainy/noisy the image will be. The usual setting for northern light and night photography is about 1600. If the lights are very bright then o may be able to start with an ISO as low as 800.

Some of the smaller cameras and smartphones will struggle with noise and this is where the more expensive DSLR’s come into their own. They are able to handle to the high ISO much better.

ISO is a balance with the other two factors – aperture and shutter speed. If you can’t get your aperture down to f/2.8 then you may need to increase your ISO.

White balance

The white balance will affect how ‘warm’ your photograph will appear.

If you do want to adjust it then you will want to set the kelvin scale to between 2500 and 3500. 3000 kelvins is about the right level for the northern lights and is sometimes known as the tungsten setting.

You can always edit the white balance afterwards if it needs adjusting slightly.

Delay Timer or Remote Shutter

When you take your photograph any pressure on the camera will be seen as movement. To get rid of this movement and potential blur it is good to use a shutter release cable to make the photograph.

However, these are expensive and if you will not be using them on a regular basis are not a good investment.

This can be overcome by setting the 2 second delay on your camera settings. This means that there is a time delay between you touching the camera and the photograph being taken.

This ensures that there is minimal movement.

Lens fogging

When shooting at night the temperatures can be extreme. If the lens and camera is taken straight from the car to the outside temperatures it will fog and have a build up of condensation.

Always keep your camera in a cooler part of the vehicle away from heaters. This means the temperature change is less of a jump. It is also worth wrapping your lens in fleece, neoprene or hand warmers to slow the cooling process and reducing the lens fog.

The same happens when you return to the warm. I have found that placing your camera in a ziplock bag (after removing your memory card and batteries) works well. This provides a cold air barrier that warms slowly and prevents the camera from forming condensation.

Taking your Photographs

Part of the pleasure of the northern lights is just sitting there and looking at the sky. Don’t be so focussed on taking photographs that you don’t enjoy the moment.

Make sure you take a few test shots to check that everything is set right. This can be done before the lights appear. Always zoom in to check that the landscape is in focus.

Once the lights appear make sure you don’t turn your torch on (unless it is red light) and make sure the flash doesn’t pop up on your camera. While this may not annoy you, it will certainly annoy everyone else.

Check your images and the histogram to make sure that everything is going to plan. While the photograph will be dark with the histogram to the left it should not be off with it being too dark.

Processing your Photographs

If you have followed the directions above then processing should not be more than a few tweaks.

If you have shot in RAW you will need to adjust a little more than a JPEG where the camera does the tweaking for you.

You may want to check that the horizon is straight and crop to suit the activity and landscape.

The white balance may need adjusting along with the exposure and brightness. It is all down to personal preference, what the display was like and what you want the end result to be.

There is no wrong way of processing a northern lights photograph if you like the end result.

MAIN IMAGE: Shutterstock \ Christopher Chambers