How to photograph aurora borealis, northern lights in Lapland, Finland

A quick guide to photographing Northern lights

I remember trying to photograph the Northern lights with my phone camera and all I got was a series of pitch black pictures. There are a couple of things to take into account when taking pictures. When it comes to photography gear, my tips are also money-saving! All the pictures on this page are taken by me so I’ll be sharing good, bad and strange pictures! That way you can learn the best tricks right away and  correct your settings if you’re experiencing the same problems I had when taking my first pics.

Environment

Make sure that the place is as little artificially lit as possible. Sometimes even far away city lights can have an unwanted effect on the picture (especially when the light is distributed on a wide area). On the other hand, a moderate amount of artificial light can make a picture interesting. The picture above shows that even with road lights in the picture I was able to catch the Aurora because they simply were bright enough. The crazy picture below is not photoshopped but the yard was lit with blue lights in the evening. 20 seconds was enough to still get the aurora on the background.

f/4 exp.20sec ISO-400
f/4 exp.20sec ISO-400
  • You might want to include some of the landscape into the picture, that way the scale of the northern lights can be understood better.
  • Check out my tips about finding the Aurora here.
Gear

I’ve taken all my pictures without a tripod, just using a metal bucket and my mittens to direct the objective. I can honestly say that taking pictures without other expensive equipment than a DSLR camera is possible, but as you can see from all my pictures, the horizon is often angled and the photos would look more balanced if they were taken more from the view of a person.

I used the 2 second self-timing function on my camera to make sure that my camera wouldn’t move when I press the button to take the picture. This way no expensive (and in cold temperatures easily breakable) external shutter release cable was needed.

Camera settings

My camera is a basic DSLR, Nikon D3000. The lens I’m using is a Sigma EX DC OS HSM 17-50mm f/2.8. I invited some travelers to take pictures with me and gave them tips on which settings to use. I gotta say that with very expensive equipment their pictures turned out better than mine so there are great differences in lenses and cameras and I don’t necessarily recommend the ones I have. It’s just to give you an idea about what I’ve been shooting these photos with. I’m dreaming of having a wide angle lens for capturing a larger area of the sky at once.

So your camera settings will depend not only on your camera model but the lens and the environment. The snow conditions and the moon have a great effect!  Sometimes I couldn’t take pictures when the full moon was lighting up the whole field like a strong street lamp. (That’s when you can walk around in the forest in the middle of the night and see everything clearly. 🙂 ) Take several test pictures on the spot and try around with your camera settings.

If you want to catch the light show on a film:

  • Use long exposure time (to gather all the light you can)
  • Set the lens focus to eternity (because you’re shooting landscape pictures and you want the pictures to be sharp)

A good way to start might be something like:

f/4 exp.30 sec ISO-800
f/4 exp.30sec ISO-800
f/4 exp.30sec ISO-800
f/4 exp.30sec ISO-800
f/3.5 exp.25sec ISO-200
f/3.5 exp.25sec ISO-200

If your picture looks grainy, try around with the ISO sensitivity. I had to lower mine quite a bit because my first pictures looked like this:

f/4.5 exp.20sec ISO-1600
f/4.5 exp.20sec ISO-1600

After taking this picture, I also had to check my lens focus because the treetops weren’t sharp.

Patience

The Northern lights often come in waves so in order to get amazing pictures you might have to reserve an hour or two for the photoshoot. Remember to pack hot juice with you, or even some hot chocolate with mint liqueur if you are in Finland! Here are tips for dressing up for cold weather.

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