The Ultimate Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

The Ultimate Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights
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Photographing the Northern Lights is a dream for any photographer and traveler.

Many become fascinated by these lights when seeing them for the first time in a documentary or picture, assuming that they may never see this magical phenomenon in person. Then, one day, they are planning a trip to make this dream come true.

Do you want to learn how to photograph Northern Lights? Then you are in the right place.

how to photograph the northern lights ultimate guide

Northern lights in Emerald Lake, British Columbia

Read through this article to learn how to find and photograph the Aurora Borealis:

WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

Before learning how to Photograph Northern Lights, you should know a little more about what they are and how they are formed.

Without going too far into complex technical terms, Northern Lights are the result of solar particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The sun continuously radiates and releases energy. When these radiations become more intense, solar particles are produced after hitting the earth’s atmosphere and are attracted to the northern and southern ends of the globe due to low magnetism at the poles.

The strength and speed of these solar particles determine the intensity and movement of the Northern Lights. In addition, the color of the aurora depends on which elements of the atmosphere and the particles are colliding together (green / yellow-oxygen, red / purple-nitrogen, blue-hydrogen, etc.). Large displays of Northern Lights are usually associated with geomagnetic storms also known as “solar storms”.

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Purple Northern Lights formed after the collision of solar particles with nitrogen

The intensity of solar particles is scaled by the geomagnetic index K, known as the KP index that goes from 0 to 9. It is considered a geomagnetic storm when the index exceeds 5. It is very important to be familiar with this value for the prediction of and forecasting the Northern Lights.

WHERE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

As we discussed earlier, solar particles are usually attracted to the poles of the globe due to magnetism. However, when the solar storm is very strong, the phenomenon can be observed at lower latitudes.

Considering the KP index from 0 to 9 as commented above, the further north we are, the lower the KP will be needed to enjoy the phenomenon, which results in a considerable increase in possibilities.

With this graphic, we can get a better idea of this concept:

complete guide to learning how to photograph the northern lights in norway, iceland, finland, canada

Given all the elements to consider, some of the best places to see Northern Lights in the Northern Hemisphere are Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Alaska, and Canada.

♦ NORTHERN LIGHTS IN NORWAY: One of the best locations to see the Northern Lights in Norway are The Lofoten Islands, since the temperatures are mild in winter,  unlike other places at the same latitude of 68º.

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Northern Lights in Hamnøy, Lofoten Islands

♦ NORTHERN LIGHTS IN FINLAND: One of the most popular places to see the Northern Lights in Finland is Lapland (69° latitude). The temperatures, however, are extreme during the winter since this region is located inland of the Scandinavian Peninsula.

NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ICELAND: Another unique location to enjoy the northern lights is Iceland. As this is an island, the temperatures are usually mild for its latitude (65º approx), however, the windchill factor is something to consider. There are many Aurora hunting Photo Tours around the island.

 NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ALASKA: Alaska is the only place in the United States with high possibilities of seeing the Northern Lights. Temperatures are also quite extreme in winter. As for the latitude, Alaska is at 66º.

 NORTHERN LIGHTS IN CANADA: Northern lights can be seen in Canada. Our first time seeing the Aurora Borealis was in the Canadian Rockies (latitude 51º). As you can see, the latitude is much lower than other locations, but the KP was very high and they, in turn, were visible to the naked eye.

If you want to know more about the Northern Lights in Canada, do not miss this article.

A Beginning Photographer's Guide to Photographing The Northern Lights

Northern lights in British Columbia, Canada

As for the southern hemisphere, the best place to see the Aurora Australis (as it is known in this hemisphere) would be Antarctica, but we can also enjoy it in Southern Australia, Southern New Zealand or Southern Argentina in the Tierra del Fuego province.

WHEN TO SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS

The best time to see the Northern Lights is between September to April in the Northern Hemisphere and from March to September in the Southern Hemisphere.

The key factor for seeing the Northern Lights is darkness. Therefore, in extreme latitudes from the end of spring to the beginning of Autumn, it is nearly impossible considering the number of daylight hours. During the winter months, there is practically no light, which will exponentially increase our chances.

