How to Photograph the Northern Lights: A Step by Step Guide

(This post has been updated – 31 March, 2017)

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Let’s assume you’ve done your research and selected a time of year and location that increases your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.  Let’s assume the conditions and an element of luck are on your side and they are dancing in the sky above you.  Let’s assume you have the right photography equipment with you.

What’s next?  How do you actually create a photograph of the Northern Lights?

Below is a simple checklist for ‘first timers’, with additional guidelines provided below the table.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights 

STEP ONE:  Prepare Your Camera

  • Select “Manual” mode
  • Select RAW (or RAW + JPEG) file format
  • Remove UV or other filters from your lens
  • Switch off Noise Reduction
  • Insert a fully charged battery (and carry a spare)
  • Insert a large enough Memory Card (and carry a spare)
  • Attach to your tripod
STEP TWO:  Compose Your Shot
STEP THREE:  Focus

  • Select “manual focus” on your lens
  • Turn the focusing ring to ‘infinity’
  • Focus on the brightest object in the sky (the moon or the brightest star)
  • Centre on it through your viewfinder
  • Switch on Live View and zoom in as far as you can
  • Adjust the focusing ring until it is sharp.
  • Take note of this position and keep checking it doesn’t move
STEP FOUR: Adjust ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed

  • Select the widest aperture of your lens  (e.g. f/2.8) and leave it fixed
  • Take a test shot (e.g. ISO 800 and shutter speed 15 seconds)
  • Adjust ISO and shutter speed to achieve desired exposure
STEP FIVE:  Take The Shot!

 

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STEP ONE: Prepare Your Camera

The Northern Lights are unpredictable.  They can appear suddenly and disappear just as quickly.  So get your camera ready before you go.

  • Select manual mode
  • Select RAW (or RAW + JPEG) file format
  • Remove UV or other filters from your lens (they can cause interference fringes that are very difficult to remove in post processing)
  • If your camera gives you the option, decide if you want Noise Reduction switched on or off (I switch it off because it doubles the write time and for long exposures I don’t like waiting another 15-30 seconds before I can take another shot.  Also, I can apply noise reduction in Lightroom in post processing.)
  • Have a fully charged battery in your camera and a spare close by. (Cold weather, using live view and shooting long exposures can deplete the battery faster than usual)
  • Make sure you have a spare memory card in your pocket and the one in your camera has enough space for your larger RAW shots
  • Attach to your tripod!

TIP #1: Shoot in RAW

If your camera gives you the option to choose between a RAW or JPEG file format (check the settings in your MENU) and you’ve been shooting in JPEG, now is a good time to change.  Put simply, a JPEG file is the camera’s compression of the RAW file.  Shooting in RAW allows you to process the uncompressed file instead of the camera, giving you greater opportunity and control over creative decisions and corrections.

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 STEP 2: Compose Your Shot

The difference between a good aurora photo and a great aurora photo is usually the composition.  But how do you compose a shot in the dark?

You can keep shooting until you get your composition right or you can over-expose a test shot (by lighting the area in front of you with a torch or increasing ISO to a significantly high number) to review your composition.  Remember, this ‘over-exposure’ approach is just to provide enough light to finalise your composition – you’ll adjust to the right exposure in the next steps.

Ideally, scout possible locations and try different compositions during daylight hours.

TIP 2: Get creative with your composition

The most appealing photographs are those with an interesting foreground or a composition that conveys a sense of scale or place.  You can apply the same composition rules you would to any photograph, in particular:

  • look for lead-in lines or interesting objects in the foreground (a road, a tent, a shack on the beach, a rock or boulder)
  • break the rule of thirds to bring more sky into the image
  • look for reflections of the lights in water
  • create interesting silhouettes with snow covered mountains
  • try ‘light-painting’ your foreground
  • put yourself in the frame for an aurora selfie!

