Photographing the Northern Lights is one of the most incredible experiences for outdoor photographers. Few things are more spectacular to witness than the night sky lighting 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. 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, primarily related to when and where you can see them; it’s more challenging than you think.
Photographing the Northern Lights is difficult, even if you have mastered 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.
Living in the Lofoten Islands, a prime location for the Northern Lights, I’ve been lucky enough to spend hundreds of hours photographing the Aurora Borealis and have picked up several important tricks along the way.
These tricks will help you get the best possible images, and it’s exactly what I’ll share throughout this article. Keep reading, and you’ll get the best advice on photographing the Northern Lights.
The Best Camera Settings for Northern Lights
The best camera settings for Aurora Borealis are an aperture of f/2.8, ISO of 3200, and a shutter speed of 8 seconds.
But the truth is that there isn’t one correct setting. It depends on the Aurora activity. The settings above might be perfect for one scenario but result in an overexposed shot in another.
Luckily, a few guidelines make this a lot easier to understand. I always start with a particular camera setting and adjust it depending on the Northern Lights activity.
Best ISO for Photographing the Northern Lights
Night photography requires a high ISO. I’ve talked about this in our Beginners Guide to Night Photography. While it’s the same for Northern Lights photography, a couple of things are important to understand.
The optimal ISO for Northern Lights photos is between 1600 and 6400. On some occasions, such as during the full moon, you might get away with a value down to 800.
Your camera is an essential factor in how high of an ISO you can use. Professional models are more forgiving than budget cameras regarding digital noise.
Digital noise is expected for aurora photography, but, in some cases, it can ruin an otherwise great image. Therefore, it’s important to learn the abilities of your camera.
Personally, I often start with ISO3200, and after taking a test shot, I adjust it if needed.
Best Aperture for Northern Lights Photography
The aperture is the one setting that should be constant. You should always use the widest aperture possible on your lens (such as f/2.8). This allows more light to reach the sensor, meaning we can use a quicker shutter speed and lower ISO.
The wider the aperture, the better it is. The perfect aperture for photographing Northern Lights is between f/1.4 and f/2.8.
You can still get good aurora photos with f/4, but this means you need to either increase the ISO or extend the exposure time. Both of these options come with their drawbacks.
So, always use the widest aperture your lens allows. If that is f/2.8, that’s the only f-stop you should use.
Best Shutter Speed for Photographing Northern Lights
The shutter speed is a bit more tricky as you need to constantly adjust it. What works in one moment can look terrible just a few minutes later.
Some of you might be familiar with the 500 Rule, an easy formula to calculate the ideal shutter speed for night photography. While this is handy for regular astrophotography, it serves little purpose for aurora photos.
The reason is that the intensity of the Northern Lights is constantly changing. I’m not lying when I say that it can go from being barely visible to being so bright you don’t need a headlamp in one minute.
Because of this, it’s hard to say what is the correct shutter speed. However, you should avoid using a shutter speed slower than 15 seconds.
An easy guideline for choosing an Aurora shutter speed is that the faster it moves, the shorter your exposure time should be. Using a slow shutter speed (for example, 20 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 challenging to recover in post-processing.
It’s not uncommon that I photograph the Northern Lights with a shutter speed of only 1-2 seconds. I find the best shutter speed for Aurora photography to be between 2 and 10 seconds.
Learn How to Adjust the Camera Settings Based on Aurora Activity
Let’s recap what the best camera settings for photographing Northern Lights are:
- Aperture f/2.8 or wider
- ISO 1600 to 6400
- Shutter speed 2-15 seconds
Now comes the hard part: choosing the exact values. As with the Exposure Triangle, we have to tie the three camera settings together.
Choosing the aperture for Aurora photos is easy. Keep it to the widest possible with your lens, and leave it there.
But what about the ISO and shutter speed? How do you choose which exact setting to use? That’s where trial, error, and a bit of experience become important.
