Photographing The Northern Lights
Seeing the northern lights dance across the sky is a dream many travelers have. And one of those rare wonders where the reality is actually better than the dream.
Trying to describe and find the right words for how they ripple and shimmy across the night sky in a blaze of greens, pinks, white and purples is near impossible and aurora photography can be just as tricky.
There are so many amazing pictures of the northern lights, it can be a little disappointing when you attempt to capture your own northern lights photos and they just don’t show how beautiful and mesmerizing they were in reality.
Avoid missing all that magic with these easy photography tips for photographing northern lights. It is also the perfect guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights for beginners!
Table of Contents
What Are The Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are also known as the Aurora Borealis which means ‘dawn of the north’.
The stunning light display is from when particles from the sun collide with atoms when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. After the collision they move into a higher energy state, when they start moving back to their lower energy state, they release a photon..which is the light you see.
Although the Northern Lights can be unpredictable and seeing them is a game of chance, you can do a few things to increase your odds of seeing them.
How To See The Northern Lights
Where To See Northern Lights
The best place to see northern lights is in the “auroral oval”.
This is an area near the Earth’s Geomagnetic North Pole in the Northern Hemisphere. As it is centered around the true north, it can move around but if you are in a location with a latitude of 65° and 72° North your chances of seeing the lights improve.
The best places to see the Northen Lights are:
- Canada, especially Yukon
But with the right conditions, you can be lucky enough to see them in countries like Ireland and UK although it is rare.
Heading to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Get help planning your trip with these great posts.
- Iceland on a budget? Find the best Iceland campsites here.
- Find amazing places to add to your Iceland Bucket list
- Find out how to make travel to Iceland with kids a reality
Best Time To See Northern Lights
September to March are when to see the Northern Lights although you can get lucky in August and April too.
You will need clear, dark nights to really see the lights at their best.
Tips For Seeing the Northen Lights
- To really have a great chance check out specialized Northern Lights Holidays like these.
- On your northern lights trip keep track of the Aurora Borealis with a Northern lights forecast, like this one. Each country may have its own forecast too. This is the site we used when we were in Iceland.
- Be prepared to check every night, a few times a night…even if the forecast is low. The best lights we saw in Iceland were on an evening when low activity was predicted.
- Check, and check again. The most amazing lights we saw where near midnight but they can happen at any time so it is worth setting an alarm at regular intervals or taking it in turns with a travel buddy to check.
- Stay in places with low light pollution. If you have to stay in a major town or city then consider doing a tour that will take you out in the evening to go hunting for the Aurora Borealis.
- Allow as much time as possible to see them. In a 10 day trip to Iceland, we saw them twice while in Finland we saw them once and only a tiny glimmer. You would be extremely lucky to only allow one night to photograph the northern lights and actually see them.
Don’t forget you can also see the Southern lights and these tips will work just as well.
Next, find out what gear is best to use to help you take pictures you will love.
Best camera equipment for Northern Lights
Having the right photography equipment will make it easier to capture amazing northern lights pictures. Find out the best camera for northern lights photography and more.
Firstly, a question that is asked often…
Can you take photos of the northern lights with an iPhone?
Technically you can, and there’s even a post I found here. But, while phone cameras have improved dramatically and let you take some amazing images, they have pretty limited functions, especially for night photography and long exposure. While you can get images of the northern lights with a camera phone they are not going to be as good as photographs taken with the right photography gear.
Best Camera For Northern Lights
The best northern lights camera is a full frame DSLR. You are going to need to be able to use manual mode and set exposure time amongst other things.
If you have read any of my previous photography posts you know I love my Canon but there are plenty or reasonably priced and brilliant cameras on the market now. I’ve been thinking about changing over to a mirrorless camera like the Sony to make traveling with camera gear easier.
Best Lens for Northern Lights
The most often asked question with Aurora photography is “What lens do I need to photograph the Northern Lights?”
As you will want to capture as much of the northern lights as possible you will want a wide angle. This is is usually in the range of 14-24mm. More importantly, a low aperture is going to help you capture the best images with an f/2.8 being fast and allowing you to let in enough light to capture the Lights.
I tend to travel really light with camera gear and take only one lens. Most of the images in this post were captured with a 24-70mm lens f/2.8.
Remember to remove any filters you may have on your lens!
Other Northern Lights Camera Gear
A few other items you will need to capture the very best northern lights photographs are:
Protecting Camera Equipment In Cold Weather
As the best times to see Northern lights are in the colder month, you will want to protect your camera gear from the cold.
- Invest in a good quality camera bag.
- Avoid taking your camera gear from cold temperatures to heated areas quickly as it can create condensation
- Keep your memory cards and spare batteries in your pockets or use hand warmers to help increase battery life.
