The northern lights are one of the most unpredictable night “objects” to photograph but also one of the most spectacular.
As quick as it’s commenced, it can be over. That’s why you must prepare and be ready when trekking out to photograph the Aurora borealis.
In this article, I’ll show you how to photograph the northern lights step by step, from planning, what equipment to use, and getting all the settings ready.
What are the Northern Lights?
The light show in the northern hemisphere is called Aurora borealis, and in the southern hemisphere, it is called Aurora australis. They occur in an irregular oval shape over the earth’s north and south’s magnetic poles.
The light shows that these produce can be quite spectacular (similar to the aurora and planetarium projectors you can get for home use), but what are they, and how are they formed?
The northern lights are created from electrons, electrically charged particles from the sun (solar winds) that enter the earth’s atmosphere.
These particles that leave the surface of the sun hits the earth’s magnetic field, increasing the activity in the earth’s atmosphere. Depending on what altitude these collisions occur will determine what colors are produced.
Northern Lights Color Palette – What Colors Can You See?
The most common color you will see when photographing the northern lights is green or various shades of green. That’s not to say that is the only color you will see, it’s just that our eyes more easily see the color green than any other color.
Our eyes have a little difficulty to be able to detect the faint color pallet of the auroras.
Digital DSLR cameras don’t have this limitation, and that is why digital cameras will be able to capture deeply saturated colors that the human eye will not be able to see.
Although, because of the way the northern lights work, the most significant factor of the color is the altitude of the auroras activity. The visible color depends on the altitude and which atom is struck.
- Red: 150 miles above sea level
- Green: 100 miles above sea level
- Purple: 60 miles above sea level
- Blue: Lower than 60 miles above sea level
Planning The Northern Lights – Step By Step
If you want to capture some great shots of the northern lights, then planning beforehand is essential. Without any planning, you can be out all night and not see any auroras activity.
Planning is without a doubt, the most important part of the process (i can’t stress this enough). Use the following planning steps to give yourself every possible chance to photograph the northern lights (aurora borealis) light show.
Where and When To See The Northern Lights
The best times of the year to see the northern lights are between late August and April.
A relatively unknown fact is the northern lights never actually stop throughout the year. It’s just that during the warmer months, the days are much longer, especially around the arctic circle, and to view the Aurora Borealis, you’ll need darkness.
So that is why the auroras season is during the colder months of August to April, when the nights are much longer.
Most would-be photographers will all have their favorite locations for capturing the northern lights. Some of the more popular places are Canada (North of Canada), Alaska, Norway, Finland, and Iceland.
Iceland seems to be a favorite for many, and it’s understandable why… a winter’s night temperature in other northern lights countries can drop to as low as -15°C to -25°C in temperature. Making Iceland’s chilly nights of 0°C seem a lot more bearable.
If you have practiced astrophotography before, you’ll know the effects of light pollution all too well. The rules for the northern lights are the same, try to stay clear of photographing over towns and bright lights as this will significantly affect your image quality.
Time Of The Night
Geomagnetic storms can be over as quickly as they start, they can begin as early as 9 pm, then can return back to normal levels only a few hours later.
Most photographers will give up around midnight, but strong geomagnetic storms have been known to occur right up until the light blue of the sunrise.
Because of the high unpredictability of the northern lights, you really can’t plan too far in advance.
Sites like SpaceWeatherLive are the closest you will get to a live update, usually accurate to within ½ hour to an hour, so will help you determine whether you should stay out or pack up.
Check The Sky Forecast
Aurora activity is not an exact science. It’s made all the more difficult because we also have to rely not only on the aurora itself but also on perfect conditions here on earth.
The aurora forms at an altitude of 80km’s or higher from sea level, and clouds form at an altitude of around 18km’s from sea level. Which as you guessed it, even on a high aurora night of activity, the clouds will be between you and the auroras.
So if you have a night of full cloud cover or close to it, then you may as well pack your bags or just stay indoors as unfortunately, you won’t see a thing.
For weather forecasts in Iceland, the two most accurate weather forecast sites I use are yr.no and vedur.is. Try and use a combination of both as they can have slightly different and contrasting forecasts, but they are still the most accurate to predict when there will be clear skies for your northern lights photography shoot.
NOTE: Predicting the weather in Iceland can be quite tricky a day in advance, let alone a week in advance.
Low clouds forming from the mountains are usually not taken into consideration from the weather forecasting services. Still, they can be just as intrusive as regular clouds in the sky and ruin your best-laid plans.
Something not spoken about often enough in photographing the northern lights is the phase of the moon. Depending on the moon phase, it will affect the visibility and your chances of capturing a nice shot of the northern lights.
If the moon is bright throughout the sky, it will wash out the effect of the aurora, and you will need a much stronger auroras effect to compensate for the extra light in the sky from the moon.