There are two essential factors: the aurora activity and the moon/artificial light.
If the activity is low and there’s no moonlight, it means that you’re probably standing in the pitch black. For this, you should start with ISO4000 and a 15-second shutter speed. Next, look at the image preview. If the image is too dark, increase the ISO; if it’s too bright, decrease it.
Now, let’s say that the aurora activity is getting higher. In other words, she’s starting to dance, and you can see her with your naked eye.
In this situation, the 15-second shutter speed and ISO4000 will likely lead to clipping the highlights (overexposed northern lights).
That means you need to change to a quicker shutter speed. Start with 8 seconds and look at the image preview once more. If the lady in green is moving quickly, you might still have an overexposed image. Then change to 5 seconds.
The key is to keep checking the image preview after you take your images. If the Aurora is blown out, you need to use a quicker shutter speed.
Follow those guidelines and adjust the exact settings according to the situation, and you will come home with amazing images.
Select a Cold White Balance for Auroras
Yes. You can easily change the white balance in Adobe Lightroom or any other photo editor when photographing RAW. Still, I prefer getting it as correct as possible in the camera.
The best white balance for Northern Lights is 3500K. This is the value that gives the most accurate colors.
To set this value, choose Kelvin Mode in the white balance menu.
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 also often the result when using Auto White Balance.
Consistency is another benefit of manually setting the white balance. This ensures that all your images have the same color settings.
Use Manual Focus at Night
I’m not going to spend much time discussing how to use Manual Focus as this is a topic I’ve covered in our article How to Focus in Night Photography. Still, it should be mentioned that this is an essential part of the workflow if you want the best results.
Most cameras struggle to find a good focus point when using Auto Focus at night. This means you’ll likely end up with unsharp and out-of-focus images.
Manual focus is a much more reliable alternative in this scenario. All you need to do is find a bright spot (such as a star or distant street light), use Live View to zoom in on it, and rotate the focus ring until this spot is sharp.
Take a test shot and zoom in on the image preview to ensure the stars are sharp and in focus.
Note: Cameras constantly improve, and some models get good results with autofocus at night. Even if this is the case, I strongly suggest switching your lens to manual focus after you’ve found the focus. This ensures that you keep getting in-focus images.
Using the Histogram for Aurora Photography
Some might already be familiar with the histogram and why it’s important to understand exposure in your photos. But few realize how important it is for aurora photography.
Photographing at night means that the histogram naturally will be leaning left (watch out for pure blacks). This is normal and not something to worry about.
What you do need to keep an eye on, however, is the right side. While it sounds contradictory that you can blow highlights at night, that’s precisely what happens when using the wrong camera settings for Aurora photography.
Because the northern lights are bright, it’s easy to overexpose parts of them. The problem is that you don’t always see this on the image preview. Only the histogram will tell the whole story.
Besides looking at the overall histogram, I recommend also keeping an eye on the green channel’s histogram. This will reveal potential clipping in the greens, which happens to be the northern lights.
Taking test shots and regularly looking at the image preview and histogram are crucial for this type of photography.
How and Where to See the Northern Lights
Now that you know the best camera settings for aurora photography, it’s time to move over to a just as important aspect: when, where, and how to see the northern lights.
You see, it requires more than just popping your head out the door (well, in most cases, it does)
Northern Lights is a phenomenon 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.
In the northern hemisphere, the midnight sun dominates the summer months. This means it doesn’t get dark at night. Hence, you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights.
You’ll be disappointed if you plan your Northern Lights photography tour for the summer months.
The best time to photograph the Aurora Borealis is 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. Popular Northern Lights destinations include Norway, Iceland, Finland, Alaska, and Canada. I recommend doing some research about the exact locations if you’re planning to book a trip abroad.
Norway is a prime location for Aurora photography, but did you know they aren’t visible in big parts of the country?
