An Introduction to Photographing the Northern/Southern Lights - Digital Photography School

An Introduction to Photographing the Northern/Southern Lights

The northern and southern polar lights have fascinated and hypnotised man for as long as we have graced the planet. The unearthly flame-like lights have been the inspiration of folk tale and legend for generations and since the invention of the camera a holy grail-like conquest for many enthusiast photographers.

Straumur Aurora - by Orvaratli

Image by Orvaratli

Named after the Roman Goddess of Dawn (Aurora) and the Greek name for north wind (Boreas) the Northern lights AKA Aurora Borealis, are seen in areas that are within or surround the Arctic circle, for example: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Alaska etc. Equally the southern counterpart ‘aurora australis’ is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, South America and Australasia. The mesmerizing wisps are actually solar charged particles reacting with the magnetic field as they make contact with the upper atmosphere gases. The most common lights star-gazers are likely to see are the green variety, with the red variant only appearing in tandem with the green. Sometimes the lights lie horizontally like an expanse of neon fog, other times in vertical streaks dancing their way across the night sky – whatever the colour or form the results are quite awe striking and will make for the most wonderful of subjects.

Skywatching Pinetrees - by Orvaratli

Image by Orvaratli


Spring and Autumn are the best times to witness the event (March to April, and September to October), but if you choose to visit in the winter months you will find the temperatures can be extremely cold often between as low as 35 below, and the days can be shorter with less light. For example at this time of year in somewhere like Sweden the sun rises around 9am and sets about 3pm but the window, this is great for star gazing but will mean your camera’s ISO capabilities will be put to the test.

Both factors will influence your choice of kit so pick a DSLR which can withstand the cold and work at high ISO. Nikon’s revolutionary D3S with 102,400 ISO is a fantastic choice; similarly the Olympus E3 is famed for its ability to withstand extreme conditions. Fast lenses are an absolute must, with a wide angle or fish eye acting as the best choices for capturing that great expanse of night sky. If you’re concerned for your camera or its potential demise in longevity take a fleece blanket or towel and gently wrap it around your DSLR, this is particularly wise for those models sensitive to colder climates.

Battling Forces - by Orvaratli

Image by Orvaratli

Battery life is a big issue for any electronic device when the temperature is low so be sure to charge several spares if you are trekking out away from power supplies. Keep these close to your body when not in use.

A tripod is essential for stability and ultimately the success or failure of your shots. Long exposures of 15 seconds plus are going to be needed so a good solid contender that can withstand the cold and can be collapsed and erected with ease is going to be your best ally here. Manfrotto’s carbon fibre line up is definitely worthy of consideration, but ideally avoid anything that is predominantly constructed of metal. Furthermore to ensure the camera suffers minimum camera shake during exposures – which would result in blur – operate the shutter with a remote control/release or use the unit’s self timer mode.

Frozen Still - by Orvaratli

Image by Orvaratli

Common sense would dictate that you do not head out into the snow-capped wildness alone or without at least notifying someone, and a compass or some form of GPS device is essential. Likewise sensible clothing is a must; plenty of breathable, thermal layers, with a waterproof out layer, sensible snow boots, balaclava, hat, scarf and gloves. When it comes to gloves double layered products are superb, especially those with a tip-less outer layer or grip coating – extending a better grip of camera controls to photographers. Lowepro, Peter Storm and Sealskinz in particular all make excellent items suitable for shooters.

In terms of transporting your kits, you are going to want your camera and lenses to be as snug and protected as you are, so this is no time to scrimp. One standout brand noted for its sturdy rucksacks is KATA and in particular the R-family of camera orientated luggage. Insulated with Thermo Shield Technology, the bag protects from the cold as well as knocks and bumps. The bags are cabin friendly (check with airline policy) and feature soft removable padding that cushions valuable items and the bright orange colour of the interior fabric is a boon for night time photographers. Another valuable asset to carry is a light; once away from the light pollution the only available light source will be from the stars, so until glow in the dark controls are invented remember to bring along a torch or if you do forget it a mobile phone will suffice.

