Photographing the Aurora Borealis – i.e. Northern Lights

Photographing the Aurora Borealis – i.e. Northern Lights


Some of the most captivating light shows witnessed here on earth, are actually occurring 300+ miles above our heads, in the upper atmosphere. A result of spectacular solar storms, the Aurora Borealis has captivated thousands of men, women and children. I am one of them. I have spent countless hours, in mind-numbing temperatures (-42 Celsius), chasing the lights in an attempt to capture what many people fly half way around the world to experience.

Aurora Borealis-1.jpg

Have I been successful? I guess that`s subjective. At -42, after standing on a frozen lake, in the middle of nowhere, just shy of the Arctic circle, success can be very subjective. I made it back home alive, so I would consider that a success. After many attempts, and many frozen fingers, I have captured photos which I am proud to share. So I consider that a success. But it seems the more times you venture out, the more you try to hone your skills and capture more unique and inspiring photos.


I am by no means an expert – in fact I`m quite new to this, only having started just over a year ago. As I mentioned, many attempts later and having captured hundreds of photos, I have found a few things which seem to work. I hope they help you in your attempts to capture some of these incredible light shows.

I have found that experimentation is the key to finding what works best on any particular night. There are so many variables, you really need to explore – your camera, your location, the conditions outside, all have an impact on your final shots. So be creative, experiment and have fun.

Aurora Borealis-2.jpg

Lens Choice – Wide Angle, Fisheye, …

If you have a wide angle lens, it will help you capture some great Aurora shots. You can get good Aurora shots quite successfully with other lenses, but I have come to like the results I get with the wide angle lens. Be aware that wide angle lenses result in slightly underexposed images compared to the same scene taken with a standard lens. You may need to adjust your exposure length or aperture accordingly. Others find great success with a fisheye lens. They create some very unique perspectives, especially with Aurora shots.

Aurora Borealis-3.jpg


Using my wide angle lens (Tokina 11-16mm), I find the following settings to produce the best captures:

  • ISO 400 to 800 (less noise at 400 but require longer exposure with the wide angle).
  • Lowest possible aperture (my lens goes to f2.8)
  • 15-30 second exposures (again, depending on the available light – i.e. ambient, city, moonlight, etc…, try variations)

Aurora Borealis-4.jpg


If you want to really get creative, take a flashlight (or independent flash if you have one) and play around with it. Scout out some interesting locations, expose for 15-30 seconds, flash a foreground object. It’s an interesting effect. Introduce some light painting effects, and you’ll get some great creativity to your photos. Vehicles can be a night photographer’s nightmare, but with Auroras, a vehicles lights passing through an exposure, with Aurora dancing across the sky, can be very interesting.

About the Author: David Heffernan is from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories) – you can see more of his work at

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Some Older Comments

  • C Hedley October 11, 2011 11:34 pm

    Thanks for all the advice. I've looked at a lot of photos of the AB, apparently taken using wide apertures, and I'm amazed at how much of the foreground is in focus. Is it an optical illusion, post production editing, or is there somehow a deeper depth of field in low-light conditions?

    I'm going to see the AB in Finland next March so want to be well prepared. I'll be shooting on a Canon EOS 40D, using a Tamron 18-250mm. I'd love to take a better lens but I need a reasonably good all-round "holiday" zoom lens, so this is it!

    Any advice welcomed!

  • Dawn Callaway February 19, 2011 03:17 am

    Thank you everyone for such great info on the Northern Lights! I am going to Fairbanks in a week and am so hoping for an opportunity to see this! With the tips from this article I'll hopefully be able to get some great shots.

  • Dave Heffernan November 10, 2009 04:13 pm

    Actually, it really depends on the Solar Activity that's occuring. There are places, such as Space Weather Canada which dedicate a lot of time to monitoring the Solar Activity. You can see if for yourself at their site I varied my exposures to find the right amount of time given the conditions of the night - i.e. moon light, brightness and activity level of the Aurora, city light, cloud cover, etc...

  • sshahid November 6, 2009 10:17 pm

    Do these aurora lights flash all the time or they are like lightening; can happen at any time, unpredictable? Did you take 15 or 30 s exposures just to try your luck if you can capture one?

  • Lennard October 19, 2009 07:52 am

    To answer Matts fog question: Don´t go out in the could without putting your camera in a closed plastic bag before so that it can cool down slowly. Better let it cool down before you start shooting.
    If the moisture ist really high your only solution is to put an anti-dew heater (google for "Kendrick") on the lens hood. Or the cheap solution: Build one by yourself from supersaturated solution (crystallization-type) hand warmers, or a car mirror heater pad which you put in thin metal foil around the lens hood.

  • Mike October 18, 2009 09:23 am

    Totally awesome pics!!! I had the pleasure of seeing the AB on a airline flight flying over Greenland enroute to the UK, most of the passengers were asleep but my face was plastered to the window watching it. This happened several years ago and I had a Canon EOS 20D at the time, I had no idea how to take pics of the AB so I just tried everything I could think of.....I was in a very excited state at the time lol. I think I took over 40-50 pics hoping I'd get at least 1 or 2. I had a hard time trying to eliminate the light reflection off the windows from the cabin lights inside the aircraft. I did manage to get a few decent pics though....they were awesome!