A general guide is to stay clear of nights where the moon is over half-illuminated, this isn’t set in stone though, you can definitely capture some great images with the moon over 50% visible, it just means that the auroras need to be stronger to compensate for the extra light.
How To Predict the Aurora Activity?
There are several options here to predict the aurora lights forecast, my favorite at the moment is spaceweatherlive.com and the apps Northern Eye Aurora Forecast and My Aurora Forecast – Aurora Alerts Northern Lights.
Spaceweatherlive.com may look intimidating with the large amount of data available when you first look at the page. Spend a little time getting used to the interface, and you’ll see there is a wealth of data available to help predict up and coming aurora activity.
Some other Aurora Forecast Websites are:
The KP value, or the kp-index as it is also known, is the value given based on the disturbance between the earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s solar winds.
The more powerful and faster the solar winds collide into the earth’s magnetic field, the greater the turbulence.
The index is a scale of 1 to 9. Where 1 is the weakest activity and 9 is very strong, meaning an intense geomagnetic storm is happening.
So what does that mean for us photographers? Basically, the higher the number, the bigger and better the light shows from the northern lights.
Just like other types of landscape astrophotography, your final images will greatly benefit you spending a little time beforehand actually planning out your composition shots.
The last thing you want is heading out into the middle of nowhere in the dark and start photographing. While you can still get great images of the auroras, it’s nice to set up your shots with other interesting foregrounds.
Head out during the day and scout out some nice areas you want to set up your camera shoot. That way, when it gets dark, you already know what objects you will have set as your foreground, which adds so much depth to your photos.
If you set up your composition beforehand, it helps you pre-visualize the image, and if all goes well, it also allows the viewer to imagine being there for that brief moment.
What Equipment Will You Need For Northern Lights Photography?
Like other types of night photography, you can achieve a lot with very little equipment. If you do have the gear or your budget allows it, you want a camera that can handle high ISO (1600+). Usually, this would mean a full-frame camera.
Below I discuss the must-have gear you need to take with you and also some extra or upgraded gear that isn’t required but will make your life a little easier and give you overall better image results.
The Core Essentials
Here we start with the “must-haves,” this is the core equipment that you’ll need for your photographic trips to shoot the northern lights.
A camera that has an adjustable Manual Mode – Forget the Auto features, you’ll need to be in Manual Mode so you can adjust the settings of the shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and white balance individually.
A fast wide-angle lens – 14mm-20mm wide-angle is a good range, as any higher the shooting area becomes a bit too narrow.
Also, a lens that is capable of going down to an aperture of f/2.8 or even lower. The low f-stop value is needed to allow as much light as possible to hit the camera sensor, resulting in an overall better night time image.
Pick a tripod that is solid and sturdy. It can be tempting to bring along a light and portable tripod instead, and this is where you don’t want to skimp out, a perfect shot can become out of focus and ruined with just a little movement from a low-quality tripod. Yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this and learned my lesson rather quickly.
Recommended Gear For Northern Lights
While this list is not strictly necessary, the following gear is recommended to help improve your overall results when capturing the northern lights.
Full frame DSLR Camera (35mm or larger sensor)
If you already have the gear or your budget allows it, you want a camera that can handle high ISO (1600+) usually, this would mean a full-frame camera.
A full-frame camera that can handle high ISO means much less noise in your low light images, so less work in post-production of your northern lights shots.
Wireless Remote / Intervalometer
Another necessary and inexpensive accessory is an intervalometer. Every shot counts when shooting the auroras, so remove any possibility of accidental camera movement while shooting by using one of these.
You can get either a wireless or corded version, but both achieve the same purpose. They allow you to press the camera shutter button remotely, thus eliminating any potential camera shakes.
Protect Your Gear In Cold Weather
Protecting your equipment in the cold is essential to keeping them working optimally when you need them. Sudden changes in temperature (especially lenses) can cause all sorts of havoc like condensation.
Heat pads for your lens are perfect when the temperature drops. The pads wrap around the lens and help avoid condensation building up inside the lens, which can be problematic if that occurs.
When batteries are exposed to cold weather, they drain out considerably quicker than usual, so it’s recommended if you’re going to the effort to trek to a location and shoot the auroras then bring 3-5 extra charged batteries
Additional Gear For Photographing Or Watching Auroras
I always recommend anyone interested in capturing the northern lights to bring lots of warm clothes, way more than you need. Regardless of the time of year or season.
Once you’re out there, you’ll quickly learn that standing (or sitting) out there for long periods during the night, the cold quickly sets in.
The chill quickly creeps upon you, and you’ll be glad you brought extra clothing to keep you warm.
Quick Checklist Of Warm Clothing To Bring
- Shoes (depending on location, might need waterproof)
- Thick Socks
- Portable Chair
Setting Up Your Camera For Northern Lights Photography
Because the northern lights are highly volatile due to their constant movement, your camera settings will also need to adjust throughout the night because of the changing conditions.