 Northern Lights_Kellie Netherwood

STEP 3: Focus

Before you create your Northern Lights masterpiece you need to make sure it’s in focus.  Finding the ‘sweet spot’ can be challenging, especially during weaker Aurora displays where there is less light.  But it’s not impossible:

  • Select Manual Focus Mode
  • Turn the focusing ring to ‘infinity’
  • Focus on the brightest object in the sky (the moon or the brightest star) and centre on it through your viewfinder
  • Switch on Live View and zoom in as far as you can, adjusting the focusing ring until it is sharp.  You’ve now found the focus “sweet spot”!
  • Once you’ve found the “sweet spot” take note of how far it is from the ‘infinity’ position and keep checking it hasn’t moved.

TIP #3: Double Check the Focus

There is nothing more disappointing than reviewing what looks like a sharp image on your camera, only to realise it’s out of focus when reviewing it later on a larger computer.  Zoom into a shot after you take it to double-check your manual focus setting is accurate.

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STEP 4: Adjust ISO, Aperture & Shutter Speed Settings

The lights are dancing in the sky, your camera is ready, you have composed a stunning scene and you have checked your manual focus.  You are now ready to adjust your aperture, ISO and shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure.  The combination of these factors will depend on the lens you are using, the strength of the Aurora, available light and the type of shot you are aiming for.

  • Select the widest aperture your lens allows (eg f/2.8) and keep it fixed
  • Take a test shot (ISO 800 and 15 seconds is a good starting point)
  • Continue to take test shots, adjusting your ISO and shutter speed until you find your optimal settings.  Finding the right exposure requires a trade-off between desired shutter speed and acceptable ISO, but ideally you want ISO as low as possible to reduce ‘noise’ in your images.  The ISO level that results in ‘acceptable noise’ differs from camera to camera.

TIP #4: Apply Different Shutter Speeds to Different Scenarios

  • Try a longer exposure (eg 25 seconds) to bring out a faint aurora and/or stars in the sky
  • Decrease the shutter speed as the aurora grows stronger (e.g. 10-15 seconds)
  • Apply a short shutter speed to bring out the detail in fast moving strong auroras (e.g. 1-5 seconds)

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STEP 5: Take the shot!

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Other Useful Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights:

  • Keep a lens cloth handy and keep checking your lens
  • Wear a head lamp for adjusting settings and a strong torch for light painting (but be considerate of other people and don’t shine a light into their shots)
  • Use light to your advantage.  Well-timed car trails can add a great dimension to your shots and a passing car may even “paint” your foreground in light for you.
  • Bring a laptop to edit, review and assess (and backup) your shots on the trip.  If you are lucky enough to see the lights on more than one occasion, it can be a great opportunity to make improvements you’ve identified through your self-critique.
  • Dress warmly and comfortably.  There is nothing worse than the discomfort of the cold ruining your experience.
  • If you are in a particularly cold environment, keep your camera sealed in a bag for a few hours when returning to a warm room, to avoid the risk of condensation

And most of all, remember to step away from the camera, look up into the sky and soak up the moment you are in.  Seeing the aurora with your own eyes is an incredibly unique and magical experience.

Have you photographed the Northern Lights?  Do you have any additional tips?

 

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Hope I get a chance to try this sometime!

  2. Wonderful tips kellie. I just took a night photography course we did a lot of the light painting.

    I would love to see the Northern Lights some time, but since I endeavor to always follow summer, it probably won’t happen.

    • Yes, following summer is going to make it difficult! One of the reasons I have waited this long to see them is that I was always worried about going somewhere to see them, not seeing them, and feeling like I wasted the time and money. But going with a photography hobby changes things completely!

  3. After a few months of chasing the Aurora up in Yellowknife, NWT, I have found it is very important to take the camera strap off if there is any wind! I had a few pictures ruined when a gust came up and the strap swaying caused just enough movement for a blurry photo. When it’s -40 C (or colder!) you don’t want to spend any more time outside in the elements then absolutely necessary!

    • Great tip Jesse – although I always get nervous my tripod is going to tip over if I don’t have the strap around my neck (must be from the time it did actually do that…tipped straight into a lagoon and ruined my camera!!)

      But really good point about the impact the wind can have and it doesn’t take much movement to cause blur…and often you don’t notice it until you get back inside and look at your photo on a larger screen, and then its too late to take it again!

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