The most common question I get asked is, “How do you photograph the northern lights?” Capturing the aurora borealis has to be one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences a photographer can have! With sub-zero temperatures, low lighting, and a variety of other factors, taking a great image of the northern lights is no easy task. Photos can come out underexposed, grainy, blurry–definitely not capturing the splendor you witnessed with your eyes.
However, if done correctly, you can expect an image of swirling curtains of color in the night sky, dotted with sparkling stars amidst a cold, wintry landscape. It’s absolutely magical, and I’m here to help you maximize your chances of not only seeing but also successfully photographing the elusive northern lights!
Using this guide below, you will learn how to photograph the northern lights!
The first time
I still remember the first time seeing the northern lights. Ever since I’d read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy as a kid, I dreamed of witnessing this natural phenomenon!
Luck had it so that my family and I traveled to Tromso, Norway, which was renowned as a prime northern lights spot. The last night we spent camping out in the snow, and witnessed one of the most beautiful sights…I still remember the tears freezing on my cheeks.
I owned a Canon 550D back then, and was completely unprepared. The pictures came out grainy, dark, and left a lot desired. Flash forward a few aurora-hunting trips later, and I went from sloppy images to crisp photographs of swirling colors. Below are the tips I’ve learnt along the way!
In the northern (or southern, for the aurora australis) hemisphere, look for places away from city lights, with minimal cloud cover. Some prime locations include:
Alaska (specifically Fairbanks)
Norway, Sweden, Finland (especially Tromso in Norway)
Iceland (pretty much anywhere away from light pollution)
Northern regions of Canada (think the Yukon Territory)
Winter time is the best for northern lights hunting, as they are only visible during the dark–sunlight, city lights, or even a bright moon can diminish the visibility of the aurora!
Winter also provides the longest nights, increasing your chances of spotting the northern lights
A fact only known to aurora hunters is that spring and autumn equinoxes bring peaks around September / March. So if you’re planning a northern lights trip, your best bet is late September through late March
You can also use this website to track the KP index (0-9, 0 being low, 9 being high) for the best chance of spotting the aurora!
What camera equipment should I use?
A camera with manual mode allows you to fully control the functions. A full frame (35mm or larger sensor) DSLR will also help – I use a Canon 5D Mark III
Wide angle lenses (14-35mm range) with fast aperture (f2.8 or f1.4 if possible) are desirable, since they’ll allow you to capture a widelandscape, along with keeping ISO low (to reduce grain), and minimize shutter speed (so stars don’t trail). I use the following:
A tripod. Normally, carbon fiber may be the way to go with its light build. But with wind conditions and harsh weather, sometimes you can actually benefit from a sturdy, heavier tripod! Mine is a Manfrotto 055XPROB Pro Black Tripod Legs 055 with Manfrotto 498RC2 Ball Head
Extra batteries! The cold really drains battery life, so make sure you bring some extra for long nights of shooting. Your body heat will prolong battery life as well
Photography is all about capturing light, and balancing the three elements: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. With northern lights photography, you’ll want to maximize as much light coming into your sensor as possible.
- Aperture: a large aperture — think f2.8 or even f1.4 if possible! This will allow you to keep shutter speed and ISO minimized
- Shutter speed: start off at 15-25 seconds and adjust as necessary. Be sure not to go too long, though, or stars will start to trail!
- ISO: you’ll want to maximize light input but keep grain to a bare minimum. Begin at 400 and work your way up as needed
I also recommend shooting in RAW – it’ll really help keep all the detail in the images when it comes to processing!
I’m a huge fan of Lightroom for this. Terrific at handling countless photographs, Lightroom is fast, relatively intuitive, and extremely powerful. Using a few tools here will really boost your images and make them pop.
So there you have it! Have you seen the northern lights before, or been lucky enough to photograph them? Let me know about your experiences below!
Happy chasing and shooting!