  • Jimmy October 17, 2009 09:36 am

    Jeez mate you've done well. Those are amazing

  • Jordan October 17, 2009 03:08 am

    my parents use to live in the Northwest Territories where you could see these almost every night of the week, and I must say, these shots are some of the best and truest to life that I have seen! good job.

  • Ruby October 17, 2009 01:44 am

    gorgeous! I wish I lived somewhere where I could shoot those.

  • Myles October 16, 2009 11:33 pm

    Does the camera operate ok at such low temperatures?
    Have you tried any time lapse sequences?

  • Annie October 16, 2009 10:23 pm

    I know that you can get great shots of the Northern Lights at Mackinac Island in MI. I've only been there at the end of May and in July, I've never seen them. When I asked a local photographer about it, he just would say it depends on how sunny the previous day was. obviously not the case.

    does this depend on the time of year it is? or how can you tell when a good time would be?

  • Mandy October 16, 2009 07:00 am

    It's one of my dreams to see the Northern Lights, to photograph them as well would definitely fulfill that dream. One day I'll get there...

  • dave heffernan October 15, 2009 11:02 am

    Thanks again everyone. To answer Matt“s question regarding the lens fogging up. I really think this one depends on the amount of moisture in the air, more so than the actual temperature. At -42, I honestly have not had any problems with the lens fogging up. Perhaps it is a result of the lens being in my vehicle, which itself does not really warm up enough to warm the lens before entering the cold. At -42, you are luck to get the car to emit enough heat to take the edge off. However, I think it is a more a result of the semi-arid climate we live in here in Yellowknife. Yes, for those reading, we do have a semi-arid climate here. Even though we are in the sub-arctic, the amount of moisture we receive is minimal. The amount of moisture in the air is minimal. It can be extremely dry even in the middle of winter.

    One thing I realized is that I have not submitted any photos of my winter Aurora shots. I will post a few on my Picase Web Albums, for anyone that is interested.

  • julian October 15, 2009 07:51 am

    I just had my first chance at shooting the northern lights in late september, lucky for me > 0C(around 5C). My wife and I were at Lake Lebarge in the Yukon (canada). I had a hard time getting good shots.

    I was using a 18-55 kit lens,
    15-30 sec
    wide open (3.5) and tried 5.6,
    iso 640

    of about fifty shots, maybe five were worth processing and printing. best ones had some clouds that added another layer element

  • sbunting108 October 15, 2009 03:56 am

    Fanstatic photographs prehaps one day I will take photographs like those shown! Fingers Crossed!
    Thanks for the tips

  • Matt October 15, 2009 12:04 am

    Any suggestions on preventing the lens from fogging up? That always happens to me outdoors in the cold.

  • Troy October 14, 2009 05:05 pm

    A few weeks ago I also had the chance to take pictures of the AB but unfortunately I was on a ship that was seesawing very much :-(
    But I kept the pictues in mind very well :-)

  • dave heffernan October 14, 2009 04:16 pm

    Hi everyone,

    First off let me say thanks to everyone for the great feedback. I really do appreciate all of your comments. The Aurora truly are an amazing phenomenon to experience, and even more fun to try and capture.

    To answer the question on ISO. I have tried to shoot the Aurora at lower ISO, with limited success. To move down (or up depending on how you view it), to an ISO 100, usually results in a much longer exposure to capture the same level of light. The issue you run into when trying to capture the Aurora, is that it can often be a quick moving substorm, and when exposure is lengthened, you end up seeing more of a `blur` with little definition to the Aurura. Not always... mostly when it`s a quick moving Aurora. If, however, it`s a slower moving Aurora, the lower ISO setting can work to your benefit. But the majority of Auroras which I`ve encountered have not been very slow moving. So my best resutls have come with ISO 800 and sometimes ISO 400.

    On the Star Streaks, yes, I begin to see star trails when I expose longer than 30 seconds. Anything lower and you typically don`t see the trails.

    On the Aperture, I have found that with my wide angle lens, the lower aperture f/2.8 has worked best for me. I have also gotten some great photos with higher settings but I have found f/2.8 to work best on the wide angle.

    Anyhow, thanks again to everyone for the great feedback. Feel free to check out any of my other photos at my Picasa Web Albums.


  • Roy Hale October 14, 2009 01:44 pm

    I have always wanted to photograph the Aurora Borealis. I never knew where to go or when....OR for that matter how to pay to get there! :)

    I am very impressed with what you have done and I hope one day to try it too. Thank you for the good comments and tips. I would ask one question, did the temperature affect your camera or lens?

    Great shooting and great success,


  • KN October 14, 2009 10:55 am

    How stunning! The lights look like they were digitally added on. I've heard of Aurora Borealis but never bothered to find out about these lights. It's truly amazing how these kinds of things exists. Good job!