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Northern lights in the month of November

On the other hand, we must consider the moon phase, because the darker the sky, the more possibilities we will have to see the Northern Lights. If your travel dates are flexible, try to organize your trip during days around a new moon.

PREDICTION OF NORTHERN LIGHTS: APPS AND TOOLS FOR AURORA FORECAST

Although luck is an important factor, being acquainted with the tools to predict and interpret Northern Lights is fundamental before learning how to photograph them.

In addition, it is important to remember common tools for cloud forecast, because even if the rest of the conditions are perfect, we will not be able to see auroras with clouds in the way.

TOOLS FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS PREDICTION

The current tools are very accurate in prediction, and allow us to see KP and other important data updated in real time.

Many even include maps where you can see activities being predicted by the minutes and hours in a given zone, via a forecasting system known as the oval prediction system.

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Oval prediction map

You can find the main mobile applications and websites to forecast Aurora Borealis below.

MY AURORA FORECAST – MOBILE APPLICATION

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This mobile application shows us the KP index and probability percentage of seeing Northern Lights in the area based on our location.

It will show us the following information of interest:

  • Index KP with the current probability of seeing the Northern Lights in our location.
  • Aurora Map: Similar to the oval system.
  • Cloud coverage: It tells us the % of sky covered in our location during the next 5 hours in 1-hour slots.
  • Short and long-term KP number predictions.
  • More complex graphics that interpret the solar wind, density, etc.

I personally think this is the most complete mobile application to predict the Northern Lights (available on both Android and iOS).

It also includes an alert system that will send you notifications if there is a sudden increase of KP in your location.

NORTHERN EYE AURORA FORECAST – MOBILE APPLICATION

best time to photograph the northern lights apps

More intuitive and customizable than My Aurora Forecast, but less complete at the same time, especially for long-term predictions.

Its functions are the same as My Aurora forecast, although it incorporates two important new features:

  • Creating personalized notifications according to probability, KP number, and even time slot.
  • Option to select a specific location other than our current one; something tremendously useful when we want to know the activity in a specific place before heading there.
SPACE WEATHER LIVE- WEBsite

This website is the official bible of the Northern Lights. It shows us much more details than mobile applications – details than mobile applications details about the Aural Oval, the KP index or the main prediction charts. You can consult it here.

SPACE WEATHER PREDICTION CENTER – WEB PAGE

Official website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows us general weather information as well as the possibility of seeing how the aural oval evolves in real time by simply pressing play. You can check it out here.

LOCAL WEBSITES FOR CLOUD FORECAST

It is often very useful to use local websites, not so much for prediction of the Northern Lights but more so for the local weather forecast, especially practical when they offer cloud coverage on the map in real time.

Some of the best-known ones are:

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Now that we’ve covered the basics about Northern Lights, like where and when is the best time to see them, we are ready for the most exciting moment.

The sky begins to shine, our jaw automatically drops, our eyes light up, we scream and now we have to photograph the Northern Lights correctly so we can capture them forever.

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Aurora in the Reine Fjord, Norway

This task is not as easy as it may seem. Night photography often involves difficulties as is, but in this case, we have the addition of lights moving randomly through our frame, quickly changing shape, light, and intensity. Therefore, the more prepared we are at the time of the shoot, the more success rate we will have at photographing them.

This success will depend on several factors, but with the right equipment, techniques, and some advice that we will now give you, you will manage to capture the Northern Lights under any circumstance.

BEST GEAR TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

The equipment to photograph auroras is key in this type of photography. We already wrote an article about choosing the best travel photography gear, so here we will only outline the differences to consider when photographing the Northern Lights.

CAMERA

Many photographers wonder whether it is possible to photograph the Northern Lights with a Smartphone. The answer is that unfortunately, you won’t capture anything more than a green blurred shape. With the GoPro, we can shoot some photos if we know the right parameters but do not expect great quality. The same will happen with a compact camera. At the end of this section, you will find the details for these devices.

If you really want to photograph the Northern Lights well, you will need an interchangeable lens camera, so our choice will always be either Digital SLR Cameras (Reflex) or Digital Mirrorless Cameras.