Listed below are the base camera settings for the northern lights we suggest to use to get started. From there, take a few test images and based on the night’s conditions and your camera model, tweak and adjust until you are happy with your results.
Quick Camera Settings For Photographing The Northern Lights
- Set lens focus to infinity
- Shutter speed at 25 seconds for slower auroras and 10 seconds for faster moving auroras.
- Aperture at f/2.8 or lower.
- Set ISO to 1600.
- Set white balance to (K-Mode), between 3500 and 4000.
When it comes to night photography and shooting the aurora borealis, manual mode is a must. You need to be able to adjust the individual setting on your camera like shutter speed, aperture, and white balance, so auto mode is of no use for us here.
Focus – Manual, and Set To Infinity
The first thing is you need to be able to focus, and here manual focus is a must. Your lens will have either an AF (Auto Focus) or MF (Manual Focus) mode.
Here we must set the lens to MF mode as your lens will not be able to autofocus correctly during a night sky shoot.
Next, adjust the lens focus until you reach the ∞ “infinity” symbol, most lenses have this symbol or something similar.
Shutter speed is a bit of a balancing act, especially for photographing the aurora borealis.
Here you’ll want to set your shutter speed as low as possible while still staying open enough to allow enough light onto the sensor.
Shutter speed settings will also vary depending on how fast the auroras are moving. While a 25-30 second exposure is fine if the aurora is a fairly still green glow, you will need to lower your shutter speed time quite considerably if the aurora is dancing around and moving fast. Otherwise, you’ll end up with just a green blur across your shots.
So the shutter speed time can and should vary depending on the activity of the aurora.
- Aurora moving quickly: 5-10 second shutter speed
- Aurora moving slowly: 15-30 second shutter speed
A great aperture setting for northern lights is f/2.8!
Like other forms of night photography, you’ll want to set your aperture to a wider setting, so the lower the aperture is, the more light hits your camera sensor, and the better your images will be.
This will help you capture as much detail of the night image as possible in the shortest amount of time without having to set your exposure time too long when photographing the northern lights.
If your lens aperture doesn’t go down to f/2.8, then I have had success with values up to f/4.
ISO is usually the last setting I adjust due to this is the setting that will bring in the most noise and degrade your image when setting too high above what your camera can handle.
ISO is a digital image brightness enhancement rather than capturing the image brightness organically. It is always a balancing act as when set correctly, it does a good job of brightening up an image in low light but at the cost of adding incremental noise to an image, which is what we try and avoid.
A good base setting for auroras I usually use is an ISO of 1600 to start with and adjust according to the night’s conditions and after a few test shots. If the auroras are overly bright that night, then lower your ISO to 800, and conversely, if the auroras are very dark, then increase your ISO up to 3200.
Always shoot in RAW format for northern lights photography.
The benefit of shooting your images in RAW format is you retain all the image data that you have taken, which you can easily adjust and change when in photoshop in post-production.
This gives you full control of your images even after you’ve taken them, especially for photographing Auroras Borealis, where you’ll need to adjust the color and brightness levels to make them pop in post-production.
If you shoot in JPEG, you’re shooting in a lossy format. Meaning you lose a lot of that unseen data and restricts your ability to adjust your images after the photoshoot.
Like I mentioned above, your images should be saved in RAW format, this allows you a lot of flexibility in your color temperature in post-processing, enabling you to change the color balance easily in photoshop or your chosen astrophotography image editing software.
What you see on your live view screen out in the field can be a little different from what the final color temperature will be as the colors of the auroras can quickly change out in the field.
In saying all that, for Auroras, I like to set my color temperature (K-Mode) somewhere between 3500 and 4000.
Use center weighted metering setting on your camera when shooting your northern lights photography shot.
Useful Tips For Photographing The Northern Lights
The above settings and guide will get you ready to capture some fantastic northern lights images, but before your head out, I wanted to add a shortlist of tips I’ve picked up for shooting the Aurora borealis that I believe will be helpful.
- Prepare your camera settings early, so you’re not rushing when the light show starts.
- Check batteries and their power level beforehand (and bring spares).
- Plan and scout your location during the day for a great composition shot
- Climatize your gear before heading out, no sudden changes in temperature for your equipment.
- Batteries don’t last as long in the cold, keep your spares on the inside of your jacket if possible to keep them warm.
- Only increase ISO as a last resort, when increasing ISO, it degrades the image, while increasing aperture and exposure do not.
- Turn off Image Stabilization – This’ll cause you night images to become blurry, not what we want to achieve.
- Turn off noise reduction – while useful during the day, will cause a delay between each shot, and because the northern lights are continually moving will cause your auroras images to become blurred.
The northern lights are a natural phenomenon that I believe should be on most people’s bucket list to see.
Learning how to photograph the northern lights doesn’t have to be complicated. If you follow a few simple rules, you’ll be able to photograph some truly stunning images of the northern lights and capture the amazing light show that we call Aurora borealis.