Solar Wind - by Orvaratli

Image by Orvaratli

As well as incorporating the beautiful streams of light which will no doubt fill your shot it will add interest and scale to incorporate a foreground subject such as a tree or cabin. Once you’ve found a good scene, be patient as the aurora borealis can appear in fits and burst over a period of many hours, and sometimes not at all. This is why travelling with a guide or experienced local can be of benefit. Once you do see the glow and take the shot be patient again and stand back from the tripod so your movement does not affect the stability of the capture.

In terms of technique switch to manual mode and open the lens’s aperture as wide as it will go. Next dial in the shutter speed, starting with 15 seconds but extend this duration as needed. It will be too dark for your lens to autofocus so opt for manual focus and adjust the ring with small incremental turns until the correct position is achieved. Keep checking the LCD for confirmation.

Experiment with ISO until it becomes uncomfortable. Some photographers favour exploiting the Noise Reduction mode in these conditions. After each shot zoom in on the LCD to check the level of grain, if things are looking uncomfortable opt for a longer exposure instead of degrading the quality of the shot further.

Rusty Old Shack - by Orvaratli

Rusty Old Shack - by Orvaratli

For capturing beautiful star trails in tandem with the lights, take dozens or even hundreds of frames of the same scene of 15 second exposures and flatten and merge them into one individual file in a software package later.

After an evening spent shooting be sure to reintroduce your equipment into warmer environments (i.e. indoors) slowly, to avoid the build up of condensation in the lens. Begin by leaving the camera and lenses by the door, drawing it into the premises in regular stages.

According to experts there is an extraordinary solar storm on the way (which happens roughly every 11 years in the solar cycle) and experts have forecast 2012 will be one of the most prolific seasons to witness the lights. It is during these times that the lights can be seen further outside the usual areas – especially those with less light pollution. For up to the minute information on flares and sun spots visit www.spaceweather.com.

Check out more images by Orvaratli’s Aurora set on Flickr.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

  • http://www.wordpressphoto.net Linus Bohman

    Capturing the northern lights is something I’ve always wanted to do up here in Sweden. This was a pretty great rundown of things I need to get and do – thanks! And to everyone who hasn’t seen these lights in person: you really must at least once in your life. It’s magical.

  • http://www.gsmobil.cz Rob

    Beutiful…I hope I will make some pictures of aurora one day too! :-)

  • Kevin

    To be clear, there is not an “extraordinary solar storm on the way”. The author is actually talking about the 11-year sunspot cycle. 2012 or 2013 is the peak. And actually predictions have been tampered down in the past year or so as to the intensity of the cycle.

    As to shooting the aurora, during many large events they can be seen (in the northern hemisphere) as far south as Mexico. I have gotten some excellent images from Michigan (USA).

    I have seen over the years a wide variety of colors, including the elusive purple.

    (Note: I have been an astronomer for most of my life, and have shot the aurora for over 25 years)

  • http://www.nataliejohnsonphotography.com Natalie Johnson

    Thanks Linus. I too viewed the lights from Sweden, what a beautiful country you live in. I’ll be sure to come back in 2012!

  • http://vitsee.wordpress.com/ vitsee

    WOW! these are stunning!
    I would love to photograph the northern lights, great tips!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy Ken Klassy

    These are a constant target of mine as I winter in Antarctica from Feb to Oct.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy/3577388513/

    Southern Lights taken at McMurdo Station Antarctica.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy/3578192030/

    Light on the left is the Moon.

  • Sonyapayne

    Hi Kevin
    I’m from Michigan as well. Are you the U.P? I’ve never seen anything remotely close to an Aurora.

  • http://limetouch.com Darran

    This is an awesome guide and just the other day I was writing a post on dreaming of photographing an aurora. I will be sure to bookmark this post, basing my planning and preparation on what you have mentioned in this post. Well written!

  • http://bloy.net/ Jonathan

    I live in southern Wisconsin and have seen the aurora a few times. Back in the fall of 2004 there were a number of storms, and I remember one night where the displays looked a lot like some of the above pics. That was before I had my DSLR, but I even got a few fairly decent shots with my compact and a small tripod.

    Anyone interested in the Aurora should keep an eye on SpaceWeather.com, where you can even sign up for phone alerts when the aurora are active.

  • aneesh

    i need better technics in digital photography
    if any one help me.. more about photography

  • http://www.brianmiller.biz Brian

    Simply outstanding tutorial!!! Stunning photographs!!! Just about the most efficient couple of minutes I have ever spent on this website!

