How to Photograph the Northern Lights: A Beginner’s Guide

Aurora photography is different from regular photography and most of us aren’t professional photographers. But that doesn’t mean you have to go home empty-handed without photos to remember the magical experience!

In this guide, you will learn how to do aurora photography—made easy!

Aurora Borealis Photography

Basic Gear

Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras and mobile phones won’t work. The minimum requirements to capture a decent aurora shot:

1. Camera with manual mode, meaning you can control the light by adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

2. Sturdy tripod to keep the camera still, as you will need to take long exposure shots ranging from 5 to 30 seconds.

Four Essential Controls

I promise this is the only four jargons I’ll bore you with. Get used to them and you’ll do fine.

1. Aperture (the amount of light you let into the camera)

  • Aurora usually appears quite dim. In order to let the most light in, you need to open the lens as wide as possible.
  • Aperture is expressed as fraction, and hence, you need to get the lowest setting possible to open the lens wide. Most kit only allow you to go down to f/3.5, but a good camera may be able to go further down to f/2.8.

2. Shutter speed (how long the light will enter the camera)

  • It’s simple. Longer exposure means it’ll capture more lights, but less details. Thus, the length of exposure absolutely depends on speed: the faster the aurora moves, the shorter your exposure should be.
  • If the aurora moves slowly with minimum motion or structure, a longer exposure (10-30 seconds) will help you to capture more lights as it moves, creating a nicer, thicker green “band”.
  • But if the aurora is moving fast, you’ll need shorter exposure (5-7 seconds) so that you can capture the vivid details. If it’s moving very fast, you may need to shorten it even further! Otherwise, you’ll end up with photos of “bright green nothing” in the sky.

3. ISO (the sensitivity of your camera to the incoming light)

  • Basically, the higher the ISO, the more light it absorbs. But if you set it too high, it’ll start to create noise in your photos. Thus, ISO depends on brightness: the brighter the aurora, the less ISO you need.
  • You can start with ISO of 400-800 and adjust from there. If the result is too dim, increase the ISO. If the aurora is already bright enough, then you can keep to low ISO to create smoother photos with minimum noise. You’ll likely shoot in the range of 800-1600 (or higher if you have good cameras capable of high ISO without noise).
  • As shutter speed influences how bright your photos would be, you may need to modify your ISO as you adjust shutter speed. Assuming all other factors equal: the shorter the exposure is (meaning less light coming in), the more ISO you need.

4. Focus (the distance that your camera will focus on)

  • Focus affects the sharpness of your image. For aurora photography, because you’re taking pictures of something very far away, set your lens’ focus to infinity (∞).
  • If you’re on manual focus, find something in the sky (e.g. moon, bright planets) or an object in the distance (e.g. house, light tower) to focus on.

Let’s do a quick exercise. You snapped your first shot and the below is what came out, what adjustment to camera settings would you make to improve subsequent shots?

Scroll down once you’re ready for the answer.

Aurora Borealis Photography

Some details of the aurora shape is lost. The photo could definitely benefit from much shorter exposure. By reducing the shutter speed, you may need to increase the ISO slightly to maintain the same brightness.

Scouting the Right Location

As a general rule of thumb, you need to select a place which is:

  1. within the aurora belt;
  2. far from light pollution;
  3. not covered with clouds; and
  4. well-framed with an interesting object—such as a mountain or lake—as a focal point, but said object should not block the sky.

For more details, read Your Complete Guide to Northern Lights: Where, When, How.

Hamnøy, Norway

A Few Final Tips

  • Bring 2-3 spare batteries and make sure they are fully charged. In cold weather, batteries tend to discharge faster.
  • Keep the tripod legs low to the ground to keep it steady. Arctic night tends to get windy and it may topple your camera down.
  • Use timer or remote shutter release. You don’t want to shake the camera and affect your image quality when your hand presses down the button.

I hope you find this simplified guide useful. Feel free to share any other tips or your favorite Northern Lights photos on the comment box below!

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