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How to Photograph the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

how to photograph the northern lights

The northern lights – also known as the aurora borealis – are one of the most spectacular sights on Earth, so it’s no surprise that everyone wants to capture them on camera. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever tried to photograph the northern lights, you’ll have likely run into a host of problems, including (but not limited to!) over- or underexposure, missed focus, blur due to camera shake, a blurry sky, and extreme high-ISO noise.

But here’s the good news:

Every challenge posed by the northern lights has a simple solution – and in this article, I’m going to share plenty of northern lights photography advice so that you can overcome any difficulties and capture stunning shots of your own.

This advice comes from lots of experience; I’ve had the pleasure of watching and photographing the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, for years (and I still find myself shouting in awe when I see them dancing in the sky!).

So if you’re ready to become an expert, then let’s get started.

How to see the northern lights

It might sound silly, but the first step in photographing the northern lights is finding them. It’s simply not possible to see the aurora whenever and wherever you want – you must meet all of these conditions:

1. Be in the Northern Hemisphere

The northern lights aren’t visible all over the world. As the name indicates, they are a phenomenon visible in the Northern Hemisphere – and they’re much easier to view if you go north of the Arctic Circle (or close to it). Places such as northern Norway, Iceland, and Alaska are typical aurora-viewing areas, and while you can witness the lights further south during extreme solar storms, it’s not as common and the display is rarely as impressive compared to “northern” northern lights.

So for the best photography opportunities, you must go north!

By the way, when planning your trip to the north, you’ll need to bear one more fact in mind:

The northern lights season lasts from late fall to early spring. Northern lights are only visible in the night sky, and in the Arctic, the sun doesn’t set during the summer months (so there’s no darkness and no northern lights).

the northern lights over the ocean
Want spectacular views of the northern lights? Then you must make sure you’re in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere!

2. Be away from light pollution

It’s nearly impossible to see the northern lights from the downtown of a large city, even if you’re in the right region of the globe. You might catch a glimpse of the colors if the northern lights are strong, but the display won’t be nearly as impressive as if you leave the city lights behind.

So to increase your chances of capturing the northern lights, you should get away from light pollution and find a location where you can clearly see the stars.

There are a few different tools you can use to find areas with minimal light pollution. Dark Sky is a great website for this purpose; it shows a detailed map of light pollution and can help you pick the right spot to shoot. (Remember: The farther from the light pollution you move, the better the display will look, all else being equal!)

the northern lights over ice
Light pollution makes it tough to see (and photograph) the northern lights. For the best opportunities, make sure you head to a more remote area.

3. Look for clear skies (and a high Kp-index)

In order to see the northern lights, you need to see the stars – so cloudy nights aren’t good for aurora borealis photography. If the sky is cloudy, you might as well enjoy the comfort of a warm cabin.

Fortunately, when you’re north of the Arctic Circle, clear nights typically mean you will get a glimpse of the northern lights. The display might not always be strong, but chances are high that you’ll at least get a nice arch across the horizon. 

Keep in mind that weather conditions change quickly in the Northern Hemisphere. Just because it’s cloudy one moment doesn’t mean it’ll be cloudy in an hour, so even if you do stay inside due to cloud clover, you should keep a close eye on the forecast and stick your head outside from time to time just to be sure you’re not missing any outstanding aurora borealis action. 

Also, a quick tip: To predict the strength of the aurora display, refer to the Kp-index. In general, the higher the Kp-index, the stronger the display. (There are other factors involved in predicting the northern lights, but the Kp-index is the easiest and most convenient.)

the northern lights over a mountain
When the sky is clear, you need to be ready!

How to photograph the northern lights

Once you’ve found the northern lights, how do photograph them successfully? It’s easy to get overly excited and forget about the technicalities – after all, the northern lights are stunningly beautiful – but I urge you to study the next few steps carefully so that you’re as prepared as possible when the sky explodes with stunning light.

Step 1: Bring a tripod and a remote shutter release

Photographing at night means that you’re working with long exposures (i.e., slow shutter speeds). It’s therefore essential that you mount your camera on a tripod, which will make sure that your camera stays perfectly still for the duration of the exposure.

Note that you’ll want to make sure your tripod is reasonably robust; a flimsy tripod may not be able to keep your camera from shaking, especially if you’re set up on rough terrain or dealing with some wind.

You should also consider using a remote shutter release, which lets you fire the camera shutter without touching the shutter button. This prevents any vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button – and while such vibrations might seem minute, they really can soften your image.

(An alternative is to use the camera’s self-timer, as the delay gives the vibrations time to die down. But sometimes you want to capture the image at an exact moment with no delay, and that’s why I highly recommend a remote release.)

One more item to consider: Before you head out with your camera, make sure that it’s set to avoid mirror slap (if it’s a DSLR) and is also set to either the electronic shutter or the electronic front-curtain shutter. That way, neither the camera mirror nor the camera shutter will cause blur due to internal vibrations.

the moon and the aurora borealis

Step 2: Bring a capable camera and a wide-angle lens with a large aperture

So you have your tripod and remote release – now it’s time to pick a camera and a lens for shooting the aurora display.