  • Geoff Chalcraft

    Excellent description of the beauty of one of Mother Nature’s greatest shows – everybody should try to experience it at least once.
    Your technical information and advice is also very good but one word you didn’t mention….. condensation. It’s not easy to protect against condensation – bringing your camera between the cold temperatures outdoors and the normal (but moist) temperatures indoors will cause glass to become steamed up – and not just for a few seconds, this can last hours. Trying to keep your camera within a narrower temperature range is the key to protecting against the condensation. Some people even keep their cameras wrapped in a small amount of clothing and leave them in the car when not in use….. the big temperature and humidity shift between “in use” and in a normally heated room are immense. In theory, a large insulated box would be ideal, protecting the camera from the extremes.

  • Warren Gammel

    Fantastic photos! I live in Fairbanks Alaska and have gotten some great aurora photos this past week.

    The cold weather photography tips are right on. I would suggest bringing along some of those chemical hand warmer packs that are available in most stores which carry sporting goods. Frozen fingers are the biggest problem when you’re taking photos in the extreme cold and those hand warmers are life savers!

  • http://www.trivoxphoto.com Rurik

    Funny how you talk about these countries in the Arctic circle where the Aurora Borealis is seen but don’t mention one word about Iceland even though all the photos in this article are taken IN ICELAND.

  • http://www.creativeoptions.tk jpm8jpm

    fascinating…is this real because we cannot see these in tropical countries…

  • http://www.photo.net/photos/blueboeser Blue Boeser

    Hey Natalie, thanks for sharing! These are quite good tips to prepare a chilly trip! Some people surely underestimate the “small things” which could turn out a massive problem.
    Your photos displayed here are very beautiful, guess you work sometimes with the HDR-technique.
    Wishing you more of these wonderful photo moments and a lot of success as a writer.
    Sun & love
    Blue

  • Jeff

    I THOUGHT those looked like Iceland! I vacationed there for a week in Oct2009–great place, great people and ungodly scenry! Photogs should not miss this place!

  • Old_tog

    The photos are taken from this gentleman’s Flickr photostream. Very talented tog, worth clicking through http://www.flickr.com/photos/orvaratli/3436138225/

  • Diana Mikaels

    Highly recommended to come to Iceland for your Northern Light shooting :)
    Örvar Atli, and other good fellows here, are total masters to this. No joke! Look for them!
    And as Rurik commented earlier, this nice article shoud mention ICELAND as one of the places where you can see and photograph Northern Lights (Reykjavík is a perfect place – you don’t have to travel that much – direct flight), specially as all your examples are Icelandic Auroras.
    Takk fyrir! :) (Thanks)

  • Neil Mainwaring

    Nice Pics of MCM Ken. Hope we see a lot more activity here before the moon returns!!

  • Chrystal

    Appreciate all the great tips in your article. I live in the Northwest Territories, Canada . Northern lights are a near constant presence here.

  • Wendy

    here is a ground web

    and a crop of a web against blue sky

  • Wendy
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mclizard Neil

    As a bit of a response to Diana Mikaels post last year I thought I would put in a URL of some Aurora Australis. Not as exciting as some on here, I haven’t post processed them a lot either (just added some black to darken the sky).
    I am by far no expert.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mclizard/4974976329/in/set-72157625475017086/#/

  • Shauna

    I don’t see very many mention about Sony capture the northern lights anywhere on website except Canon and Nikon. I plan to get Sony A55, but I am going to ask you, will Sony A55 capture the good pictures of northern lights like those pictures up on this page? What kind of lens does Sony need for the northern lights and stars?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/fpoulin Florian Poulin

    I went to Iceland in December 2011, mainly to track northern lights. Got lucky and could see one once. Given that I have rather old camera body (Canon 20D), I could not do go too hight in ISO to I tried to compensate this with longer exposure (up to 20 minutes) and the result is not as good as one can expect … The details of the lights get blurred and only color remains interesting. Will get back to this with a better camera sometime, hopefully.

    See –> http://www.flickr.com/photos/fpoulin/6576417761

  • http://www.weddingphotographerindevon.co.uk PaulB

    Wow, I wonder how much of what we see is ‘natural’ and how much is down to increased saturation etc?

