A Complete Guide to Northern Light Photography

A Comprehensive Guide to Northern Light Photography

During my years of photographing the Northern lights I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks for catching them with my camera. No two auroras are  the same, which keeps the photography process  interesting.

I remember trying to photograph the Northern lights with my phone camera and all I got was a series of pitch black pictures. I realized that photographing the Northern lights requires very different settings and techniques from the everyday life photography that I was used to.

Once I learned the best practices, I thought that it would be useful to write this Complete Guide to Northern Light Photography for people who are interested in photographing this wonderful phenomenon. After reading my Northern lights photography tips below you should have an idea on how to get it right on the first try! Or maybe you have already taken pictures that didn’t turn out the way they should have? Well, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned, so read on…

There are a couple of things to take into account when photographing the Aurora. 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! This way you can compare your photos to mine and  correct your settings if you’re experiencing the same problems I had when taking my first photos.

LOCATION AND Environment

It all starts with choosing the right location. Make sure that it is possible to see the Northern lights in your region and that the weather conditions are good. For tips on monitoring the Northern light conditions, check out my tips about finding the Aurora here.

Choose an area that is as little artificially lit as possible. Be prepared to stay outdoors for several hours. Read my tips on how to do this in a comfortable way by setting up your own Northern lights camp!

PHOTOGRAPHY Gear

There are a couple of things that you must have in order to be able to photograph the Northern lights. My little list includes:

  1. Camera
    • I have taken the photos on this post using a basic DSLR Nikon D3000 and a  full frame mirrorless Sony a7rIII. I chose these two cameras for this guide in order to give you an idea about what one can do with different types of gear (and with affordable and expensive equipment).
    • The lenses I’m using on the photos in this guide are a Sigma EX DC OS HSM 17-50mm f/2.8 (for Nikon D3000) and a Samyang AF 14mm F2,8 Sony FE (For Sony a7rIII). The Samyang lens is a wide angle lens, which is great for capturing large areas of the night sky at once.
  2. Camera stand
    • Tripod: Northern lights are photographed with long exposure times, so in order to get sharp pictures you will need to plae the amera on a stand. In my experience a tripod will be of gret help when photographing the aurora.
    • Affordable alternatives: I’ve taken several Northern light pictures without a tripod by just using a metal bucket and my mittens to direct the objective. Taking pictures without a tripod is possible, but you will have a t be a bit more creative and have patience. You will have to use time in directing the camera and you might end up with photos in which the horizon is often angled. The photos also look more balanced if they are taken a little bit higher up, from the view of a person.
  3. Remote shutter release
    • As the exposure time fo your photo willbe long, it is important that the camera doesn’t shake. Even pressing the camera shutter button can cause this and using a remote shutter release removes this problem. A self-timer function will do the job as well.
    • Affordable alternatives: Self-timer: I normally 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.
  4. Warm clothing
    • Make sure that you dress up for the current weather and feel comfortable for staying outdoors for a long time. The Northern lights often come in waves so in order to get amazing pictures you might have to reserve at least two hours for the photoshoot. Remember to pack hot juice with you, or even some hot chocolate with mint liqueur if you are in Finland! Check out my tips for dressing up for cold weather
  5. Headlamp
    • A headlamp or another external light source is an important tool for light photography as you have to adjust camera settings in the dark!
    • ou can use the headlamp in the photography process. Take a look at the two photos below featuring people. If you want people’s faces to be recognizable in the picture (photo on the left), flash light quickly (less than a second) on their faces while taking the picture. The picture on the right is taken without additional light.
  6. BATTERIES

    Make sure that the battery of your device is fully charged, as the cold drains batteries quickly. If you have extra batteries with you, be sure to take them along! It is also a good idea to keep your extra batteries in the inside pocket of your jacket to keep them warm.

  7. Post-processing PROGRAM

All of the pictures on this post are post-processed. When you’re choosing an editing program for post-processing the pictures, make sure that you can edit the lightness and noise levels  of the photos. I recommend Adobe Lightroom for easy and fast post-processing.

Camera settings

There are a couple of things that you should know about your camera settings when it comes to northern light photography. Your camera settings will depend not only on your camera model but the lens and the environment. Many rules of night photography do apply, but we have to keep in mind that the northern lights move! So we have to try to catch as much light as possible without setting a super long exposure time. Take several test pictures on the spot and try around with your camera settings.

Let’s look at the aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings next:

APERTURE

Aperture controls the depth of field (the part of the scene that appears  sharp).  Photos taken with a low aperture let in more light, allowing you to take pictures in the dark. Lower f-numbers correspond to a larger entrance pupil for the lens and for our purposes, we should set the f-number as low as possible.

ISO

The ISO indicates the level of sensitivity of your camera when it comes to available light. We often have to use high ISO numbers when photographing the Northern lights, as we the northern lights move, and the exposure time cannot be increased endlessly. The problem that we face the  is that when you increase the ISO,  the grain/noise in the pictures increases as well. To tackle this problem, we post-process the pictures. The ISO settings that you can use widely depend on the type of your camera. For northern light photography, you might want to start trying around ISO 1600.

SHUTTER SPEED

The shutter speed number indicates the length of time that your camera shutter is open to expose light into the camera sensor. As we explained earlier, the northern lights are a moving phenomenon that we photograph in a night setting. If the shutter speed was set to very low (10-30 seconds depending on the type of the aurora), the images produced would be blurry and unrealistic-looking. You can start experimenting with an exposure time between 5 and 10 seconds.

LENS FOCUS

Make sure that you have manual focus enabled and set the lens focus to infinity. This way the sky will not be blurred.

PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

Mouse over the photos to see details!

For weak Northern lights, a good way to start might be:

For stronger Northern lights, a good way to start might be:

A moderate amount of artificial light can make a picture interesting. Here are two examples of northern light photos featuring objects. The first picture features a dead tree in front of the camera. The tree has not been artificially lit, and it is difficult to see the object clearly (exposure time 2,5 seconds, mouse over the pictures to see details). In the second picture below  the yard was lit with blue lights. The exposure time was set to 20 seconds in order to get the aurora in the picture as well.

What’s wrong with my aurora photos?

The most common problems that I have had with Aurora photos have been darkness, graininess and blurry details.  Next I’ll be sharing some  of my pictures that needed troubleshooting and tips on how to fix them.

Grainy photos

If your photo looks grainy, try around with the ISO sensitivity. Depending on your gear, you might be able to get wonderful photos with a high ISO.  (Both pictures are taken using ISO-1600, mouse over the photo to see details.)

Blurry photos

  1. Blurry Aurora or blurry people
    As you are taking pictures with a long exposure time, the moving objects on your picture might become blurred. If the people, animals or objects on the picture cannot stand still until the picture has been taken, try reducing the exposure time and compensate that by raising the ISO.Take a look at this example: The photo on the left was taken with a too long of an exposure time and too low ISO. The Northern lights have become blurred. The picture on the right is taken on the same evening and with the same camera and lens, with increased ISO and shorter exposure time.
  2. Blurry details
    • Instead of setting the manual focus as far towards infinity as possible, roll it back a tiny bit in order to get the focus on the details of your choice. Take several test pictures and zoom in the details in order to see that the focus is right.

Dark photos

  1. Dark photos
    • Your photo is underexposed. Check your aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings.
  2. Dark details
    • Try highlighting the details with a headlamp!

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