The northern lights (or aurora borealis) are one of this world’s most magnificent phenomenon.
If you want to capture a glimpse of this incredible occurrence, the best locations in Europe are in northern Scandinavia. However, on nights with a strong solar activity, they have been seen as far south as Scotland and the north of the UK. The best times to see the northern lights are from late September to March due to the dark night skies.
The first time I got to witness them, I wasn’t completely sure what I was seeing. At first, I thought it was strange clouds dancing across the night sky. It is possible to see the northern lights with the naked eye. But a camera will allow you to capture their incredible colours even more vividly. And when I saw the back of my camera, I was blown away by their beauty.
How To Photograph The Northern Lights
You don’t need a background in photography to be able to capture the northern lights, but with a few tips and the right equipment, you too should be able to capture images you’ll treasure for a lifetime.
Let’s start with equipment. Whilst it is not necessary to have the most expensive equipment, there are a few things you can invest in that will give you a better chance of capturing the auroras.
1. A Tripod
Whether you are using an iPhone or a DSLR (or anything in between), a tripod is the most essential piece of equipment for photographing the northern lights. If you only buy one thing, buy a tripod.
2. A Camera That Shoots In Manual Mode
Many digital cameras will have an option to shoot in manual mode and some camera phones have an app that allows you to shoot in manual mode. If you’ve got this option, it will help when trying to take pictures at night.
3. A Remote Shutter Release Cable
With the longer exposures required for night photography, a remote shutter release cable will help you to reduce any camera shake. Alternatively, a camera that has a self-timer or live view is the next best option.
4. A Wide & Fast Lens
If you have a camera system that allows you to change lenses, you’re going to want to pick something wide like a 16-35mm lens, with the possibility to open the aperture as wide as possible (f/2.8 – f/4).
5. Spare Batteries
It can take time and patience when you’re photographing the northern lights. Being stood out in the cold is a killer for camera batteries, so have a few spares stashed in inside pockets.
1. Find Clear, Dark Skies
For the best chances of seeing the northern lights, and for the best pictures, you need to have clear dark skies. If you’re in a city where there is a lot of light pollution, your chances of seeing the aurora are lower unless they are really strong. Find a location away from city lights and you’re going to have more chances of success
2. Long Exposures
The key to great aurora photos is being able to take a long exposure, whatever you are using to take the picture.
A long exposure means leaving the shutter of the camera open for a longer period of time. This results in more light being able to enter the camera and more detail on the image.
If your camera has a manual mode, you’ll be able to set the shutter speed yourself. You’ll want to experiment a little with different shutter speeds to see which offers the most pleasing results, depending on the strength of the aurora. In my experience anything from 2 – 15 seconds should work well.
If your camera doesn’t have a manual mode, have a look at the settings to see if it has a night mode. This is usually a pre-programmed setting that will automatically leave the shutter of the camera open slightly longer.
Make sure that your camera is set up on a tripod for these long exposures. With the shutter being open for longer, the camera is very sensitive to even the smallest movements. A tripod will help to keep the camera still and the resulting image will be much sharper. To reduce movement even more, a remote shutter release or self-time option will mean that you’re not moving the camera when you go to take a picture.
3. Other Settings
If you can only control 1 thing on your camera, shutter speed is the most important for photographing the northern lights. But if you’re more confident and happy to shoot in manual mode, you’re also going to want to select your ISO and aperture (also known as f/stop).
You’re going to want to have your lens open at a wide aperture to allow more light to enter the camera. The lower the number, the wider the aperture. I usually shoot the northern lights around f/2.8 but if you can only go as wide as f/4 that should be ok. You might just need to use a longer shutter speed to compromise.
Setting the camera’s ISO will also affect how sensitive the camera is to light. A higher number means the sensor is more sensitive, so it will record more light, but with a higher ISO number also comes more noise (grain across the image). If you can, try to keep the ISO relatively low, at around 400 – 800 but know that you can push it if you need that extra bit of light.
In low light, your camera will have trouble focusing automatically. If you can switch to manual focus and focus the lens on the point you want to focus on. If there’s nothing in the foreground, then I recommend focus at just before the infinity mark ().
Once you’ve got the hang of the exposure settings, you can try and make more interesting pictures by looking for different compositions. Things you can experiment with include:
– changing where the horizon is in your image
– having some foreground to give the images depth, such as trees or buildings
If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to see how we captured the aurora on our last trip to Finland, check out Ski Touring Under The Northern Lights
If you’ve enjoyed reading this post and want to learn more about the basics of photography, check out my online travel photography course:
An Introduction To Travel Photography
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