Photography

A Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

One of the most difficult and rewarding experiences is photographing the northern lights. With sub-zero temperatures, low lighting, and a variety of other factors, capturing a great image of the aurora borealis is not an easy task.

Using this guide below, you will learn how to chase and photograph the elusive northern lights!

A Guide to Chasing and Photographing the Northern Lights

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 seeing them!

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 had there, we camped out in the snow and witnessed one of the most beautiful sights – the tears froze on my cheeks.

I owned a Canon 550D back then, and was completely unprepared. The images 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!

Where

The northern (or southern, for the aurora australis) hemisphere – away from city lights, with minimal cloud cover. Some prime locations include:

  • Alaska (specifically Fairbanks)

  • Norway, Sweden, Finland (especially Tromso in Norway)

  • Iceland

  • Northern regions of Canada (think the Yukon Territory)

When

  • You want darkness, so winter time is best for those long nights

  • The spring and autumn equinoxes also bring peaks around September / March. 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!

guide photographing northern lights

What camera equipment should I use?

  • A camera with manual mode. 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 – I use the following:

    • Canon 24mm f/1.4 L II USM

    • Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM

Canon_2750B002_EF_24mm_f_1_4L_II_590449canon-ef-16-35mm-f2.8l-ii-usm-zoom-lens

  • A tripod. Normally, carbon fiber may be the way to go, but with wind conditions, sometimes you can actually benefit from a sturdy, heavier tripod. Mine is a Manfrotto tripod 055XPROB with 498RC2 ballhead

51U-dO1ZhUL._SL1181_

  • 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

Settings

You’ll want to balance your settings to maximize light coming into your camera, so slow shutter speed and large aperture. For ISO, you’ll want to maximize light but keep grain to a bare minimum, so start off at 400 and work your way up as needed. I also recommend shooting in RAW – it’ll really help with post-processing! For that, I’m a huge fan of Lightroom.

Happy chasing and shooting!

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58 Comments

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  • Reply Sheri @ A Busy Bees Life August 9, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    This has been on my bucket list for two years now. It is my absolute dream to see the Northern Lights. So gorgeous and mesmerizing! I am close to achieving this dream and cant wait. The pictures you have here are amazing!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 11, 2016 at 5:31 pm

      Thank you so much for the kind comments 🙂 I’m sure you will see them!

  • Reply Alberto C. August 9, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Seeing the northern lights is one of my dreams. I’m thinking of visiting Iceland soon and I really hope to get the chance to experience this.

    Thanks about all those tips, that was great. Hopefully I’ll be able to use them soon! 🙂

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Alberto! 🙂 I truly hope you get to see them too!

  • Reply The Most Beautiful Places to Photograph in Iceland - Pier's Great Perhaps August 9, 2016 at 4:45 pm

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  • Reply polly674 August 10, 2016 at 7:25 am

    Stunning pictures! The northern lights are on my wish list since a while and hopefully I will manage to go to Norway or Sweden next winter!!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 11, 2016 at 5:31 pm

      Thank you so much! Both countries are gorgeous, you’ll love them 🙂

  • Reply Sona Sethi August 10, 2016 at 8:21 am

    I wish to see the northern lights in this lifetime. This is a great summary of what to do and to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Indrani August 11, 2016 at 12:06 am

    One of my dream destinations… hope it materializes in this life time!
    Thank you for the tips on cameras!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 11, 2016 at 8:06 am

      You’re very welcome, and I’m sure it will happen! 🙂

  • Reply The Solivagant Soul (@Thesolivsoul) August 11, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    What an interesting post! I love photogaphy and watching the northern lights is something I have wanted to since forever. Since you seem to know about your camera… What about decreasing ISO to the minimum, go for the hyperfocal and just doing a long exposure? I don’t know how much they move, but the effect must be nice… also, if not passing the 30s the stars should be static, right? About where to see these lights, any recommendation (besides Norway =))?

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 11, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Hi there! They’re definitely incredible to watch 🙂 You can decrease ISO if desired though not too low as you want your camera to pick up as much light as possible, and not too long of an exposure as the stars start to trail after 30s, as does the aurora! I’ve seen them in Iceland, Norway, and Alaska – would highly recommend all 3 with different up sides to each 🙂

  • Reply Rohini August 11, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Awesome pics …

  • Reply markandkate August 11, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    This has been included in my bucket list for ages now. Although I wasn’t familiar about the other places where you can see the lights. My knowledge about the subject has been improved. Thanks!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 11, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      Thank you, and you’re very welcome! Excited for you to see the lights one day 🙂

  • Reply Blair Villanueva August 12, 2016 at 4:48 am

    such a beautiful and mysterious site! It’s like a well blended eyeshadow!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 12, 2016 at 9:12 am

      Truly the best description of the northern lights! :’D

  • Reply Joanna August 12, 2016 at 4:57 am

    I would love to go and see the Northern Lights one day, the only thing putting me off is the below 0 temperatures. I know that it’s worth though, so i will probably do it one day. And definitely take photos. 🙂

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 12, 2016 at 9:12 am

      They’re truly beautiful! The year I was in Iceland, temperatures were surprisingly above freezing point – definitely not as cold as in Norway/Alaska! 🙂 Can’t wait for you to see them!

