Last week the skies in Iceland were buzzing with activity as the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights came back with a bang. This autumn they have really started in earnest and here are a few tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights to help you make the most of photographing this amazing phenomenon.
This post contains some affiliate links. This means if you click on the Amazon links and purchase an item, you are not charged any extra, but I get a small commission that helps me stay in business. I only link to products I have tested myself and am not paid to advertise these unless stated. You can read more about my policies here.
1. Finding the Northern Lights
Three things need to happen for there to be aurora activity: activity, darkness and a lack of cloud. Ajit Menon has written a very informative explanation to the science behind this beautiful phenomenon of electrically charged particles colliding with gases as they push through the atmosphere. Also see Dean J. Tatooles and Tim Vollmer’s and Dave Morrow’s guides to photographing the Aurora are very good. In the northern hemisphere the aurora are seen throughout the northern and arctic regions but can be seen as far south as Ireland but the most popular destinations for viewing are Iceland, Norway, Canada and Alaska. Obviously if there is no activity no aurora will be present but at the same time the activity can be there but if it’s bright you won’t be able to see it. The lights are generally visible from late September to March with October, February and March being the best months to see the Aurora.
- Check the activity using apps/websites (Iceland, Alaska, Norway, worldwide, US and Canada)
- You need darkness for the lights to be visible, but setup before then to make things easier for yourself
- The lights won’t be visible if there’s heavy cloud, however just a little bit can add drama
- Generally the best times are between 2200 and 0300, however I have seen them before and after this so just be patient
- Choose an area with as little light pollution as possible. The lights can be quite visible in cities such as Reykjavik if there is a lot of activity, and I have seen some nice shots of this, however the difference in light temperatures can also make things more difficult
2. Aurora borealis photography equipment: Camera, lenses and tripods
Here a DSL is the best option with manual settings. I have seen aurora shots on compact cameras and even phones but only when the lights are very strong. I believe there are apps to help you take images on your mobile phone but I’ve never tried them.
Camera: (D)SLR with manual options for settings, I prefer Canon.
Lens: A wide-angle or at most 50mm lens. Prime lenses (without zoom) often allow wider apertures, but just use the widest you have to get the most out of the amazing display in the sky. Remove any filters to avoid blocking the aurora. You’ll need to be able to use manual focusing here and an infinity symbol ∞ and distance markers on the lens is a huge advantage.
Tripod: A good tripod is essential as you will be using long exposures and need to keep the camera steady. If you don’t have one try to improvise with a bag, stones, wall – whatever is handy. Do not handhold the camera.
Remote shutter release/Timer: A remote shutter release is nice to have but if you don’t have one just set a 2-second delay on your camera.
Spare batteries: both for your camera, your headtorch and your shutter release if you have one. The cold drains battery life unbelievably quickly and you will be using more than usual with long exposures and frequent reviewing.
Memory: Bring much more than you will ever think you’ll use. A lot of aurora photography is bracketing and this will eat up memory so bring lots of camera cards, or if you’re doing it the traditional way, bags of film. I use white dots to mark which cards have been used and be careful not to drop them in the dark!
Head torch: This keeps your hands free and if yours has a red light option so much the better to reduce night blindness.
3. Keeping yourself warm and safe when photographing the Northern Lights
Bring the warmest you have of everything. Layers with merino or wool baselayers are much warmer than cotton. You will be standing around in the cold doing very little and it will most likely be freezing. Thin gloves, while you’re operating your camera, are very useful with larger ones or mittens to put over them afterwards. Don’t grab freezing cold metal (eg tripod legs) with your bare hands below freezing). Bonus points for hand warmers. You can never have too many hats and scarves. And remember your camera too. In extreme temperatures cables and plastics can snap and shatter. Bringing a camera back into a warm humid environment very quickly is not healthy for it. Acclimatise it slowly.
Always tell someone where you are going. Do not, under any circumstances get into a situation that you can’t get out of easily. It will be cold and dark. No picture is worth dying for.
4. Camera settings for photographing the Northern Lights
Try to set up your camera before you set out as it’s a pain to do it in the dark, especially focusing. Make sure you have your manual and have read up on changing any of the below settings as there is nothing more frustrating than trying to remember how to change a setting and missing a shot because of it.
Using the widest aperture and a higher ISO allow you to use a faster shutter speed which means if the lights are moving very quickly you retain the detail. Otherwise, you will see a wide ‘smudge’ across the sky. The higher the ISO the grainier the shot will be. While you can remove noise in post-production afterwards try to use a wider aperture and then increase the shutter speed. If when you’re at 30 secs and you’re still not getting enough light to the image increase the ISO in increments (and possibly reduce the shutter speed) until you get a balance you’re happy with.
- ISO: Start with 800 ISO and either go upwards in increments to 1600 (or even 3200) if the images are too dark or down to 400 is they are too bright. Leave changing the ISO until you have exhausted your options with aperture and shutter speed.
- Aperture: Set your camera to the widest possible aperture. If you’re lucky enough to have a f1.8 lens then go for it. Right now I’m working with f3.5 so that’s what I’m working with.
- Focus: Always set your camera to infinity. This is easy if you have an older lens – just turn it to the infinity marker. If like me you don’t either focus on some far away lights, use a torch/light from a phone to pick out an area 20-30 feet away to focus on, or use the LCD preview to zoom in on some stars or lights and focus manually that way.
- White balance: You can leave it to auto and change it in post-production but generally you will be looking at something between 3700K-4100K if there’s moonlight, 4000-5500 if not. It’s easily adjusted afterwards if you shoot in RAW.
- Format: If possible shoot in RAW format as it makes editing so much easier afterwards. Shooting RAW uses a lot more memory so remember to bring lots!
Here are some settings to get you started but remember the most important thing you can do is shoot, review, modify and bracket. There are no fool-proof magic settings that cover every situation and the lights change quickly. If they are moving fast focus on having a shorter exposure and faster shutter speed. If they are moving slower you can go with a longer exposure.
ISO 400 / f2 / 15 seconds
ISO 400 / f2.8 / 30 seconds
ISO 400 / f4 / 60 seconds
ISO 800 / f2 / 7 seconds
ISO 800 / f2.8 / 15 seconds
ISO 800 / f4 / 30 seconds
ISO 1600 / f2 / 4 seconds
ISO 1600 / f2.8 / 15 seconds
ISO 1600 / f4 / 15 seconds
5. Perseverance, luck and patience!
Some nights you can stand around for ages with the best of conditions and forecasts and nothing happens. Or you prepare a perfect composition and the lights appear behind you over an ugly road. Or you give up and when you’ve packed away everything the most amazing display shoot over your head. That’s photography in a nutshell. The lights can change and move rapidly, appearing and disappearing randomly around you. Sometimes you set up for fast-moving lights and they slow down, or vice versa, ruining your exposure.
- Set up early
- Prepare your composition and backup ones
- Be prepared to move if nothing is happening but also to wait it out. (Yes I know this is contradictory).
- Be lucky. (Yes that’s helpful advice). Once in Norway I was trying to make a ferry and unexpectedly the lights appeared over the mountains and the ferry plan went out the window.
- Enjoy them. It’s not just about taking photographs. This is an amazing sight that will stay with you forever. People travel across the world to see this beautiful extravaganza that is Inuit hunters or Valkyrie warriors in the night sky, depending on what you believe. Don’t forget to take a minute and appreciate it.