Another tip is to make sure YOU are dressed for the elements and safety. Temperatures can drastically drop during the times when the Northern Lights are at their best. You don’t want to miss any chance to capture them because you had to go back inside to warm up. Make sure you have a warm jacket, thermals, warm hat, warm hiking boots, a torch/headlamp and of course warm gloves.
Camera Settings For Northern Lights
Best Camera Settings For Northern Lights
- RAW Image format
- Manual Mode
- Manual Focus
- ISO 1200
- F/2.8 ( or as wide as your lens will go)
- 10-20 Seconds Shutter Speed
Use this as a quick start guide then follow these next steps to perfect your images and experiment with your camera settings.
A quick tip for experimenting with your images is that underexposed will always be better than overexposed. Create your settings to suit the brightest part of the image. It will be better to tweak any darker parts of your image in processing than losing details from overexposure.
I also tend to fix things like white balance post-processing as I can experiment better but this can be something you can change in the camera while shooting.
Another good idea is to do some practice during the day. Work out infinity focus ( I show you how below), and get comfortable with manual settings on your camera.
How To Take Photos Of Northern Lights
1.SET UP YOUR EQUIPMENT
Put your camera on the tripod. You are going to be doing long exposures to get the magic of those dancing lights and don’t want them spoilt with camera shake.
You will also need to have some kind of remote shutter release. Some cameras allow you to do this with an app, or you could use a Cable Release, or even just set the timer on your camera!
Lock your mirror up ( you can do this in your camera’s settings) and also, turn off the image stabilization on your lens.
All this will help you have a clear, crisp photograph with no shake or blur.
Manual Mode gives you the most control over your camera. Make sure you are in manual mode so you can control all the features we talk about below.
You will need to do is to make sure you are using manual focus. Photographing at night means your camera will have a hard time trying to find a spot to autofocus on so you will need to set the focus ( the symbol that looks like an 8 having a lie down on your lens ∞ )
Don't stress if you are a photography beginner. All you will need to do is set your focus to infinity. Here is a video to help you if you are new to photographing the night sky.
ISO is how sensitive the camera is to the light you let in through the lens.
Most new digital cameras will let you go pretty high with the ISO before the image becomes grainy. However, it is still best practice to put the ISO as low as possible for the best photographs.
Try at 1200 then either go lower or higher as needed. This will depend on how bright the lights are, your lens and your camera. 800 is probably the lowest but you may need to go all the way up to 1600.
It is always better to have the lowest ISO possible and experiment with the shutter speed and aperture for image quality.
5.F STOP( Aperture )
Aperture is how much light you are letting into the camera.
It can seem a little complicated at first as the f-stop numbers used for aperture go down as the more light is let in.
For example, f/2.8 is a larger (wider) aperture letting in more light while f/22 is a lower aperture and less light!
Luckily this is pretty simple for Northern Lights photography. You will want to let in as much light as possible so set your lens to the widest aperture ( lowest number). F/2.8 is best as this means you are letting in lots of light and this is important for a lower shutter speed.
Shutter speed is how long you let light into the camera. This is works together with the aperture to create the perfect capture.
As the northern lights can move around very quickly you will want to "Freeze" that movement or you will just have a blur of color in your image. Because you already set the aperture to allow the most amount of light into the camera you can now use a quicker shutter speed to freeze your photograph ( This is why f/2.8 is best. If your lens only goes to f/4 then you will need to make your shutter speed slower to compensate).
This speed is going to be totally dependant on the lights you see and you will need to experiment to get it right. The only way to know if an image will work is to play with this speed or exposure. You may find you need up to 30 seconds if the lights are very dim and slow moving. If you are lucky enough to experience really bright Northern Lights then you may only need five seconds.
7.TELL A STORY
Taking photographs is all about storytelling.
The sky may look amazing but to make it really mean something to someone looking at your image, you need to put those lights in context. Find interesting details you can add to the foreground of your photographs to give more meaning and depth to your images.
This can be a building, trees or even you!
If you want to capture someone in your image they are going to have to remain as still as possible during the whole time the shutter is open. This will be easier if the lights are strong and you have a short shutter speed. To really make your object or person stand out, flash them with your torch ( or off camera flash unit quickly at some time during the exposure.
The faint green glimmer we managed to see of the Finland northern lights, after two nights of searching.
Experimenting With Your Photographs
I hope you enjoyed this guide on how to take pictures of northern lights.
The great thing about digital photography is the freedom to experiment and try different settings. Have fun learning, growing your photography skills and creating different images. It doesn’t matter if something doesn’t work as you can delete and try again.
Travel with Meraki – As much as seeing the Northern Lights is amazing. Be sure to not plan your whole trip around them. Visit a destination to enjoy lots of other sites and experiences rather than just the Northern Lights. All the places where you have the chance to glimpse the aurora are unique and have so many things to see and do.
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All you need to know about photographing the Northern Lights