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 great image 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 great images.
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 master night photography. I’ve often come across great night photographers who are at a loss when the lady in green begins her dance. The colorful light moving quickly across the sky introduces several new factors to consider.
Living North of the Arctic Circle, I’ve been lucky enough to spend hundreds of hours photographing the Aurora Borealis, and have picked up a few neat tricks along the way.
I’m confident these tricks will help you get the best possible images and it’s exactly that I’ll share throughout this article. Keep reading and you’ll get the very best advice on how to photograph the Northern Lights.
How and Where to See the Northern Lights
I know that camera settings and techniques are more exciting but first we need to take a step back and look at how you can increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
You see, it requires a bit more than just popping your head out the door (well, in most cases it does)
The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a phenomenon that’s visible in the night sky in the northern hemisphere. They can be active during any hour of the day but are only visible when the sky is dark.
Now, in the northern hemisphere the summer months are dominated by the midnight sun. This means it doesn’t get dark at night. Hence, you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights.
You’ll be very disappointed if you plan your Northern Lights photography tour to the summer months.
Instead, you need to plan your visit between September and late March (though they can be seen as early as late August and as late as mid-April)
Your odds are highest during the winter months. This is mainly due to them being considerably darker. Regions that are known for the Northern Lights include Norway, Iceland, Finland, Alaska and 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 did you know that they aren’t visible in big parts of the country?
Planning Step #1: Avoid City Lights or Bright Light Sources
Seeing the Northern Lights from the heart of a big city or in a heavily light polluted area is far from ideal. It’s in fact quite unlikely that you’ll even see them when standing in a large city.
To increase your likelihood of seeing them, you need to get out of the city and away from the streetlights. This will give you a much better view of the night sky and a more impressive sight of the Northern Lights.
The darker your surroundings are, the better it is.
Planning Step #2: You Need Clear Skies
It’s a misconception that you can photograph the Northern Lights every night in the northern hemisphere. This is, unfortunately, far from the truth.
There are many factors that need to be on your side in order to get a good display; not only does the Aurora forecast need to be good but so must the weather forecast.
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. That 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 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.
Planning Step #3: You need solar activity
Another misconception is that you can always see the Northern Lights if the skies are clear. I really wish this was true but, once again, it’s not.
Clear skies are only part of the equation. While there’s a good chance of seeing them on such nights (especially if you’re in the far north), there’s no guarantee.
The best way to know if there will be Northern Lights or not is to pay attention to the Aurora Forecast. Yet again, there are many factors that plays an important role but, for the sake of simplicity, pay attention to the KP Index.
The KP Index is an indication of what you can expect to see. In high latitudes you can see the Northern Lights already at a low index but the higher the number, the stronger the lights will be.
For those wanting a greater understanding of the Aurora Forecast, I suggest reading about the Bz, Bt, IMF, Speed, and Density values. These will give more accurate data than the KP Index. SpaceWeather Live is my go-to website for realtime auroral and solar activity.
Planning Step #4: Plan your location
The final step to prepare for photographing the Northern Lights is to choose your location. You already know it should be away from the city lights but does the subject matter?
In my opinion, yes. A great Northern Lights photo needs more than just the Northern Lights. Ideally, you want it to complement an already interesting scene.
Try searching for subjects such as abandoned houses, trees, mountains or perhaps try to get reflections at a lake or at the beach.
Just keep in mind that your subject should be facing north, as this is typically where the lights come from (though they can completely cover the sky when the activity is high)
Essential Camera Equipment to Photograph the Northern Lights
I rarely like to say that camera equipment matters but when photographing the Northern Lights, it does. Having the right equipment has a big say in the final outcome.
Here is a overview of must-have equipment for Northern Lights photography:
#1 Camera With Manual Functions
Most cameras these days allow for some sort of manual adjustments but for the best results you need to be able to manually change the shutter speed, ISO and aperture.
You will also find that cameras with good ISO qualities (i.e., can handle high ISO values) will give the best results.
The most affordable entry-level DSLR cameras are able to capture good northern lights images but you’ll most likely find that the image becomes very grainy.
#2 A Wide-Angle Lens With an Open Aperture
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.
Also, make sure that the lens has a wide aperture. The wider the aperture, the better the results will be. Lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 are the most popular but you will get good results with an f/4 lens too.
#3 A Solid Tripod
The last essential piece of equipment for photographing the Northern Lights is a sturdy tripod.
When photographing at night we are operating with long exposure times which means you’re not able to capture the images handheld. A tripod is essential.
Make sure that you have a tripod that can both carry the full weight of your camera and lens, while also withstand some wind. Cheap tripods tend to vibrate a lot, which results in soft and blurry images.
Read more about choosing your next tripod here.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights: Settings and Camera Techniques
Ok. Let’s move on to the most exciting part; how you can capture the best possible images of the Northern Lights.
Note: 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 in some cases lead to missing the shot.
The Best Camera Settings for Photographing the Northern Lights
The question I get asked the most about photographing the Northern Lights is what ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed to use.
The truth is that there isn’t one correct setting. It depends on how active the Aurora is. The perfect settings for one scenario will result in 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 and histogram (watch out for clipping the highlights) are crucial for this type of photography.
Let’s recap what the best settings for photographing Northern Lights are:
- Aperture f/2.8 or wider (f/4 is ok if that’s the widest you have)
- ISO 1600 to 6400 (exact value depends on moon phase, light pollution, and Northern Lights activity)
- Shutter speed 15 seconds or faster (a quicker shutter speed is needed when the Northern Lights have a lot of movement)
Follow those guidelines and adjust the exact settings according to the situation, and you will come home with amazing images.
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
A warm white balance tends to make the colors of the Northern Lights look washed out. This is often the result when using Auto White Balance too.
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.
Pay Attention to the Composition
I know that it’s easy to get carried away when the Northern Lights are vividly dancing above your head but I urge you to still consider the composition. As with any other genre of photography, the composition is essential when it comes to creating an impactful image.
Personally, I like to think about the Northern Lights as an additional element to an already good image. This is the same mindset I have when photographing a sunrise or sunset as well.
A good practice is to scout the location before it gets dark. Spend some time walking around searching and testing various compositions. Take note of the good ones and go back to these when the night arrives.
And, of course, there’s nothing wrong about pointing the camera upwards and capturing all of the chaos in the sky either. You know best the story that you want to tell.
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 on photographing and processing Northern Lights found in Northern Lights Photography Made Easy, you’re ready to get on your winter clothing and head out to create beautiful images of this phenomenon for yourself.