Northern Lights Photography

Northern Lights Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Northern Lights Photography

When it comes to mastering the art of  northern lights photography, every photographer is different. You may be a beginner just getting started, or a pro looking to perfect your photography portfolio, but either way, there are a few different subjects that are notoriously difficult to capture, especially if you are in to photographing nature.

While nature can provide some of the most breathtaking subjects for a photograph, it can be finicky and difficult to capture. Unlike photographing people, you can’t tell nature what to do, how to act or how to pose. You have to capture nature as it is.

northern lights winter

Having a camera that captures great lowlight, like a Sony, is amazing for northern lights photography.

While photographing mountains, lakes and tress all come with their own unique challenges, there are certain natural wonders that are notoriously even more difficult to photograph. Unfortunately, they are also some of the best subjects to photograph as well.

The Northern Lights photography is one of the most famous, and also most difficult natural phenomena that many people look to capture. However, if you just look at the final results from experts who have been able to capture this natural wonders before, you will see that the effort is more than worth it.

You just have to know how it is done, and know a little background about northern lights photography.

All About the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are one of the most famous natural wonders in the world. Viewable only in the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, there are many people who travel from all over the world in order to see the Northern Lights in person.

So, what exactly are the Northern Lights? They are a series of discharged particles that come from the sun and penetrate the Earth’s magnetic shield. This creates a “shield of light” when it enters our atmosphere. This is why the lights are so uniquely colored and while they seem to go on forever. This is also why they are difficult to photograph.

Northern Lights Myths

Norse myths centered around an explanation of the lights being old maids waving at people below

The key thing to remember about the Northern Lights photography  is that it’s ever-changing. Sometimes the light is different colors, sometimes the light is really bright, other times it is soft and subtle. So, while there are tips and tricks to help you capture the Northern Lights, setting a definitive guide on shooting the Northern Lights is difficult, because you never know what you are going to get when you try to shoot them.

While many people spend time preparing to see the Norther Lights in person, very few people actually know how to photograph the Northern Lights when they get there. While a photo will never be the same as the actual experience, it is something that you want photographic proof of when you go.

Below is a 4K video set to high ISO of the Northern Lights over Iceland.


What Is the Best Time to Photograph the Northern Lights?

Since the average person doesn’t live in the Arctic Circle, where you can easily see the Northern Lights, most people have to plan a trip around seeing these lights in person. The best time to travel and see the lights is in the autumn and winter months.

During the autumn and winter, your chances are best of actually seeing the lights because this is the time of year that the periods of high activity are most common. The winter is also a great time to shoot the lights because the atmosphere tends to be more clear, and there is less daylight—aka your photos will be crystal clear.

You should avoid urban areas if possible when trying to shoot the Northern Lights, and do your best to coordinate your shots during new moon cycles. All of these things can help improve your chances of getting that perfect shot.

northern lights iceland

Photographing the Northern Lights during the Autumn and Spring Equinox yields the best results.

Setting the Scene for Shooting the Northern Lights

Unfortunately, there are many people who go to see the Northern Lights and come unprepared to take photos. Many of these people are vastly disappointed when their photos simply don’t do the Northern Lights justice

Whether you are an established photographer or not, you will want to make sure that you know how to photograph the Northern Lights.

The more you know about the process involved behind some of the best Northern Lights photos, the better prepared you will be. Here’s the best way to approach photographing this phenomenal sight.

  1. Make sure the sky is dark and clear. Try to get less than 30% cloud coverage. The great thing about Northern Lights photography is that you can do it under the moon light—something that isn’t possible when photographing the Milky Way.


  1. Check the Northern Light’s Aurora Activity. You can easily check this online or via an app like Aurora . The ranking ranges between 0 and 9, with 9 being the greatest.


  1. Make sure you have the right camera. A manual mode camera, where you can adjust the ISO, aperture and exposure time is needed. You will also want a full frame DSLR camera if possible.


  1. Get your equipment. You need a tall and sturdy tripod. It is best to shoot on a tripod with a cable release. While it isn’t required, a wide angle lens can help with the shot.


  1. Remove all of the lenses before shooting. This includes a UV filter. These filters can cause aberrations in your images.


Finally, remember to pack for the cold and make sure you have some extra batteries on hand, as they are known to peter out faster in the freezing temps.

Little things like this can really help with the final product when you photograph the Northern Lights. However, you should remember that the biggest factor in how these photos turn out is the lighting, and how you are able to adjust your exposure based on this lighting.

Once you are all prepared it is time to actually shoot the lights and capture your perfect shot.


How to Shoot the Northern Lights With the Right Camera Settings

One thing to remember when it comes to actually shooting the Northern Lights, is that you want to set your camera to manual. You should also set your lens to manual as well.

You will also want to turn off the flash and the image stabilization features as well. This is important because while automatic settings are great in the daylight, a camera can’t see in the dark, so the automatic settings on your camera are not going to be able to measure its surroundings.

Northern Lights From Plane

If you set your shutter speed correctly you can even capture the lights from an airplane window.

Every camera is different, just like every photographer is different. So, you may want to tweak your camera settings based on your individual preferences. However, these are some recommended settings to help get you started.

  • Use metric metering, aka evaluative metering when choosing your metering mode. This is recommended for shooting at night.
  • Change your white balance to RAW for the best processing.
  • Set your shutter speed to 20 seconds to start. If the lights are strong, you want a 1-6 second shutter speed. If there are soft lights, try a 15-30 second shutter speed.
  • Start with an ISO of 400-800, and increase to 1200 if it isn’t bright enough. If your image is too bright, lower your shutter speed or ISO. If your image is too dark, increase your shutter speed or ISO.
  • Open your aperture as wide as it will go or to f/2.8. You want to allow as much light to get in as quickly as possible.

These camera settings are key to getting those bright, crystal clear results with your shots.

northern lights alaska

Photographing a subject, like a person, can create great depth in your Northern Lights Photography.

Tips on Focusing

Focusing at night can always be tricky, and it can be even more difficult when partaking in Northern Lights Photography. To get the full effect, you really want to make sure that you get a sharp focus.

Use the infinity symbol on your camera when setting your lens. You may need to tweak a bit from there, but it is a great place to start when attempting to focus at night.

You can also preset your focus during the day. Take some practice shots while focusing off in the horizon until the entire photo is in focus. Then mark the focus ring and the barrel of the lens so you can get the same focus later on.

A Final Note on How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Remember, when photographing the Northern Lights, make sure that you aren’t increasing your ISO too much. It will impact your image quality. If you need to make adjustments tweak the aperture and exposure time.

If you want to make sure you get a picture of yourself under the Northern Lights, all you need is a friend and either a manually operated camera flash or a camera. This is the one time when shooting the Northern Lights that you could consider using a flash.

Use your same settings when normally shooting the Northern Lights, just try to stay as still as possible when you are posing to get the best shot of you underneath the lights.

Finally, don’t get discouraged if you photo isn’t perfect in the moment, you can do a lot with shots like this in post-processing

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