Planning Step #1: Avoid City Lights or Bright Light Sources
The first step to seeing the Northern Lights is to get away from big cities and areas with heavy light pollution. It’s quite unlikely you’ll see them from the heart of a big city. For that to happen, the activity needs to be very high.
Leaving the city behind means you get a much better view of the night sky. 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 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 changes quickly in the Arctic. That is why you need to keep a close eye on both the weather forecast and the 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 Good 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, many factors play 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. You can see the Northern Lights already at a low index in high latitudes, but the higher the number, the stronger the lights will be.
I suggest reading about the Bz, Bt, IMF, Speed, and Density values for those wanting a greater understanding of the Aurora forecast. These will give more accurate data than the KP Index. SpaceWeather Live is my go-to website for real-time auroral and solar activity.
Planning Step #4: Plan Your Location
The final step is to choose your Aurora Borealis 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 Aurora. Ideally, you want it to complement an already interesting scene.
Try searching for subjects such as abandoned houses, trees, and 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 Gear for Northern Lights Photography
I rarely like to say that camera equipment matters, but having the right gear for photographing the Northern Lights has a big say in the final outcome.
Here is an overview of must-have equipment for Northern Lights photography:
#1 Camera With Manual Functions
Most cameras these days allow for some 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.
While you can photograph the Aurora with a smartphone or entry-level camera, you’ll likely find that the image becomes very grainy. These cameras can’t handle the conditions at night well.
#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 are rare, but in the far north, it’s not uncommon to see it spread 360 degrees above your head.
This is an overwhelming experience; 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?
Do not forget about the landscape around you, and instead of just photographing the Northern Lights, ask yourself how you can include them in your composition.
Wide-angle are the best lenses for Northern Lights photos. Ideally, the focal length is between 14 and 24mm.
It’s also important that the lens has a fast 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 also get good results with an f/4 lens.
These are some of the best lenses for aurora photography:
- Sony 14mm f/1.8
- Sigma Art 14mm f/1.8
- Nikon Z 14-30mm f/2.8
- Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (Best budget lens for Aurora photography)
- Venus Optics 15mm f/2
#3 A Solid Tripod
The final camera gear for photographing the Northern Lights is a sturdy tripod.
When photographing at night, we operate with long exposure times, which means you cannot capture the images handheld. A tripod is essential.
Make sure you have a tripod that can carry the total 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.
Composition Techniques for Aurora Borealis Photos
I get it. The Northern Lights are amazing. It’s an incredible feeling watching them vividly dance above your head. I still get excited every night, even after seeing them hundreds of times.
It’s easy to forget about compositions when it’s your first time seeing the Northern Lights. I don’t blame you for pointing the camera straight at them. A big aurora explosion can make for an excellent shot, but I urge you to consider the composition.
As with any other genre of photography, composition is essential to creating an impactful image.
I think of 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.
Try to incorporate the Aurora into the landscape. Make it part of the bigger story.
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.
Here are some Northern Lights compositional elements that I look for:
There’s something special with the combination of Northern Lights and beautiful landscapes. Instead of just pointing the camera straight up, try to incorporate the Aurora into an already interesting composition.
Reflections are far from an everyday occurrence here in the windy north, but when they happen, they make the perfect compositional element for the Northern Lights.
Using leading lines is one of the most important compositional tips for landscape photography. This is just as important during the night. Look for elements that naturally guide the viewer through the frame.
Balance is another key compositional factor that you should be searching for. Notice how the moon, mountain, foreground, and Aurora are all complementing each other in the image below.
Photographing the Northern Lights is an incredible experience but can be equally frustrating. There’s not much worse for a photographer than being unable to capture the moment and convey the beauty.
Capturing great images at night is more complicated than in most other genres. There are several additional factors to consider, but luckily, capturing images you’re proud of only takes a little extra effort.
For photographing the Northern Lights, it’s important to remember that you constantly need to adapt the camera settings. Their intensity changes quickly, which 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.
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