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Kirke church with northern lights in the background, Lofoten Islands

Between these two, we prefer the DSLR cameras as of right now, since they are sturdier and more reliable for photographing auroras, and the batteries last longer than in mirrorless cameras. This a very important factor considering that battery life decreases dramatically during the cold Artic winter nights.

In addition, regardless of the type of camera, we also have to consider the type of sensor that it comes with. In this case, it is convenient to opt for a Full Frame, since it is much easier to work with larger images at higher ISOs, producing less noise than an APS-C crop sensor.

LENSES

The parameters to bear in mind when choosing a lens to photograph the Northern Lights are:

  • Focal Distance: As we are shooting night scenes and covering a large portion of the sky, we will choose a wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens.

These focal lengths will range from 10 mm to 24 mm and will help us capture a large part of the scene.

aurora borealis in lofoten norway november

Aurora borealis captured with an ultra-wide-angle lens, 14 mm

  • Luminosity: In night photography, it is important to use bright lenses with a large aperture. This is even more relevant in Northern Lights photography, where a larger aperture allows us to increase the shutter speed when auroras start dancing quickly across the sky.

We will mostly use lenses below f4, with values between f1.8 and f2.8.

TRIPOD

Stability and no vibrations will be critical if we want sharp aurora photographs since any exposition will take more than half a second.

A sturdy tripod/head will be another key factor.

ACCESSORIES

Within the generic accessories that we normally carry in our photography bag, it will be necessary to pay special attention to:

  • Use a remote trigger to avoid vibrations if we do not use the camera timer.
  • Have a good supply of batteries: Northern Light nights are usually cold, and this type of photography requires many shots, which will result in drastic reduction in battery life. Pay special attention if you intend to do time-lapses.

On the other hand, and as final advice, if you do not have the necessary equipment or budget, remember that renting is an affordable option for this specific trip.

TECHNIQUE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS CORRECTLY

Once we have the right gear, we can learn how to Photograph the Northern Lights.

We prepared a quick checklist so you can succeed in capturing the Aurora:

  • Lower the brightness of the screen: At night, our sight is adjusted to the darkness, and a picture that we see correctly on the screen could actually be underexposed. To avoid this problem, the best advice is to lower the brightness of the screen as much as possible.
  • Shoot in Raw mode: This is key if we want to save as much information as possible through our sensor for editing later on.
  • White balance: Always use it in manual mode around 3000k.
  • Focus: In night photography, the autofocus usually fails, but this issue multiplies even more when there are different lights moving. Keep this point in mind as it is one of the main reasons why Aurora photos end up in the computer bin. We must try to find that point close to infinity without reaching the pure infinity where the image is blurred.

We can try it in two different ways:

* Automatic: Focus on the point of the hyperfocal distance manually. (It is very useful to place a subject or light at the distance we need according to our hyperfocal distance)

* Manual: Focus manually on a star, moon or very distant light will help us find that distance close to infinity.

Once the focus is ready, we will then deactivate autofocus on our camera and it will be ready for the rest of the session. Keep in mind that if we move the focus/zoom ring or change the lens, we will have to repeat the focusing process.

  • Aperture: Except in the presence of a few other light sources, such as the moon or streetlights, we will usually set the aperture of our lens to the largest possible value. For instance, f2,8, f4 … *
  • ISO: In general, we will use the highest ISO available in our camera (as long as the noise is under control) to capture the Northern Lights, although there are some exceptions that we will see later. *
  • Shutter speed: Expositions from half a second to 30 seconds depending on the case. *

* Note: The interaction between these three parameters will depend on different factors, the most important being actual Northern Lights activity in the scene. So, as a guide:

♦ Very static and low-intensity Northern Lights: If the Auroras are barely noticeable in the scene or they do not move, we will use exposures around 30 seconds always with the ISO under control, not going above what our camera can capture without generating too much noise. We will keep a large aperture as we do with other types of night photography.

