Photographing the Northern Lights is arguably one of the most incredible experiences for outdoor photographers. There are few things more spectacular to witness than the night sky light up in an explosion of colors. Capturing a good shot to eternalize the moment is just as rewarding.
Tourism to places such as Northern Norway and Iceland has exploded and more people travel to Arctic locations during winter to witness the fascinating phenomenon for themselves. Many of them, perhaps you too, are going with the goal of capturing them with their camera too.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misleading information about Northern Lights photography out there, especially related to when and where you can see them; it’s not as easy as you think.
Photographing the Northern Lights is difficult even if you already feel like you master night photography. The colorful light dances quickly across the night sky, which introduces several new factors to consider.
Throughout this article, I’ll share some of my best advice on how to photograph the Northern Lights. Living above the Arctic Circle, I’m lucky enough to spend the winter months photographing them, and I’ve picked up a few neat tricks along the way that I’m confident will help you get the best possible images.
How and where to see the Northern Lights
Camera settings and techniques are always more exciting but before we get started with that we need to take a step back and look at how you can increase the chances of witnessing the Northern Lights. It requires a bit more than just popping your head out the door.
The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a phenomenon that’s visible on the night sky in the northern hemisphere. The lights can be active during any hour of the day but they are only visible when the sky is dark.
That means you won’t be able to watch the northern lights during summer as the nights are then bright in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Aurora season is from September to mid-April but your odds are higher during the winter months. This is mainly due to them being considerably darker. Regions that are known for Northern Lights include Norway, Iceland, Finland, Alaska, Canada. I highly recommend doing some research around the exact locations if you’re planning to book a trip abroad.
Norway, for example, is well-known for the Northern Lights but they aren’t visible in big parts of the country.
Avoid city lights or bright light sources
Even though the Northern Lights can be visible inside smaller Arctic towns, you’re going to enjoy the experience more once you get away from streetlights. Leaving the city lights and light pollution behind, you get a better view of the sky and a more impressive display than you would’ve otherwise.
You need clear skies
There are many factors that need to be on your side in order to get a good display of Northern Lights; not only does the Aurora forecast need to be good but the weather forecast must also be welcoming. That’s not an everyday occurrence in the Arctic.
Grey skies, rain or snow means that it’s unlikely to see the Lady in Green. I chose to say unlikely rather than impossible since the weather can change quickly in the Arctic, which is why you need to keep a close eye on both the weather forecast and aurora forecast throughout the night and day.
I still recommend that you go out even when the sky is partially clouded. Photographing Northern Lights when there are some clouds can create additional depth in your photographs, so don’t be discouraged.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
Ok. Let’s hop on over to the exciting part; how you can capture the best possible images of the Northern Lights.
Photographing during the night means that we’re working with slow shutter speeds. To do this, it’s essential that you’ve got a tripod to mount your camera on.
I also recommend having a remote shutter. It isn’t essential but the Aurora can move quickly and waiting two seconds (using a delayed shutter function) could lead to missing the shot.
The best settings for photographing Northern Lights
The truth is that there’s no one correct setting. It depends on how active the Aurora is. A perfect setting for one scenario will be an overexposed shot in another. This might not be what you want to hear but don’t leave yet – there’s more to it!
There are a few guidelines to follow and use as a starting point. Practice the next few paragraphs and you’ll master photographing the Northern Lights in no time:
Since we are photographing at night, we need to use a relatively high ISO and an open aperture (make sure to read our Beginners Guide to Night Photography for more information on photographing the night sky).
Stick to using the widest aperture possible on your lens (such as f/2.8). Next, start with an ISO of 1600; if it’s too dark, increase it and if it’s too bright, decrease it.
The shutter speed is a bit more tricky and is the camera setting you’ll need to adjust according to the Northern Lights activity.
Since the Northern Lights vary in strength (they can completely change in only a minute), it’s hard to say what is the correct shutter speed. However, I would avoid using a shutter speed slower than 15 seconds when the Aurora has some motion to it. The faster it moves, the quicker your shutter speed should be. Compensate with a higher ISO as needed to stay at a quick enough shutter speed if necessary.
Using a slow shutter speed (for example 10 seconds) when the Northern Lights are moving quickly across the sky will lead to two things:
- Loss of detail in the Aurora / the Aurora becomes blurry
- Parts of the Northern Lights become overexposed and will be difficult to recover in post-processing
It’s not uncommon that I photograph the Northern Lights with a shutter speed of only 1-2 seconds. Taking test shots and regularly looking at the image previews are crucial for this type of photography.
Use a cold White Balance
Yes. The White Balance can easily be changed in Adobe Lightroom or any other photo editor when photographing RAW but I prefer getting it as correct as possible in the camera.
For night photography this typically means setting a cold White Balance in Kelvin Mode. I find a Kelvin at approximately 3500 to be the closest and most natural setting.
Recommended Reading: Master White Balance Like a Pro
I’m not going to spend much time talking about how to use Manual Focus as this is a topic I’ve talked about in our article How to Focus in Night Photography but it should be mentioned that for the best results this is an essential part of the workflow.
Most cameras struggle to find a good focus point when using Auto Focus during the night. This means that you’re likely to end up with unsharp and out-of-focus images. Manual focus is a much more reliable alternative in this scenario.
Use a Wide-Angle Lens
It’s no joke when I say that an active Northern Lights display is like seeing an explosion in the sky. These extreme shows can be rare but in the far north, it’s not uncommon to see it spread 360 degrees above your head.
This is an overwhelming experience and your first instinct might be to point your camera straight up and forget about your surroundings. While these images can be good memories and nice to show friends and family, they are most likely not compelling images, which is what you want to capture, right?
I urge you not to forget about the landscape around you and instead of just photographing the Northern Lights, ask yourself how you can include them into your composition.
A wide-angle lens is ideal if you want to include both the Northern Lights and the landscape in your image. Typically, I use a focal length between 14 and 24mm for the majority of my Aurora images.
Photographing the Northern Lights is an incredible experience but it’s also one that can be equally frustrating. There’s not much worse for a photographer than not being able to capture the moment and convey the beauty.
Capturing great images at night is harder than in most other genres. There are several additional factors to consider but, luckily, it doesn’t take that much extra effort into capturing images that you’re proud of.
For photographing the Northern Lights, it’s important to keep in mind that you constantly need to adapt the camera settings. Their intensity changes quickly and this means that the camera settings that worked for one image, might not work for the next.
In addition to understanding your camera, I urge you to carefully consider your composition. You want to incorporate the Northern Lights into an already solid composition.
By following the tips I’ve shared in this article and the additional tips you can find in 4 Untold Tips for Photographing Northern Lights, you’re ready to get on your winter clothing and head out creating beautiful images of this phenomena for yourself.
Note: My brand new Northern Lights photography course where I teach you both how to capture and process this incredible phenomenon is being released in just a few days! Make sure to sign up for our newsletter, or keep an extra eye on our course page, to get the launch deal!
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