  • Reply chantae August 12, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Wow how beautiful! I’m just experimenting with night photography and now will be digging into more of your photography tutorials. I’m dying to see and photograph the northern lights… just have to figure out where 😀

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 12, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      Thank you so much! Subscribe for new photo tutorials – excited to see your work! ☺️

  • Reply Shounak August 12, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    What a blog ! wow, stunning . Its exactly the kind of blog I dream I can have one day…I a so so glad to stumble upon your blog. I am huge photography fan as well and love night photography..am still learning..and you inspired me- Am saving this in my favorites , and subscribing to your blog, Thank you !

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 12, 2016 at 11:40 pm

      You’re so sweet!! Thank you for your kind comments and for subscribing ❤️ I’d love to see your photography too ☺️ Feel free to share!

  • Reply Subhadrika Sen August 13, 2016 at 9:50 am

    These photographs have just blown my mind. I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Hope to see it myself one day.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 13, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Thank you so much! So excited for you to see them 🙂

  • Reply Rashmi and Chalukya August 13, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Capturing northern lights through our eyes and our camera is our dream too. Your post has some great and helpful information about the camera settings and also directions for great picture capture. Pinned post hoping to help us in future if we had to visit.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 13, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      So glad to hear it! ☺️ Feel free to share and can’t wait to see your photos when you see them!

  • Reply Inka August 13, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    The Northern Lights are on my list, I am so jealous that you have been able to see them. The plan is to go to Island, soon and see this epic and this magical nature event.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      Thank you so much! Hope you get to see them soon 🙂

  • Reply Tom August 13, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    My wife has it in her head to go see the northern lights this year, and I’m just starting to collect info on it. I too was thinking Scandanavia, so this is great info, thanks.

  • Reply Chelsea from Live Wanderfully August 13, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    I’d love to visit the Northern Lights someday. I know that somewhere in Northern Canada, they’ve built hotel rooms that look like transparent igloos so that people can watch the aurora borealis from the warmth of their rooms!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      That sounds absolutely AMAZING! I think Finland has something similar too 😀

  • Reply wanderingwagarschristina August 13, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Absolutely stunning photos. Seeing the Northern Lights is definitely a bucket list for me. I hope when we do head out for our trip we are lucky and that we see the lights on our trip. You captured some beautiful colors during your trip. Thanks for the tips.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I sure hope you will 🙂

  • Reply Judson L Moore August 14, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Some friends of mine are going to the Northern Lights in a few months and are hoping to get some photos. I will share this great advice with them!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      Thank you – sharing it would mean the world to me! 🙂

  • Reply Star Lengas: 87pages (@87PageS) August 14, 2016 at 5:26 am

    I didn’t realize you could see the Northern Lights in so many different locations. I hope to be able to see them one day, the photos are beautiful, thanks so much for the tips.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      Thank you so much for reading, and for the thoughtful comment, Star! 🙂 Love your blog as well.

  • Reply Evanne August 14, 2016 at 6:12 am

    Seeing the northern lights has always been a dream of mine! This is such a great article – saving for the day I finally get to see them!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      I’m sure you’ll get to see them someday! 🙂 Thank you for reading.

  • Reply Stella the Travelerette August 14, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    These pictures are amazing! I don’t like extreme cold much, but I think I could brave the cold for the chance to see the Northern Lights for myself.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Thank you so much, Stella! I promise you it’s worth the cold 🙂

  • Reply Anamika Ojha August 14, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Your pictures are just killer and watching northern lights are on my bucket list. Hope to see there someday with my own eyes!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Thank you so much, Anamika! I’m sure you will get to! 🙂

  • Reply Veronica August 15, 2016 at 5:03 am

    Your blog is aesthetic pleasure for me, Pier!
    Thank you for your tips about the Aurora Borealis. It has been on my Bucket list for so long and I really really hope to be able to go to one of the destinations you listed and shoot it.
    Fortunately, I was able to make some good shots of Cappadocia at night so I hope to be able to make some good shots of this northern miracle. Your shots are beyond the reality.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Veronica, your comments are so sweet and make my day! :’) Thank you so much – I look forward to seeing your Cappadocia photos! <3

  • Reply Alina Popescu August 15, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Wow, your photos are so amazing! Always been fascinated with the northern lights, and hope to see them some day. Europe is probably the safest bet for me.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Alina, thank you for always being a supporter of my work – I truly appreciate it! <3

  • Reply Tamz August 15, 2016 at 11:56 am

    I must admit this is a first of its kind post when it comes to the Northern lights. I have come across standalone posts of the Northern Lights before but photography chasing the Northern Lights was such a cool idea. Thanks for this post, it is really amazing

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I’m really glad the post resonated with you – feel free to share your northern lights experiences! 🙂

  • Reply Ami Bhat August 15, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Those are some really useful tips, especially since newbies like me are not even familiar with the landscape and climate. I so want to get to the Northern lights but well, the same is not to be for another year. Wish me luck!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara August 26, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Thank you so much, Ami! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 Best of luck to you, let me know when you get to see them!

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