Chasing and photographing the Aurora Borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) is one of the most special experiences for any photographer. It’s a spectacular show for the eyes, but seeing the lights captured in your camera is simply magical.
However, it’s not all roses because Northern Lights photography is one of the most complex types of images to create. To help you capture the best possible aurora images, I am going to give you some of THE best tips that I’ve learned after many years of photographing the Aurora Borealis worldwide!
How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis
- Start with the right planning
- Understand the Aurora Forecast
- Look for a dark sky area with no clouds
- Prepare your camera gear
- Compose your aurora image
- Focus your lens
- Use the right camera settings
- Edit your Aurora photos
#1 Start With the Right Planning
Before we can talk about settings and details, the most important thing to know about how to photograph the Aurora Borealis is to start off on the right foot by planning your trip and session.
As you may already know, the Aurora can only be seen at higher latitudes either in the North or the South Celestial Pole. So start looking into Aurora destinations that are accessible like Iceland, Norway, northern parts of Canada, Alaska, the Finnish and Swedish Laplands, etc.
Regarding dates, my recommendation is to plan your trip during the Aurora season, which varies depending on the destination. Typically that ranges from early September to early April in the Northern Hemisphere.
PRO TIP: If you want to maximize your chances of seeing and capturing the Aurora, plan your trip during either the fall or spring equinox when the solar activity is higher.
#2 Understand the Aurora Forecast
There’s no way to be in the right place at the right time unless you understand the Aurora forecast, which will help you decide if going out to chase the green lights is worth it or not.
There are many different sites and apps that will make things easier by pointing out the chances of seeing the Aurora in your location. If you want to get deeper into this, I recommend checking the Northern Lights forecast section in our Aurora photography guide.
PRO TIP: Apps are not 100% accurate, so as long as you are at a high-latitude and there’s a slight chance of seeing the Aurora, go for it!
#3 Understand the Aurora Forecast
Even when the solar activity is high and the aurora activity is promising, there are still two factors that can keep you from enjoying the magical show:
- Light pollution (near urban centers)
- Clouds (blocking your view)
Try to stay away from big cities, towns, and similar light-polluted areas since this will vanish the lights in the sky. I always recommend checking a light pollution map to find where are the darker areas near you.
Lastly, don’t forget that clouds are also your enemy, so keep an eye on the weather forecast and look for locations where you can enjoy clear skies. I suggest checking Windy.com, where you can see how the clouds will move in real-time.
#4 Prepare Your Camera Gear
You know that all it’s about the photographer, not the camera, but in this genre, camera gear is certainly crucial since you’ll be working in extreme light conditions.
First, make sure that your camera and lenses are weather-sealed to stand the cold temperatures of the Arctic and high latitudes.
Secondly, as we’ll discuss later, you’ll be shooting relatively short exposures in low-light conditions, which will force you to use a high ISO and push your camera gear to its limits.
My recommendation is to use a full-frame camera sensor to get the best results. Bigger sensors have bigger pixels, which are better at capturing light with no noise than crop sensors.
Lenses are as equally important as cameras, so don’t forget to pair your camera with a good lens for Aurora and the Northern Lights. Use a fast (large maximum aperture like f/2.8, etc.), wide-angle lens, since this will help you capture a wider area of the scene while using a faster aperture.
PRO TIP: Don’t forget other essential accessories like a remote shutter, a headlamp, extra batteries, and winter photography gloves.
#5 Compose Your Aurora Image
One of the most common beginner mistakes in photography is forgetting about your composition.
This is probably the number one error that I see in most Aurora images; photographers get too excited about the show that they point their cameras at the sky and forget about the foreground.
One beautiful thing about photographing The Green Lady is that everything in the entire scene is tinted in intense green colors when there’s a strong show.
Use areas with reflections like water, ice, or snow, and include interesting visual elements in your foreground to enhance your composition.
#6 Focus Your Lens
Focusing correctly is one of the best tips to photograph the Aurora.
There are different focusing techniques, but my recommendation is to focus always on a distant light using the manual focus in your lens.
*Switch your lens (and body if you shoot Nikon) to Manual focus and use the Live View screen and magnify the view to help you focus.
Use any external illumination like road lights or a bright star if you are in a completely dark location. Take some test shots to ensure that your focus is correct, and don’t move your focus ring again unless you change your lens or focal length (i.e. zoom in or out).
PRO TIP: Check your focus from time to time to avoid blurred images if you accidentally move your focus ring or bump the camera.
#7 Use the Right Camera Settings
This is also one of the trickiest parts of Aurora photography. As previously mentioned, the light conditions will be extreme, so choosing the right camera settings can make the difference between a great Aurora image or a failed shot.
Settings will vary depending on the conditions but, here are some general starting points for you:
- Aperture: This is the easiest adjustment. Simply use the largest aperture available on your lens (ideally f/2.8 or bigger if you have it, f/1.8 for example).
- ISO: Use a high ISO, while keeping the noise under control depending on your camera model. Generally, in entry-level cameras, this will be between 3200-6400. Whereas in advanced full-frame cameras, you can raise your ISO between 5000 and 12,800 comfortably.
- Shutter Speed: This is the key setting in Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis photography. Using a long shutter speed of 12-18 seconds like in Milky Way photography, will translate into Aurora images with no shape and texture. If you want to capture all the details, use a shorter shutter speed according to the movement of the aurora, usually between 1 and 8 seconds.
For photographers who want to know how to photograph the Aurora Borealis, settings are critical.
PRO TIP: Don’t forget to set a manual white balance, so there’s color consistency in all your images.
#8 Edit Your Aurora Photos
To bring your Aurora images to life, you’ll have to edit your pictures, even if it means applying some small adjustments.
I recommend using photo editing software like Lightroom or Luminar (you can check out Luminar Neo – The Complete Course here). Make any necessary adjustments to bring down your highlights if there are any overexposed sections, raise your shadows, and improve the structure and detail in the Aurora.
Last but not least, I highly recommend using one of the best noise reduction software to eliminate the noise that you’ll find after using high ISOs.
My final tip is to enjoy the show!
There are no words or images to describe the feeling of seeing the green light of the Aurora dancing in the sky. Photographing them is the cherry on the cake and one of the best experiences you’ll ever enjoy as a photographer!