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24 seconds, f 2’8, ISO 4000

Northern Lights with some intensity and dynamism: When we can see the Aurora Borealis move and shine with the naked eye, we will use exposures between 3 and 8 seconds, with the largest possible aperture while raising the ISO until we get the correct light in the scene.

ultimate guide to photographing the northern lights

8 seconds, f 2’8, ISO 2500

♦ Very intense and fast-moving Northern Lights: If we are lucky enough to live this experience, we will do expositions between 0.5 to 3 seconds, with the largest possible aperture and raising the ISO as much as necessary.

photography gear to shot the northern lights

2 seconds, f 2’8, ISO 1600

It is very possible that we end up with some noise in the photo, but if we lower the ISO too much, the only thing we will get is a photo without noise but a blurry color cloud instead of an Aurora. In addition, it is during these cases when it is most important to capture the shape of the Aurora. As the lights move, the most spectacular forms and shapes occurs, such as the famous crowns.

how to get the best northern lights images

Aurora boreal Crown

Please keep in mind that the above parameters are only indicative parameters. Northern Lights often show up in an anarchic and random way, varying in light intensity and positions, which leaves us with over or underexposed shots. The best tip is be quick and agile to adjust the parameters accordingly.

GO PRO – PARAMETERS TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS WITH AN ACTION CAMERA

If you want to learn how to photograph Northern Lights with a GoPro or any other action camera, you can find the parameters below:

  • Mode: Night lapse
  • ISO: 800
  • Shutter speed = 30 sec.
  • Protune: ON
  • Spot meter = OFF
  • White balance = Around 3000 k
  • Interval = Continuous if we want to do a time-lapse.
  • In addition, it is recommended to turn off Wi-Fi and back screen to save battery.

Last but not least, place your go pro in a place where it can be static and without vibrations.

COMPACT CAMERA – PARAMETERS TO PHOTOGRAPH NORTHERN LIGHTS WITH A COMPACT CAMERA

In this section, you can find the parameters if you want to learn how to shoot the Northern Lights with a compact camera.

  • Shoot in Raw mode to get as much information as possible from the shot.
  • Use your compact camera in manual mode to set all the parameters.
  • Raise the ISO all you can as long as the noise is under control.
  • Set at the highest possible aperture.
  • Increase exposure time to at least 30 seconds. Compact cameras have small sensors and will not capture enough information in night exposures with any less time.
  • Place your camera on a small tripod or on a stable surface where there are no vibrations.

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Now that we know what gear and techniques we can use to photograph the Northern Lights, we can go on to mention a series of tips that will be very useful when viewing and photographing the magic of the Aurora in the sky.

  • Try looking for locations towards the north. When the display of auroras is powerful, they can show up anywhere in the sky. But, when the show is just starting or is not very intense, it is common for them to start shining from the north.
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Shot taken to the north in the Reinefjord

  • Try to stay away from locations with light pollution, as they will make this phenomenon less visible and will involve greater technical difficulty.
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Uttakliev beach, with hardly any light pollution

  • Mind the composition. It is usually the number one thing to be forgotten when photographing the Northern Lights.

⇒ If we know the location from where we would like to see auroras in advance, once the show begins, we will not have to worry about looking for compositions, but to use those compositions that we are already familiar with.

⇒ A very effective compositional resource will be to use the reflections, making the brightness and colors of the Northern Lights stand out in the scene.

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Reflection of aurora borealis and milky way in the Canadian Rockies

⇒ After trying several compositions, you can try including a human figure, in some shots, they help to strengthen the composition and give a sense of scale to the photograph.

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Including a human figure is also good so the viewer can feel identified with the scene

  • Panorama is another fun type of photograph to capture when the sky is filled with Northern Lights.
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Panoramic of 9 vertical photos

 

  • If you have found an interesting location and the show starts becoming more powerful, consider the possibility of doing a time-lapse. Few photographs can individually recreate the dynamism and reality of a set, forming a nice time-lapse.
  • Do not forget to check the histogram. Although we have lowered the brightness many times, the excitement makes us trust what our eye-viewer shows, even when if it is not exposed correctly.
  • Beware of low temperatures: Photographing the Aurora involves spending many hours outdoors, often with sub-zero temperatures and wind. Make sure you wear appropriate clothing, especially to protect your feet and hands. For photographers, we recommend these gloves that will keep your hands warm while shooting in the Arctic.
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Beware of temperatures in high winter latitudes

 

  • In relation to the previous point, we must also pay attention to our equipment, since the cold can cause condensation if our gear goes through sudden changes in temperature. Try your best to make this temperature transition not very extreme, or the condensation might ruin the session. A good tip is to always keep the camera in the camera bag when you are inside the hotel/house.
  • Be patient. If you are in an area with possible activity, do not give up. Use the prediction mechanisms we mentioned, and if they give any chance, be faithful that you will get to see them. Magic has happened many times!

