How to Photograph the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
You’ve been standing, gazing skyward for hours out in the cold. A gentle milky haze on the horizon begins to form, glowing brighter by the minute. Suddenly, you find yourself underneath an intense, colourful blaze as it pulses and flickers like electricity. The metaphorical power of an Aurora Borealis display (also known as the Northern Lights) is something that will stay with you for a very long time.
Capturing the Aurora Borealis on camera is the only way to preserve the memory of this intense event, but that requires good preparation and knowledge. The peak of a good display can be over in less than a minute, so it is important to both think and act quickly. Achieving a well-composed, sharp, and correctly exposed image requires a number of technical aspects to be adhered to.
So, keep on reading to learn how to photograph the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) like this:
Modern technology is improving at an impressive rate. Even certain models of mobile phones can produce good images of the Northern Lights, however the visual and reproducible quality of these images can be questionable. To preserve images of good, usable quality, it is important to use a DSLR or Mirrorless camera when photographing at night.
- Cameras with a full frame sensor are preferable, these sensors deal with low light situations well.
- A lens with a wide field of view (10-24mm) and a large aperture (f/1.4-f/4) is ideal.
- A sturdy tripod and tripod head is vital.
The Aurora Borealis is visible in the northern hemisphere, between September and March. On clear nights when the Northern Lights are visible, you can expect cold temperatures in most viewing locations. It is essential to dress warmly, particularly prioritising extremities like your ears and fingers.
When setting up your camera to photograph the Aurora Borealis, it is important to suit these settings to both the nature of the display above you and the composition you wish to achieve.
Shoot in manual – this will give you full creative control over the three major settings, and improve your future judgement when taking an image of the Aurora Borealis photograph. Before you program the settings, be sure to switch your camera and lens to manual focus. Open the ‘live view’ function on your camera’s LCD, and magnify the live image – use any distant artificial/natural light source to manually focus your lens to infinity. It is essential not to forget this crucial step, as you could easily capture soft images. To check your focus is perfect, take a test image after focusing, and magnify the image to view the stars present. If these stars appear as small pinpricks, you have successfully focused to infinity.
Further Reading: How to Get Sharp Stars in Night Photography
When it comes to aperture, the larger the better – letting in as much light as possible is essential, so keep this variable constant. Using apertures from f/1.4 – f/4 will do a sufficient job. A large aperture will produce a sharper image, as shutter speed can subsequently be reduced.
If shooting with a full frame camera, set your ISO at anything between 1600 and 3200. If you’re using a crop sensor camera, be careful not to set your ISO much greater than 1600, as digital noise/fuzziness will become noticeable. All cameras are different, though, so try and experiment with your equipment before you have the Northern Lights in front of you.
When capturing the Aurora Borealis, the most important setting to perfect is shutter speed. The shutter speed must be balanced to best capture the Aurora you are watching, and to attain the correct exposure. A weaker, more slowly moving aurora is much easier to photograph well. A shutter speed of anywhere between 5-30 seconds will capture the colour and smooth shape of a slow moving arc or curtain. These longer speeds give the photographer time to expose the image correctly and capture a single colour. Make sure the shutter speed isn’t greater than 30 seconds, as stars will begin to trail in your images. Lower ISOs can be used during these longer exposures, to produce ‘smoother’ images, with the correct exposure. As an Aurora builds in strength, it may begin to move more quickly.
The Northern Lights can change colour and shape very quickly, which requires a change in settings. It is during these powerful, colourful displays that higher ISO values of up to 3200 and greater are used. By pushing your camera to its ISO range limit, faster shutter speeds as low as 0.5-5 seconds can be achieved. This is essential when freezing the motion of fast moving pillars and curtains of light, as they dance and shimmer above.
Don’t be afraid to alter the white balance when processing images. This setting can be neglected when capturing colourful Auroras. A white balance which is too great can produce overly vivid images. A cooler balance, and the image can appear much more blue and unrepresentative of the display you observed. Similarly, you may sometimes wish to reduce the saturation of an image to retain the true feel of the Aurora.
Composition and Creativity
To take a memorable photo of the Aurora Borealis, it is important to be confident with your settings and creative with your composition. When observing one of natures most overwhelming spectacles, it is easy to throw your camera onto a tripod and take hundreds of images, especially when an Aurora appears out of nowhere. Instead, spend some time during daylight looking for compositional features and focal points which make for a more pleasing composition.
An image of the aurora alone can be good, but a well planned and visually satisfying composition combined with the Aurora can make for a far more impressive image. Man-made structures, ice formations, rocks, mountains, and trees are all examples of focal points which can work well in a composition.
Be sure to experiment with the orientation of your camera, and shoot the Aurora in both landscape and portrait. A long horizontal arc of the Aurora Borealis may suit a landscape image, whereas a vertical stream of lights might be better suited to a portrait image. When composing an image, be sure to use the internal spirit level function in your camera, or if your camera lacks this function then use the spirit level on your tripod to be sure your image is perfectly level. Use the conditions to your advantage and try to be creative with composition, using the shape of an aurora to complement the composition you have in mind.
Although a full moon will slightly effect how bright the Aurora appears, this really isn’t too much of an issue when trying to capture it. Instead, use this extra brightness to your advantage and include the illuminated foreground and any shadows cast by the moon. Keep an eye on sites such as www.spaceweather.com, as you may find you can combine shooting the aurora with additional celestial interest, such as the Milky Way or a meteor shower.
Keep an Eye on the Sky
It is important to keep and eye on both the physical weather, and space weather forecasts. If you have access to a car, aim for locations with clear skies forecast and escape light pollution as much as possible. Aurora prediction sites will give a vague probability as to how likely it is to observe the Northern Lights – this is known as the KP index. Although helpful, this index may not always be accurate as the Aurora Borealis can show on a local scale and vary from location to location. For a better idea, keep an eye on the live solar wind speed and solar wind density.
Here are some links to help you navigate Northern Lights photography: