The aurora borealis, or ‘the northern lights’ are perhaps the most iconic natural phenomenon to occur on earth, and almost everyone has seen incredible photography of colored particles dancing across the night sky.
But, how do photographers capture the aurora in all its brilliance? It’s no secret that it can be tricky to achieve, but by following a few simple rules you’ll have a much greater chance of emulating those iconic images.
Here are our top tips for capturing the northern lights in all their glory.
Always plan ahead
If you’re aiming to shoot something as specific as the northern lights, then clearly you need to plan ahead to ensure that conditions are right before you make the effort to seek them out. There are a few things that you’ll need to consider before you pick up your camera gear:
- Where to shoot – unsurprisingly, as a general rule the northern lights are best seen in high latitude parts of the world. Ideally you’ll need to be north of the Arctic Circle; think places like Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greenland. It’s entirely possible to see the lights in other parts of the northern hemisphere during particularly powerful solar storms, but they are likely to be much less vivid. You’ll also need to avoid light pollution, and the Google and NASA Blue Marble Light Pollution Map is the perfect tool for finding areas with little to no pollution.
- When to shoot – it goes without saying that you’ll need darkness to shoot the northern lights, so the winter months are better since the far north of the earth experiences up to 24 hours sunlight during summer. You’ll also need as little cloud cover as possible, so check the forecast before heading out. To get an idea of the strength of the northern lights, search the KP Index online: this will tell you how much activity there is in any given part of the world.
Perfect your focus during daylight hours
You and your camera’s autofocus will find it much easier to focus when there’s light, so scout out your shooting location and do some practice shots before nightfall. Set your camera up with the lens that you plan to use, and adjust it to focus at infinity (your lens will have the infinity symbol on it) or at the horizon. From there, you can take a few practice shots and make any necessary adjustments manually.
Once you’re happy with your focus, it can be useful to mark the focus ring and the barrel of the lens with a silver permanent marker so you can easily adjust back to that focal point when you return to shoot the northern lights after dark.
Shooting the northern lights can be extremely tricky for amateur photographers as it’s usually necessary to get off full-auto mode. As we’ll discuss later in this post, the ability to control aperture and shutter speed is very important when photographing the aurora, as your camera won’t be able to read its surroundings in the same way that it can in more standard lighting conditions. In auto mode your camera will also want to use the flash, which is a huge no-no when shooting the northern lights.
... and full frame
Full frame cameras are far superior when shooting the northern lights, as they have a larger sensor which will help you achieve much better results in difficult to manage lighting such as under the aurora. Full frame cameras are, of course, much more expensive than medium format SLR’s, but if you’re serious about your photography then it’s worth the investment.
Select your lens
A wide angle lens will allow you to capture much more of the landscape underneath the northern lights, so that’s your best bet when choosing which lens to shoot with. A focal length of around 14 mm – 24mm will give you great flexibility when framing your shot, and a lens with a low f-stop will ensure that it will allow lots of light into your camera.
A tripod is a must
To take great long exposure shots you’ll need a sturdy tripod that isn’t going to slip or shake. Remember that you’re likely going to be on uneven ground and perhaps in the wind when shooting the northern lights, so it’s worth spending more on a premium tripod that you can trust to help you create high quality images.
Even the movement of your finger on the shutter button can be enough to ruin an otherwise amazing shot, so it’s also worth investing in a remote release to ensure that your camera is perfectly still throughout your exposure. If not, utilize your camera’s self-timer whenever possible.
Use your Camera's ISO
By cranking up the ISO you’ll allow more light to flow into your camera’s sensor, and with the northern lights this is definitely something that you’ll want to do. Most cameras are able to shoot relatively clean images at an ISO of up to 1600, but you’ll need to experiment to see what works for you.
When you get to your chosen location on the night of your shoot, take a couple of test shots between the range of 400 and 800 to see whether you’re getting enough light into your images. If not, take it higher until you’re happy with your images.
Remember that the higher the ISO, the more noise you’re likely to get, but it’s always worth settling for this over blur, which will drastically reduce the quality of your photographs.
Play with exposure
As we’ll discuss further in our tips on editing, it’s always better to under expose than to over expose. Your camera’s histogram is your best friend for keeping an eye on this, so watch this to make sure you’re not letting too much light bleach your images.
For northern lights photography watch your color histogram as well as your luminance histogram, as it can be easy to blow out your green channel.
Adjust your aperture
The more light your lens takes in, the lower you can go with shutter speed, so open that aperture up. That being said though, as a rule most photographers agree that f/2.8 is the best aperture to use for northern light photography, as it becomes difficult to focus at night across the entire depth of field with an aperture that’s wider than this (even if you set up your focus during daylight hours).
If you can get away with a higher f-stop without having to compensate with an ISO that makes your images noisy, an aperture of f/3.5 or f/4 will also work well.
Select you shutter speed
If you’ve followed our advice of taking a tripod with you to shoot the lights, you’ll have much more freedom to play around with your shutter speed. The aurora moves at varied speeds, so there’s no hard and fast rule for which shutter speed you should be using.
If it’s moving through the sky fairly quickly, start off by trying an exposure time of around five seconds and see whether you’re getting too much motion blur at that setting. For slow moving aurora, anything above ten seconds should give you enough time to get plenty of light into the sensor.
Every shot will differ, so give yourself time to play around with your settings until you’re happy.
Don’t forget about post production
Before going out and shooting anything, it’s always worth knowing what can and cannot be fixed via post-production software. It’s also important to shoot RAW images as having more data will give you much more room for correcting errors.
Noise caused by a high ISO setting can be fixed to a certain point, whereas there’s very little that can be done about blur caused by an insufficiently high ISO. Underexposure can also be rectified during editing, and you’ll usually find that most dark detail can be recovered. Overexposure can’t be fixed in the same way though, as there’s no detail there to bring out, so keep a close eye on your histogram while shooting.
You can also adjust the white balance in post, if you didn’t do it on your camera for any reason; you’re looking to create a crisp and clean color palette against the darkness of the night sky.
It might seem like shooting the northern lights is best left to the professionals, but with proper planning and plenty of time spent experimenting with your camera, you too can create incredible images of the aurora borealis.
Do you have any other tips for shooting the northern lights? Let us know in the comments.