  • Graziahh

    hi guys! i’m an amatuer at taking pictures too but i came across this blog (by the students in my university!) which does up a 101 on basic tips on taking pictures of the northern lights! seems helpful! (especially if u are an amatuer like me! ><)
    http://wallyfinds.tumblr.com/post/42112698116/source-daily-mail-northern-light-basic-camera

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/94823293@N02 Seog-Nyeon Bae

    What a gorgeoue emerald streams with stars in the dark sky

Some older comments

  • Graziahh

    February 3, 2013 06:37 am

    hi guys! i'm an amatuer at taking pictures too but i came across this blog (by the students in my university!) which does up a 101 on basic tips on taking pictures of the northern lights! seems helpful! (especially if u are an amatuer like me! ><)
    http://wallyfinds.tumblr.com/post/42112698116/source-daily-mail-northern-light-basic-camera

  • PaulB

    May 20, 2012 08:25 pm

    Wow, I wonder how much of what we see is 'natural' and how much is down to increased saturation etc?

  • Florian Poulin

    May 14, 2012 12:06 am

    I went to Iceland in December 2011, mainly to track northern lights. Got lucky and could see one once. Given that I have rather old camera body (Canon 20D), I could not do go too hight in ISO to I tried to compensate this with longer exposure (up to 20 minutes) and the result is not as good as one can expect ... The details of the lights get blurred and only color remains interesting. Will get back to this with a better camera sometime, hopefully.

    See --> http://www.flickr.com/photos/fpoulin/6576417761

  • Shauna

    January 30, 2012 10:03 am

    I don't see very many mention about Sony capture the northern lights anywhere on website except Canon and Nikon. I plan to get Sony A55, but I am going to ask you, will Sony A55 capture the good pictures of northern lights like those pictures up on this page? What kind of lens does Sony need for the northern lights and stars?

  • Neil

    January 22, 2011 12:25 pm

    As a bit of a response to Diana Mikaels post last year I thought I would put in a URL of some Aurora Australis. Not as exciting as some on here, I haven't post processed them a lot either (just added some black to darken the sky).
    I am by far no expert.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mclizard/4974976329/in/set-72157625475017086/#/

  • Wendy

    January 21, 2011 08:51 pm

    woops, try again

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollie487/4890628632/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollie487/4938984869/

  • Wendy

    January 21, 2011 08:50 pm

    here is a ground web

    and a crop of a web against blue sky

  • Chrystal

    December 8, 2010 05:07 pm

    Appreciate all the great tips in your article. I live in the Northwest Territories, Canada . Northern lights are a near constant presence here.

  • Neil Mainwaring

    June 13, 2010 06:00 am

    Nice Pics of MCM Ken. Hope we see a lot more activity here before the moon returns!!

  • Diana Mikaels

    March 22, 2010 08:38 am

    Highly recommended to come to Iceland for your Northern Light shooting :)
    Örvar Atli, and other good fellows here, are total masters to this. No joke! Look for them!
    And as Rurik commented earlier, this nice article shoud mention ICELAND as one of the places where you can see and photograph Northern Lights (Reykjavík is a perfect place - you don't have to travel that much - direct flight), specially as all your examples are Icelandic Auroras.
    Takk fyrir! :) (Thanks)

  • Old_tog

    February 18, 2010 12:38 am

    The photos are taken from this gentleman's Flickr photostream. Very talented tog, worth clicking through http://www.flickr.com/photos/orvaratli/3436138225/

  • Jeff

    February 6, 2010 01:19 am

    I THOUGHT those looked like Iceland! I vacationed there for a week in Oct2009--great place, great people and ungodly scenry! Photogs should not miss this place!

  • Blue Boeser

    February 5, 2010 09:20 pm

    Hey Natalie, thanks for sharing! These are quite good tips to prepare a chilly trip! Some people surely underestimate the "small things" which could turn out a massive problem.
    Your photos displayed here are very beautiful, guess you work sometimes with the HDR-technique.
    Wishing you more of these wonderful photo moments and a lot of success as a writer.
    Sun & love
    Blue

  • jpm8jpm

    February 5, 2010 03:17 pm

    fascinating...is this real because we cannot see these in tropical countries...

