A Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

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!

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!

guide photographing northern lights

What camera equipment should I use?


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!

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  • 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!

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

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

  • 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! 🙂

    • 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!

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  • 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!!

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

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

  • 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.

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

      You’re very welcome, thank you! 🙂

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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 =))?

    • 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 🙂

  • Rohini August 11, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Awesome pics …

  • 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!

    • 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 🙂

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

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

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

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

  • 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. 🙂

    • 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!

  • 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 😀

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

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

  • 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 still learning..and you inspired me- Am saving this in my favorites , and subscribing to your blog, Thank you !

    • 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!

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

    • Pier Nirandara August 15, 2016 at 5:55 pm

      Great to know, thank you for reading! 🙂

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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!

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

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

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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

    • 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! 🙂

  • 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!

    • 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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  • Jerald Oon March 22, 2017 at 2:21 am

    A fantastic piece, well written, nicely styled and an all around delightful read.

    Love the work Pier! Will come back often to read for my weekly dose of brainfood hehe.

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