Make sure you choose an interchangeable lens camera that offers relatively strong high-ISO performance. These days, APS-C cameras are very impressive, but if you can go full frame, that’s often an easy way to reduce noise in your files.

As for lenses, while I generally encourage photographers to experiment with different focal lengths, there’s no getting around it: an ultra-wide-angle lens is ideal for photographing the northern lights. 

A wide-angle lens allows you to capture both the landscape and the sky in one shot. That way, you can incorporate the northern lights into a good composition.

Also, when you first experience the northern lights, you’ll realize that they can fill up the entire sky. It’s impossible to capture all this beauty with a narrow focal length lens (in fact, even wide-angle glass isn’t always enough!).

It’s also important to use the widest possible aperture. A wide aperture means more light reaches the sensor, allowing for a brighter exposure.

For that reason, apertures such as f/2 and f/2.8 work well for night photos. You can get away with f/4 if your lens doesn’t open to f/2.8 – but you’ll need to increase the ISO or extend the shutter speed to pull it off, neither of which are great for northern lights photography.

aurora borealis over a river

Step 3: Choose your composition and set up your camera

Now that you have the right gear, it’s time to turn to the fun stuff: actually capturing your aurora photos!

You’ll want to start by carefully identifying a compelling composition. Here, it can be helpful to look for foreground elements that’ll work well with the northern lights in the background. For instance, you can use rivers, snow, or patterns in ice to create leading lines, which then guide the viewer’s eye toward the northern lights in the background.

Of course, you can always aim to photograph just the sky, but a land-sky composition will generally be a lot more compelling.

One tip: If possible, get out to your shooting destination when it’s still light (either before the sun goes down or a few days in advance). Bring out your camera and consider potential compositions. If you find one you like, take a record photo so you can refer to it later if needed.

Then, when the conditions are right and you’re on location, check to make sure your composition looks good, then set up your camera on the tripod, taking care to lock it down securely!

Step 4: Adjust the shutter speed and ISO according to the northern lights (and use a cold white balance)

Guides such as the 500 Rule or the NPF Rule are great indicators of the shutter speed you should use for night photography – but these do not work for northern lights.


Because the best shutter speed completely depends on how active the northern lights are. I’ve experienced extreme displays where I’m using a 1/2s shutter speed and an ISO of 200, yet I’m still overexposing the sky!

Therefore, you need to adapt the shutter speed to the situation and make changes throughout the night. I typically use a shutter speed between 4 and 20 seconds. 

Now, a fast-moving northern lights display requires a faster shutter speed. The bright light moving across the sky will quickly get overexposed. But when the display is slower, you get away with a longer shutter speed.

The ISO also depends on how bright the night sky is. I typically use a value between ISO 1600 and ISO 6400. That said, on rare occasions, I go all the way down to ISO 200.

the aurora borealis over a mountain how to photograph the northern lights

Also, while I know that the white balance technically doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in RAW, I’m someone who prefers to make the photo look as good as possible in-camera.

So when photographing the northern lights, I recommend avoid using Auto White Balance or preset modes. While these often do a great job during the day, they’re less consistent at night. You might get some okay results with Auto White Balance, but it won’t always work.

I recommend setting the white balance manually – use Kelvin mode and choose a value somewhere between 3000K and 4000K. This will produce a colder and more natural-looking sky.

(Using values above 4000K makes the green in the northern lights look muddy and strange, which is something you want to avoid.)

Finally, you’ll want to switch your lens to manual focus, then carefully focus so that at your chosen aperture setting, the sky – as well as the foreground – is tack-sharp. (Here, it can be very helpful to understand the concept of hyperfocal distance.)

purple and green aurora borealis how to photograph the northern lights

I’ll admit that it does require some experience to get your settings right from the very beginning. But keep an eye on the image preview between every few shots, and you’ll learn exactly what to adjust for great results.

Step 5: Take plenty of photos (and bring something warm to drink!)

Now that everything is ready to go, capture some northern lights images! Make sure to frequently review the images on your LCD, checking for exposure issues, as well as blur due to improper focusing or camera shake. Always zoom in to see the fine details – if you view the images as thumbnails, you’re bound to miss some essential pixels.

Also, the winter nights in the Northern Hemisphere can be quite cold and miserable. It’s essential that you stay warm when you’re outside waiting for the northern lights. Good clothes (and several layers) help a lot, but it’s also nice to bring a thermos with a warm drink. Once you get too cold, it’s hard to stay motivated. Especially if you’re planning to shoot for a while or make a timelapse.

How to photograph the northern lights: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well-equipped to photograph the northern lights.

That said, if you want to learn more about northern lights photography – so you can start creating images like those in this article, fast – I highly recommend my course, Northern Lights Photography Made Easy. I teach all the essentials of capturing and processing stunning images of the night sky’s most amazing feature. So check out the course here!

how to photograph the northern lights

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Christian Hoiberg
Christian Hoiberg

is a full-time landscape photographer based in the scenic Lofoten Islands who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. Visit his website to get a free download of his eBook 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography.

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