  • Jack silver October 14, 2009 10:24 am


    Thank you for your reply. Since the article mentioned a 15-30 sec exposure, I was wondering how the streaks were avoided. Possibly, the angle for an aurora photo is wide enough to avoid the problem.

    I was playing with a new camera and lens and zoomed in all the way, so I may have increased the apparent streaking. The camera also saw a LOT of stars too.

  • Lennard October 14, 2009 07:47 am

    "2. Shooting at ISO400 or 800 is obviously going to add noise to the image - most cameras will be better off moving down to 100 or 200, and slowing the shutter to compensate.

    3. For shooting a landscape, a smaller aperture is usually beneficial to get more of the scene in focus. When photographing something far away such as the aurora borealis, f/2.8 will still get a lot of DoF, but something lower would be preferable - f/5.6 at least I’d say - and again, slow the shutter to compensate."

    I have to say that you are totally wrong ben. If you are a nighttime shooter the camera setting has nothing to do with a daytime camera setting like you describe. If you close your lens down and shoot with a smaller aperture you will not get enough light into the lens and to your sensor. Because the auroras are faint objects and you are mostly shooting in dark areas. And they are very far away, so you don´t need a great DOF, because you are focusing your lens to infinity. And if you slow the shutter down the result are star trails. You only get pinpoint stars if you have a short shutter time...depending on the used focal lenght.

    Modern cameras can produce very good images at ISO 400-800... I mostly use ISO 800 for my night & timelapse shots in dark areas, otherwise you only have a black mess in your frame and less stars are visible at a given shutter time. The noise you see at shorter exposure lenghts is photon shot noise. This noise you will see in the underexposed areas of the pictue, which you should avoid by increasing the ISO. If the exposure lenght is not long enough the increased ISO will gain this noise too, which was invisible before. But if you not increase the ISO you will finally have no signal. So it´s always a fine balance between getting enough signal and not to much noise. Only if your exposure time is longer than 2 minutes you will get in trouble with another kind of noise, the so called dark current noise of your sensor, but thats another thread...

  • NIX October 14, 2009 01:41 am

    Eric Mesa

    Does this phenomenal occurs when the camera is operated at a very cold condition or in general rules you should not use too long of an exposure time?

  • Eric Mesa October 14, 2009 12:33 am

    For those saying to lower the ISO and decrease the shutter speed, that will also introduce noise as the sensor heats up. So it's a trade-off.

  • Gary October 13, 2009 08:58 pm

    When & where in Ontario is the best place for me to see the lights in November ?
    Please reply to email.


    great shots :)

  • Can Berkol October 13, 2009 07:11 pm

    Great photos. I hope that one day I will also get the chance to shoot aurora lights.

  • nix74 October 13, 2009 03:15 pm

    Nice shoot there with great composition.

    Same question come to my mind, why not use lower ISO and why such a big aperture size?

    Unless both setting give a longer exposure time that is not too desire !

  • michael October 13, 2009 02:13 pm

    jack - the trails are made because the earth rotates, and the stars "moved" in the 30 sec exposure. To keep them as points, you need to bump up the ISO to reduce the exposure time.

  • bernd October 13, 2009 11:22 am

    wonderful photos! Thanks for your insights!

  • Yonatan October 13, 2009 10:18 am

    Awesome shots and thanks for the tips!

    I'm actually going to be spending two months in Stockholm, Sweden and really want to make a trip up north while I'm visiting to check out the Northern Lights and try to capture some photos. Have you had any experience photographing them in March and April?

  • Jack silver October 13, 2009 10:16 am

    How do you keep the stars as points? I was playing with my camera and I get trailing of stars and moon with a 30 second exposure.

    Thanks for the information.

  • Roberta October 13, 2009 09:55 am

    These are terrific. Obviously not the ones taken at -42ºC though!

  • Sam Cortese October 13, 2009 09:09 am

    Great Pictures for someone who calls himself beginner!

  • Victor Sutan October 13, 2009 09:08 am

    Great shots. It's cool that it's visible even with full moon around.

    I was in Fairbanks about two years ago and lucky enough to see it with my own eyes.

    I think you could do ISO 100, if you have enough light around. When I was there, I couldn't get enough exposure with ISO100. Also, I had to run back to the lodge every now and then just to warm up.

  • Ben October 13, 2009 09:03 am

    1. Exposure is dependant on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Nothing to do with the focal length.

    2. Shooting at ISO400 or 800 is obviously going to add noise to the image - most cameras will be better off moving down to 100 or 200, and slowing the shutter to compensate.

    3. For shooting a landscape, a smaller aperture is usually beneficial to get more of the scene in focus. When photographing something far away such as the aurora borealis, f/2.8 will still get a lot of DoF, but something lower would be preferable - f/5.6 at least I'd say - and again, slow the shutter to compensate.

  • Tyler Ingram October 13, 2009 08:31 am

    Cool shots! I have never seen the auroras, but I would love to capture them one day.

    How come you didn't go down to ISO100 and increase the exposure duration to help reduce noise/grain? Or was it just tooo cold to wait around any longer than 30secs?