  • Rurik

    February 5, 2010 11:04 am

    Funny how you talk about these countries in the Arctic circle where the Aurora Borealis is seen but don't mention one word about Iceland even though all the photos in this article are taken IN ICELAND.

  • Warren Gammel

    February 5, 2010 09:47 am

    Fantastic photos! I live in Fairbanks Alaska and have gotten some great aurora photos this past week.

    The cold weather photography tips are right on. I would suggest bringing along some of those chemical hand warmer packs that are available in most stores which carry sporting goods. Frozen fingers are the biggest problem when you're taking photos in the extreme cold and those hand warmers are life savers!

  • Geoff Chalcraft

    February 5, 2010 04:58 am

    Excellent description of the beauty of one of Mother Nature's greatest shows - everybody should try to experience it at least once.
    Your technical information and advice is also very good but one word you didn't mention..... condensation. It's not easy to protect against condensation - bringing your camera between the cold temperatures outdoors and the normal (but moist) temperatures indoors will cause glass to become steamed up - and not just for a few seconds, this can last hours. Trying to keep your camera within a narrower temperature range is the key to protecting against the condensation. Some people even keep their cameras wrapped in a small amount of clothing and leave them in the car when not in use..... the big temperature and humidity shift between "in use" and in a normally heated room are immense. In theory, a large insulated box would be ideal, protecting the camera from the extremes.

  • Brian

    February 5, 2010 03:38 am

    Simply outstanding tutorial!!! Stunning photographs!!! Just about the most efficient couple of minutes I have ever spent on this website!

  • aneesh

    February 5, 2010 01:40 am

    i need better technics in digital photography
    if any one help me.. more about photography

  • Jonathan

    February 4, 2010 02:53 pm

    I live in southern Wisconsin and have seen the aurora a few times. Back in the fall of 2004 there were a number of storms, and I remember one night where the displays looked a lot like some of the above pics. That was before I had my DSLR, but I even got a few fairly decent shots with my compact and a small tripod.

    Anyone interested in the Aurora should keep an eye on SpaceWeather.com, where you can even sign up for phone alerts when the aurora are active.

  • Darran

    February 4, 2010 12:58 pm

    This is an awesome guide and just the other day I was writing a post on dreaming of photographing an aurora. I will be sure to bookmark this post, basing my planning and preparation on what you have mentioned in this post. Well written!

  • Sonyapayne

    February 4, 2010 10:39 am

    Hi Kevin
    I'm from Michigan as well. Are you the U.P? I've never seen anything remotely close to an Aurora.

  • Ken Klassy

    February 4, 2010 09:54 am

    These are a constant target of mine as I winter in Antarctica from Feb to Oct.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy/3577388513/

    Southern Lights taken at McMurdo Station Antarctica.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenklassy/3578192030/

    Light on the left is the Moon.

  • vitsee

    February 4, 2010 09:40 am

    WOW! these are stunning!
    I would love to photograph the northern lights, great tips!

  • Natalie Johnson

    February 4, 2010 02:14 am

    Thanks Linus. I too viewed the lights from Sweden, what a beautiful country you live in. I'll be sure to come back in 2012!

  • Kevin

    February 4, 2010 02:13 am

    To be clear, there is not an "extraordinary solar storm on the way". The author is actually talking about the 11-year sunspot cycle. 2012 or 2013 is the peak. And actually predictions have been tampered down in the past year or so as to the intensity of the cycle.

    As to shooting the aurora, during many large events they can be seen (in the northern hemisphere) as far south as Mexico. I have gotten some excellent images from Michigan (USA).

    I have seen over the years a wide variety of colors, including the elusive purple.

    (Note: I have been an astronomer for most of my life, and have shot the aurora for over 25 years)

  • Rob

    February 4, 2010 01:11 am

    Beutiful...I hope I will make some pictures of aurora one day too! :-)

  • Linus Bohman

    February 4, 2010 12:52 am

    Capturing the northern lights is something I've always wanted to do up here in Sweden. This was a pretty great rundown of things I need to get and do - thanks! And to everyone who hasn't seen these lights in person: you really must at least once in your life. It's magical.

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