The chances are high that you’ve seen several images of the Aurora Borealis (also known as Northern Lights) on some social media. During the last few years, tourism has exploded in places such as Iceland and Northern Norway and more and more people are traveling to these Arctic locations in winter to witness these fascinating phenomena for themselves. Perhaps you’ve already seen them or you’re planning to see them soon but do you know how to photograph the northern lights?
In this article, I’ll share my best tips on how you can see and photograph northern lights. There’s a lot of misleading information out there, especially related to when and where you can see the northern lights and it might not be as easy as many expect. Photographing northern lights can also be quite challenging and even if you’ve got control of your night photography, there are new factors you’ll need to consider; you’ll have to adjust your settings accordingly.
How to See Northern Lights
Before we get into the tips and tricks of photographing northern lights, let’s quickly look at how you can increase the likelihood of seeing them.
The Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon that’s visible in the night sky in the northern hemisphere. That means you won’t be able to watch the northern lights during summer months ( summer in Arctic Norway has the midnight sun and in Iceland, the nights are too bright).
This means that the first step in seeing the Northern Lights is to book a flight to the Northern hemisphere (typically Iceland, Northern Norway, Finland, Alaska, Canada) during the darker months. In most regions, the Aurora season is from September to mid-April.
Get Away From Towns
While the Northern Lights can be visible from within a town, it’s more likely that you’ll see them when you get away from the city lights. By leaving streetlights and light pollution behind, you’ll have a much better view of the sky and you’re able to see even fainter displays.
Look for Clear Skies
The biggest challenge in seeing the Northern lights is the weather; clouds will obscure your view. If it’s grey, rainy or snowy, it’s most unlikely that you’ll be able to see them – I chose to say most unlikely rather than impossible since the weather can change quickly in the Arctic regions; keep a close eye on both the weather forecast and aurora forecast throughout the night and day.
If the sky is partially clouded, I still recommend that you go out. Photographing Northern Lights when there are some clouds can create interesting images, so don’t be discouraged.
How to Photograph Northern Lights
Now that you know how to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s time to learn how to capture the best images of them.
Since we are working with slow shutter speeds, it’s essential that you use a tripod for this type of photography. A remote shutter isn’t essential but I recommend using one as the Aurora moves quickly and waiting two seconds (using a delayed shutter function) can lead to missing the shot.
Best Settings for Photographing Northern Lights
The question I get asked the most about photographing Northern Lights is about the settings. What’s the correct ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed? The truth is that there’s not one correct setting – it depends on how strong the Aurora is. A perfect setting for one scenario will be an overexposed shot in another.
That being said, there are a few guidelines you can follow to use as a starting point. 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) and adjust the shutter speed accordingly.
Stick to using the widest aperture possible on your lens (such as f/2.8). Next, start with an ISO of 1200 – if it’s too dark, increase it; if it’s too bright, decrease it. Taking a test shot can be quite beneficial for night photography to get an indication of how the settings work.
The shutter speed is a bit more tricky. Since the Northern Lights vary in strength (they can change a lot 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 10 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.
It’s not uncommon that I photograph the Northern Lights with a shutter speed of only 1-2 seconds. Too long an exposure will both blur the motion in the Aurora and overexpose those parts.
Use a Cold White Balance
Even though the White Balance can easily be changed in Adobe Lightroom, I prefer getting it as correct as possible in the camera. Typically, this means setting a cold White Balance in Kelvin Mode. I find a Kelvin at approximately 3200 to be the most accurate.
Recommended Reading: Master White Balance Like a Pro
Since this is a topic I’ve talked about in our article How to Focus in Night Photography, I’m not going to spend much time talking about how it’s done. Still, it should be mentioned that for the best results you’ll need to focus manually during the night.
Most cameras aren’t able to deliver good results when using Autofocus in the dark so the best way to get sharp images of the northern lights is to focus manually.
Use a Wide-Angle Lens
The Northern Lights is a phenomenon that can appear all over the sky. Even though it’s a fascinating and beautiful sight, don’t forget about your composition. I quite often see people point the camera straight up and forget about the landscape around them – you still want to capture compelling images, right?
In order to include both the Northern Lights and the landscape in your image, a wide-angle lens is ideal. Typically, I use a focal length between 14 and 24mm for the majority of my Aurora images.