How to Photograph the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis

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Tips for seeing and photographing the Northern Lights:

Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, might be one of the most fascinating phenomena to photograph during the night. Watching the sky turn green, blue, pink and even red, is something that will change you forever. After seeing The Lady in Green countless times, I still find myself shouting in awe when she’s elegantly dancing in the sky.

Innfjorden-Aurora-Horizontal-Reflections

Seeing, and photographing, the Northern Lights aren’t something you can do all over the world. The truth is that even if you’ve booked a flight to northern Norway or Iceland, there’s no guarantee that you will see the northern lights at all.

How to see the Northern Lights

Be in the Northern Hemisphere

Unfortunately, the Northern Lights aren’t visible all over the world. As the name might indicate, they are a phenomenon visible in the northern hemisphere. Places such as northern Norway, Iceland and Alaska are typical areas where people travel to witness the Aurora Borealis.

Lauarvann-Aurora-Metorite

That being said, during extreme solar storms your might be able to see the phenomenon further south too, but not as powerful as in the north.

So, the first step in seeing the Northern Lights is to travel to the north. Remember that the Aurora Borealis is a night phenomenon and since summers in the north have up to 24 hours of sun, you should plan your visit for late fall or winter.

Get away from light pollution

It’s nearly impossible to see the Northern Lights if you’re standing in the downtown of any larger city with light pollution. Yes, it is possible; if the KP Index (the strength indicator for Northern Lights) is at its highest. However, to increase the chances of seeing, and capturing a good shot of the Northern Lights, you should get away from light pollution, and find a location where you can clearly see the stars.

vatnsleysustrandar-aurora-borealis

I have lived in a small town not far away from Oslo, Norway for most of my life. Yet, it wasn’t until a few years ago I realized that even here in southern Norway we can see the Northern Lights. In fact, it happens more often than you realize.

There are a few different tools you can use to see what area close to you is dark enough to see the stars, and possibly the Northern Lights. Dark Sky is a great website for this exact purpose, and it shows a detailed map of the light pollution.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Now that you know where, and how to discover the Aurora Borealis, let’s see how you can capture it with your camera.

Use a tripod and remote shutter release

Since you will be photographing in the dark you’ll be working with long exposures (long shutter speeds), and it’s therefore essential that you use a tripod to ensure you get a correctly exposed image that is still of usable quality.

fiskumvannet-northern-lights

You should also consider using a remote shutter when you’re photographing the Northern Lights. This removes any chance for vibration caused by pressing the shutter. Optionally, you could use the 2-second timer, but sometimes you want to capture the image at that exact moment with no delay.

Use a wide angle lens at a large aperture

When photographing the Northern Lights you want to use a wide angle lens. This lets you capture both the landscape and the sky in one shot. When the Northern Lights are strong you’ll also notice that they stretch all over the sky and it’s impossible to capture all of it in one image, unless you use a wide angle.

northern-lights-hedenstad

During nighttime photography you want to use an open aperture such as f/2.8 to allow enough light to reach the sensor. When using my 14mm I more or less always have it at f/2.8, as I rarely use it at any other time than during the night.

Set the shutter speed according to the KP Index

The shutter speed depends on the strength of the Northern Lights. I’ve experienced when one second at ISO 400 has blown out the green (I’ve never seen the Aurora as powerful as that since) but then it can be barely visible at ISO 3200 and a shutter speed of 20 seconds at other times.

You should also keep in mind the movement of the Northern Lights. If they area quickly changing shape, a long exposure might blur them out too much, and you’ll lose detail. It’s better in that instance to increase the ISO, and lower the shutter speed, so you freeze the motion and capture all its textures.

corona-aurora

Another factor you should keep in mind when you choose the shutter speed is the movement of stars. If you go beyond 25 seconds you’ll start seeing small startrails. Sometimes this can give an interesting effect, but if you want to have a sharp and crisp image, be sure to use 25 seconds or less as your shutter speed.