FALSE MYTHS ABOUT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Now, we are going to bust a few false myths (some quite widespread) about seeing and photographing the Northern Lights.

  • The northern lights only show up from the north: Even though there are higher chances of the activity appearing or having greater strength from the north, this myth is false, since large displays of Northern Lights can fill the entire sky, appearing on any cardinal direction.
  • There are more chances to see Northern Lights when it’s colder: Another false myth, since the probability of seeing auroras depends on solar activity regardless of the temperature on Earth. The biggest display I’ve photographed was a Kp 7.8 in Canada that filled the sky with Northern Lights for hours and we were shooting under a pleasant 15 degrees Celsius (59 F) temperature.
  • The Northern Lights make a sound: While the cold can lead us to delirium, seeing and hearing things that do not exist, the Northern Lights do not make any sound, whistling or noise, although Arctic documentaries insist on making us believe otherwise.
  • You cannot see the Aurora Borealis during the months with more daylight: Although it will be practically impossible to see auroras in northern latitudes, in the brightest months such as May, June or July, a strong KP in mid to high-latitudes can still offer us a good light show. As an example (again), the huge display we saw in Canada was during an unusual month like May.
  • Raising the ISO ruins a Northern Lights photo: When the Northern Lights are active, they move even faster than our eyesight, and the only way to freeze the movement in a night-time photograph once we set the maximum aperture will be by raising the ISO. Noise may appear but it will be the only effective way to capture that movement.

 

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KP 7.8 with auroras of different colors and shapes

 

10 simple steps to photographing the Northern Lights

To sum up all the information in this article, below you can find the summary with the 10 steps to photographing the Northern Lights:

  • Step 1: Prepare your equipment
  • Step 2: Mount your camera and tripod correctly
  • Step 3: Set the focus of your camera
  • Step 4: Start looking towards the North
  • Step 5: Shoot in RAW
  • Step 6: Set an ISO as high as possible
  • Step 7: Keep the largest aperture in your lens
  • Step 8: Change the shutter speed
  • Step 9: Keep in mind the composition
  • Step 10: Always check the histogram
  1. Prepare your equipment: Before starting, check you have extra batteries and lower the brightness of your screen so you don’t underexpose your images.
  2. Mount your camera and tripod correctly. Make sure it is stable to avoid any trepidation, especially under windy conditions.
  3. Set the focus of your camera. Do it before start photographing the Aurora Borealis, so you don’t forget this step once the show has started.
  4. Start looking towards the North. Usually the Northern Lights start being active from the North, although you should keep your eyes wide open since they can appear at any point.
  5. Shoot in RAW. In this way you can capture as much information as possible in your camera.
  6. Set an ISO as high as possible. Do that considering the limitations of your camera. It is the only way to freeze the movement of the Northern Lights when they are very active.
  7. Keep the largest aperture in your lens. So you can get as much light as possible.
  8. Change the shutter speed. Take into account the activity of the Northern Lights, from 1 second when there is a high activity to 25-30 seconds when it is low.
  9. Keep in mind the composition. Do not limit just to shoot the sky but also use the common compositions in landscape photography. Try especially with elements where you can find reflections like water, ice or snow.
  10. Always check the histogram. Make sure that the exposure is correct. The brightness of the aurora in our screen can trick our eye, so it is always better to check the histogram of the photographs.

As promised, after reading this post, I am sure you now know how to perfectly photograph the Northern Lights and if not …

I AGREE TO ANSWER ALL YOUR QUESTIONS THAT YOU LEAVE IN THE COMMENTS IN LESS THAN 24 HOURS.

ALL THE BEST WITH THE AURORA HUNTING!

TEXT and photography Dani
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