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How to Photograph the Northern Lights

How to photograph the northern lights

One of the most beautiful natural spectacles in this world is the aurora borealis. Just lights dancing in the sky for the whole world to see. In this article I'll be giving advice and tips on how to capture this natural wonder and be able to photograph the northern lights.

Editors Note: (Sept 11) With 7 solar flares in the past 7 days and one of the latest being the most powerful in 12 years, X Class flares, the information in this tutorial couldn't be more timely

how to photograph the northern lightsnorthern lights showing their green colors

When to go out

If you want to go out to photograph the Northern Lights you need first figure out when is it a good night to go out to see and shoot them.

Predicting when the Northern Lights will appear

To know which night might be the best to photograph the Northern Lights, you first need to figure out how visible the northern lights are going to be.

Visibility will be determined by a combination of the KP for the night and how far north or south you are.

KP is a measurement of the geometric activity. It ranges from 0-9 with 0 being the weakest and 9 being the strongest. The further south or north you are the lower the KP value that you need to start seeing northern lights in the sky.

Determining Aurora Strength (KP index) for your location

This Aurora Borealis tool will show you the suggested minimum KP that you need to see the northern lights for your location, whether you live in North America, Europe or Asia.

It's like a “northern lights map.”

Aurora Borealis Forecast and Alert Service

For determining the KP for any particular day there are websites dedicated to this and also apps to notify you of high KP nights.

One of the best, Service Aurora, has 3 separate northern lights alert services specifically for your location:

They forecast the KP for the next three days using real-time solar wind data from NASA.

Give them your email, and they'll send you a message giving you a heads up that when KP hits 4 and you're likely to see some activity.

As for apps there are a few out there but two that are popular is Aurora Alert and Aurora Forecast.

aurora borealis photo

Where to Photograph the Northern Lights

Once you have figured out a good night to photograph the northern lights you’ll need to decide where you want to see them.

Before heading out make sure you check the skies are clear.

If it’s cloudy you won’t be able to see much in the sky.

If they’re clear then you want to go to a place that has very little or no light population. This will improve your odds of seeing the lights in the sky.

So this mean pretty much get ready for a roadtrip as you’ll need to head out of the city. Below is a link to a map that shows the light pollutions around the world.

Finding Light Pollution

Use this light pollution map to determine the best and worst places all over the world. In effect, you're looking for dark sky areas.

photographing the northern lights

Camera Equipment Needed to Photograph the Northern Lights

At minimum, the camera equipment you need to photograph the northern lights:

  • A camera with manual mode
  • Tripod

The ideal setup would be:

  • Full frame camera
  • Tripod
  • Lens that is wide (<20mm) and has a wide aperture (F2.8-F4)
  • Shutter release

Having a full frame camera is ideal but a crop sensor camera will do too. The advantage of a full frame camera is you will have less noise with night photography and you’ll be able to have a wider shot.

You’ll need a tripod

sturdy tripod for night photography
Tripod with tubular legs in 4 sections and a ball head.

You’ll need to do long exposures for northern light photography that will be greater then 1 second so you’ll need something to keep the camera perfectly still the entire time.

If you handhold your camera at long shutter speeds you will end up with blurry images as you can’t hold the camera perfectly still in your hand for the length of the long exposure.

The ideal lens is a wide angle lens around 20mm or less so you can capture as much of the landscape and sky as possible. You also want a lens with a wide aperture like around F2.8-F4 to maximize the amount of light going into the lens so you can keep you ISO and noise low.

You’ll also want a shutter release or remote trigger.

If you use your hand to push down on the shutter you can cause some vibration when you push the button which will cause you final image to not be sharp.

night sky lit up with northern lights

night photography - northern lights

Camera Settings

The recommended setting for the camera to photograph the Northern Lights would be:

  • Aperture: F2.8-F4
  • Shutter Speed: 10-20 second
  • ISO: 400-1000
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Image Stabilizer: Off

Shooting in manual will give you more control over the settings on your camera and the exposure.