Set a cool white balance (3000-4000K)

I’ve experienced that the ideal white balance is somewhere between 3000-4000 Kelvin when photographing at night. This results in a cooler, and more natural look in the dark sky. If you go above 4000K you’ll also notice that the green in the Northern Lights gets a muddy look, which you want to avoid.

Avoid using Automatic White Balance and other preset modes such as cloudy. While these often do a great job during the day, they’re more of a gamble at night. You could get some okay results with AWB but generally you won’t.

Innfjorden-aurora-vertical

Bring something warm to drink!

I had to include this last tip. Remember, when you’re photographing the Northern Lights that it’ll most likely be winter or late fall. That means that temperatures drop, and since you’ll be out during the night, there’s no sun to warm you.

Bringing a thermos with something warm to drink could be wise during these long winter nights. Especially if you’re planning to stay out for a while or even make a timelapse.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Christian Hoiberg Christian Hoiberg is a Norwegian landscape photographer and the creator of Capture Landscapes, a place to improve your landscape photography. His images can be found on his website or Instagram

  • heather.mori

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  • Von Will

    I use f2.8 and ISO of 500-700 Tv 7 -15 sec. the first shoot is light by the moon on the open Saskatchewan Canada prairie.

  • Thomas Schmidt

    I took this photo with no tripod from aboard a cruise ship deep in some fjord in Greenland. I increased ISO and pressed the camera firmly to some ship structure to get it as stable as possible. Details on the image and more polar light photos are in my blog: http://thoschmiphotos.blogspot.de/2016/02/polar-light.html

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    I basically make about 6.000-8.000 dollars monthly from working online at home. For anyone ready to work basic at home jobs for few h every day from your home and earn good profit while doing it… This is a job for you… http://fave.co/1Pj8Mpr

  • Hazel Frederick’s Ghost

    Unfortunately, the Northern Lights aren’t visible all over the world. As the name might indicate, they are a phenomenon visible in the northern hemisphere. Places such as northern Norway, Iceland and Alaska are typical areas where people travel to witness the Aurora Borealis.

    Of course, if you’re south of the equator, you can attempt to capture the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, which are the exact same phenomenon.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Yes indeed. But few places in Australia and new Zealand are far enough south to have a reasonable chance of seeing Southern lights. One of the best places in New Zealand is Tekapo, inland from Christchurch/Dunedin, but still only about 45º South. I have seen them once while on a Scout Camp in the Tararua ranges east of Wellington, but that was a very rare event. There is a good forecast tool for the southern hemisphere at http://www.aurora-service.net/aurora-forecast/ but do a google search for other places.

  • purchase ku

    oh my godd ..

    thank
    you

    very
    much

  • Alexander Ruiz

    Great advice. I went to Iceland in March/April to try to see the lights and spent month reading as much as I could to make sure I got some nice pics. Never came across the White Balance tip so I had left mine on Auto. But we did get lucky and I was able to get some nice pic on our first night out at Thingvellir national park. Here a few Pics from the set. I used my Canon Rebel T5 with the kit lens (18mm) set to f/3.5 at 6400 ISO and had the shutter to 10 seconds.

    The first 2 are the JPG straight out of the camera, the third one my first attempt to post processed using PIXLR app but not super happy with it. Hoping to learn more about lightroom and photoshop to get these processed nicely. on a final not if you look closely on the first one there line going through the lights which my husband believes its a shooting star. I was clicking the remote nonstop so i actually got a sequence of pics that show it crossing the entire skies.

    as always any comments are appreciated especially advice on post production from the RAW files (I have my camera set up to take both RAW and JPG)

  • skipc43

    Excellent article, and it couldn’t have been posted at a better time, as my family and I are going on a cruise in early September of this year. The Northern Lights are one of the many, many, many items on my “bucket list” of shots I hope to capture on the cruise.

  • And remove any filters from the front of your lens, otherwise you might pick up internal reflections (happened to me).

  • Neil Holmen

    Been to Norway and Alaska, but just about anywhere in CANADA you will see the best Northern Lights. Visitors from Asia flock to Manitoba to see the lights and polar bears.
    Photos from Saskatchewan

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