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How to Photograph Northern Lights: A Photographer’s Guide

a man standing in silhouette in front of a camera on a tripod taking photos of the northern lights
Copyright Kamil

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, offer one of the most captivating spectacles on Earth. Capturing this natural phenomenon on camera can be both challenging and rewarding.

I’ll share practical advice, technical settings, and best practices for aurora photography, tailored for those eager to perfect their shots. Let’s dive into the essentials of photographing the Northern Lights.

Understanding the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, scientifically known as the aurora borealis, are caused by solar particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

These particles emit light of various colours, predominantly green, but also red, yellow, and purple hues. The lights are typically visible in high-latitude regions near the Arctic Circle, such as Norway, Iceland, and Canada.

Photographing the Northern Lights requires a combination of timing, location, and technical skill. While luck plays a part, understanding the science behind the aurora can help you anticipate and capture these stunning displays more effectively.

the northern lights over iceland
Copyright Stein Egil Liland

Choosing the Right Gear

Camera and Lens Selection

For Northern Lights photography, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is essential. These cameras offer manual settings and better low-light performance compared to smartphones or point-and-shoot cameras.

A wide-angle lens with a fast aperture (f/2.8 or lower) is ideal for capturing the expansive skies and faint light of the aurora. Popular choices include 14mm, 24mm, and 35mm lenses. A wide-angle lens allows you to include more of the landscape in your shot, enhancing the visual impact of the aurora borealis.

Tripod and Remote Shutter

A sturdy tripod is crucial for stabilising your camera during long exposures. Any movement can result in blurry images, so investing in a quality tripod is worthwhile. Additionally, a remote shutter release or intervalometer helps minimise camera shake, ensuring sharper images.

Modern camera lenses with reflections, low key image

Planning Your Shoot

Research and Timing

Timing is critical for aurora photography. The best periods are usually during the winter months, from late September to early April, when the nights are longest and darkest.

However, check aurora forecasts and weather reports to increase your chances of a successful shoot. Websites and apps like SpaceWeatherLive and AuroraWatch UK provide real-time updates on solar activity and aurora visibility.

Location Scouting

Choosing the right location is just as important as timing. Opt for areas with minimal light pollution, away from city lights. Elevated locations such as hills or open landscapes provide unobstructed views of the sky. Popular spots include national parks, remote countryside, and coastal areas.

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Camera Settings for Aurora Photography

Photographing the Northern Lights requires manual control over your camera settings. Automatic modes often fail to capture the nuances of low-light scenes.

  • Aperture: Set your lens to its widest aperture (f/2.8 or lower) to allow maximum light to enter.
  • Shutter Speed: Start with a shutter speed of 10-20 seconds. Adjust based on the intensity of the aurora and ambient light conditions. Longer exposures can capture more light but may cause star trails.
  • ISO: Use an ISO between 800 and 3200. Higher ISO values increase sensitivity but also add noise. Experiment to find the balance between exposure and image quality.
Northern Lights in the sky above a house and a tree
Copyright Stuart Hodgson (iPhotography Student)

How to Focus in the Dark

Achieving sharp focus in low light can be tricky. Autofocus often struggles, so switch to manual focus. Use live view mode to zoom in on a bright star or distant light source and adjust the focus until it’s sharp. Mark this point with tape or note the position to quickly refocus if needed during the shoot.

Composition Techniques

Incorporating foreground elements such as trees, mountains, or buildings can add depth and context to your aurora shots.

These elements provide a sense of scale and make your images more engaging. Look for interesting silhouettes or reflective surfaces like water to enhance the composition.

Apply the rule of thirds to position the horizon and aurora within your frame.

Place the horizon along the lower third of the frame, leaving ample space for the sky and Northern Lights to dominate the image. This creates a balanced and visually appealing composition.

Post-Processing Tips

Post-processing can enhance the colours and details of your aurora images. Start with basic adjustments in Lightroom or Photoshop, such as exposure, contrast, and white balance. Increase the clarity and vibrance to bring out the colours of the aurora.

Long exposures and high ISO settings often introduce noise. Use noise reduction tools sparingly to maintain image sharpness while minimising grain. Lightroom’s noise reduction slider can help balance this, but avoid over-processing which can result in loss of detail.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Light pollution can diminish the visibility of the Northern Lights. To mitigate this, use a lower ISO and shorter exposure time. Additionally, shoot in RAW format to have more flexibility in post-processing, where you can reduce the impact of light pollution on your images.

Overexposure can wash out the colours of the aurora. To avoid this, lower your ISO or shorten the exposure time. If the aurora is particularly bright, a shutter speed of 5-10 seconds may suffice. Check your histogram to ensure highlights are not clipped.

a lighthouse with a shining light on the night sky with northern lights
Copyright Sebastian Velandia

Advanced Techniques

Time-lapse Photography

Creating a time-lapse of the Northern Lights can showcase their dynamic movement. Set your camera on a tripod and use an intervalometer to take consecutive shots at regular intervals (e.g., every 5-10 seconds). Combine the images in software like LRTimelapse or Adobe After Effects to create a seamless time-lapse video.

 

Panorama Stitching

For an expansive view of the aurora, consider shooting a panorama. Take multiple overlapping shots from left to right, ensuring consistent exposure settings across all frames. Use software like Adobe Photoshop to stitch the images together into a single wide-angle photo.

panorama of northern lights in Iceland
Copyright Stein Egil Liland

Ethical Considerations

Respecting Nature

When photographing the Northern Lights, be mindful of the environment. Stick to designated paths and avoid disturbing wildlife. Leave no trace of your visit and pack out all waste. Ethical photography ensures that these natural wonders remain pristine for future generations.

 

Respecting Local Communities

If shooting near inhabited areas, respect local customs and privacy. Avoid trespassing on private property and be considerate of local residents, especially during late-night shoots. Building positive relationships with local communities can enhance your photography experience and open up new opportunities.

Conclusion

Photographing the Northern Lights is a rewarding endeavour that combines technical skill with a bit of luck. By understanding the science, choosing the right gear, and mastering your camera settings, you can capture stunning images of the aurora borealis.

Remember to plan your shoot carefully, respect the environment, and continuously refine your techniques.

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