The Not-Quite-A–Beginner’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

No two auroras are alike. Similarly, guides to photographing them.
Some of them are too basic, others, too technical. If you’re not quite a seasoned pro, but know you’re way around an f-stop, this is the right guide for you — less of the stuff you already know, more of the stuff you need to know.


Hamnoy, Norway

Before you even get started

We can’t stress enough how important it is to know your equipment before heading up there — and we don’t just mean your camera. If you have to figure out what this camera setting means or what that thingy on the tripod does, you’re in for a very frustrating morning. Get well acquainted with your gear now, enjoy a stress-free shoot later.

Where to go

The Northern lights can be seen from all the countries within the ‘aurora zone’ in the Northern Hemisphere. The closer you are to this region, the better your odds of catching those spectacular visions in the sky.

The best places include:

  • Alaska
  • Northern Canada
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Finland
  • Russia
  • Greenland

However, they can also be seen from:

  • Faroe Islands
  • Estonia
  • Scotland
  • Ireland
  • China

Bet you never associated Aurora Borealis with China, right?


When to go

First and foremost, there is no guarantee you will see the Northern Lights. It sucks, but that’s just the nature of, well, nature. The best season to see the Northern Lights does depend on where you go, but in general September to March offers the best chance to see the lights.


What to pack

Warm clothing

You’ll be down the road from Santa’s place — layer up and layer up wisely.

Tripod

We’ve said it before in our sunrise photography checklist, your tripod is the foundation of all late night/early morning photography.

You’ll be setting up 10–20 second exposures so ensure you have sturdy, shake-free one. If that means investing in a new one, consider how much time, effort and money it’s costing you to get to the Northern Lights. It’s a small price to pay for huge peace of mind.

Camera with Manual Mode

You’ll need full control over your ISO, f-stop and shutter speed.

Full frame / 35mm camera

They provide better overall image quality with lower noise when shooting in low light situations.

Wide angle lens

A quality wide angle lens (14–24mm range) with an aperture setting of f/2.8–f/4.

Batteries

Did you know that the cold drains batteries faster? Pack extra batteries, and then pack a few extra on top just in case.

Remote control

These are technically optional, however, like the tripod, if you’re going all the way up there, why risk even the slightest bit of shake? Both digital and cable remotes are good, however, the cable remotes have been known to freeze in particularly cold conditions.

Torch

The skies might be lit up, but on the ground, you won’t be able to see a thing. In addition to it being a safety and convenience thing, your humble torch or headlamp can be used at a pinch for different camera effects (see below).

Camping chair

This one gets overlooked all the time. Unless you like sitting in the cold wet outdoors, we recommend bringing along a cheap collapsible camping chair.


 

Hamnoy, Norway

What to check

Like all outdoor shoots, you’re at the mercy of the weather. However, if you
do your homework before you head out, you’ll increase your aurora chances
astronomically.

Clear, dark skies

Dark skies shouldn’t be a problem up north in the winter, however, clear skies are far more unpredictable. Be vigilant and check the forecast for overcast mornings as well as rain or windstorms that generally precede clearer skies.

Kp index

Thankfully, there’s something that measures aurora activity. Without getting into the science of it, the Kp index is measured on a scale from 0 to 9, with 9 indicating high aurora activity.

You can still witness and capture some beautiful auroras even when activity is low. Remember, the activity can change within the same morning, so if the lights aren’t glowing to your satisfaction, hopefully, you’ll have some wiggle room in your schedule to wait or try a new location.

Aurora forecasts

Although there are global aurora forecasts like this one. Local and area-specific forecasts are better. For example, Iceland has its own, accurate aurora forecast you can find here.


 

Hamnoy, Norway

Camera settings for the Northern Lights

You’ve packed the right gear, you’ve done your homework and now you’re finally on location staring up at the Northern lights in all its green-lit glory.

So, how do you photograph it?

1. Set focus to

Flick that dial over to ‘M’ and you can get on with the trickiest part of the
Setup — trying to focus on something in the dark. If you don’t get this first
step right, your photos won’t be sharp.

By setting the focus to infinity, we’re basically making sure that your images
are sharp and in focus in the far horizon.

The best way to do this is to focus your camera during the day.
Yes, this might make things slightly inconvenient, but it really is the best way
to ensure your photos come out perfectly in focus.

Thankfully it’s quite easy to do. Switch your lens to Manual Mode, focus on infinity, adjust as needed and then mark your lens in the right position. This can be done with a Sharpie or some tape. Then, when it comes time to shoot, you can simply set your lens in position and fire away.

If you aren’t able to set your focus during the day, then look for distant
bright-lit objects (not auroras) like a house or highway to focus on.

2. Set aperture value at f2.4

Set your aperture as wide as possible. f2.4–f4 is recommended.  

3. Set exposure time to 10–15 sec

Your exposure times will depend on the speed of the auroras. If they’re moving slowly, start with a 12–20 second exposure. For faint auroras, you might need to slow it right down to  20–25 seconds. Conversely, If your subject is fast moving 5–10 seconds might be all you need.

4. Set ISO at 1600

If the auroras are very bright, we recommend shooting at ISO 800, however generally a good value to start at is 1600 and work your way up if it’s darker.

5. Set custom white balance

Shoot RAW. It’s best to capture aurora and night sky shots in Kelvin (K) Mode. 2800–4000K is a good starting point.


BONUS: Taking an ‘Aurora selfie’

What you’ll need:

  • Friend and a flashlight/headlamp OR a manually operated camera flash

Simply use all the suggested settings as above (with adjustments) and stand perfectly still in frame. Then, at any time during the exposure period, get your friend to quickly flash you with the light. That’s it!

Told you that torch would come in handy.

Preparing for an adventure up North? Make sure you pack the right skills and know-how to capture every moment. Sign up to ‘Travel Photography with Richard I’Anson’ today and learn from one of the world’s most-awarded travel photographers.

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