Aperture

An aperture around F2.8-F4 should do.

You want to have your lens open as much as possible to allow as much light into the camera for night photography and letting you use a lower ISO to reduce noise in your image.

Having an aperture less then F2 might make the depth of field too shallow and you might run of risk of blurring out the lights if your focusing isn’t perfect.

Shutter Speed

For the shutter speed it is recommended to keep it between 10-20 seconds.

The actual length of time will depend on how fast the northern lights are moving. Shorter shutter speed if they are moving fast and longer if they are moving slow. You want to find a balance between getting a proper exposure but also defined edges and details in your shot, and not a blurry image from too much movement as the lights dance around in the night sky.

ISO

Keep it as low as possible.

With ISO the rule of thumb is you want to have it as low as possible to reduce the noise but still maintaining proper exposure. So adjust the ISO as needed for proper exposure after you have set your aperture and shutter speed.

White Balance

For white balance you can just leave it on auto.

Leave in on auto and adjust it afterwards in post processing if you find it too warm or cool. Of course if you prefer to get it correct in camera you can set your white balance to what you like in camera.

Image Stabilizer

For many lenses they will have a built in image stabilizer. Turn image stabilization off.

Since you’ll be using a tripod to photograph the northern lights you want to turn this off.

It’s usually a switch on your lens.

The reason why you want this turned off is because when it is turned on when the camera is perfectly still it will actually shake the camera because it is expecting some kind of camera movement from your hand and will try to counter balance it.

The northern lights and Canadian landscape

photo of the northern lights

How to Focus at Night

Focusing in the dark can be really tricky.

The way that a camera focuses is by using a spot in the scene that has contrast. If the scene is very dark there might not be a lot of contrast in the scene for the camera to use to set the focus.

camera lens showing infinity setting for night photography focusing
If you have a lens that shows you the focus range switch to manual focus and manually turn the focus to infinity.

Here are some tips on how to focus in the dark.

Start with manual focus.

If you have a lens that shows you the focus range switch to manual focus and manually turn the focus to infinity. This will get the sky in focus.

You can also pre-focus your camera during the day for the sky and then switch to manual focus and don’t adjust your focus for the entire night.

You can even use tape to tape down the focus ring to prevent it from moving.

What about auto focus?

If you want to use auto focus try switching your focusing mode to single point auto focus and use back button focus.

The reason for single point focus if it’ll give you more control over what you want to focus on.

You can pick a specific spot to focus on instead of letting the camera look at the entire scene and deciding for itself what to focus on. As for the reason to switch to back button focus instead of using the shutter button to focus is if you use back button focus you only need to set the focus once and then shoot every single image afterwards at that focus.

If you were to use the shutter button to focus you would need to constantly refocus every time you take a picture and it might not focus and let you take the shoot or get the focus wrong.

Now with auto focus you need something with contrast to focus on. If the moon is out you can use that.

You can even use the edges of something in the far distance like the tops of trees or a building. If the northern lights are really bright you can use the edges of it.

aurora dancing in the night sky

Be Patient and Have Fun

Go out and have fun.

Shooting northern lights will test your patience.

You’ll head out to photograph the northern lights in the middle of the night and stay up for a few hours because the KP is high but might not see anything due to cloudy night or just simply not enough activity.

You’ll probably have to head out a few times before you finally see them. But when you do finally see them it will be amazing and it will be all worth it.

Steven Li - Night Photographer

Steven Li - Night PhotographySteven Li is a full time professional photographer with a passion for travel and teaching photography. While specializing in Night Photography, Steven is adept at wedding photography, travel photography, portrait photography and commercial work. His love for travel has allowed him to experience many countries in the world including Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe, Russia, and India. It's his mission to capture the beauty of multiculturalism that exists in this world and using the photos to inspire others to travel more as well.

View more of Steven's photography on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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