Ultimate Guide to Photograph the Northern Lights

Ultimate Guide to Photograph the Northern Lights

Beginners guide to Photograph the Northern Lights

In this blog, we will cover a complete beginner guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights. This article will concentrate on one thing and one thing only, capturing a once in a lifetime image of the Aurora.

There are many technical aspects of photography, especially when photographing the night skies. Still, the aim here is to give you confidence and knowledge to capture the magical green event of the Aurora Borealis.


Top 5 locations to see the Northern Lights

We need to know where the Northern Lights occur to capture them, sounds stupid right? Multiple factors go behind the Northern Lights occuring, but to keep this simple, clear and easy to understand, Below I will give you my top 5 locations to photograph the Northern Lights.

  1. Tromsø, Norway

  2. Fairbanks, Alaska USA

  3. Yukon, Canada

  4. Reykjavik, Iceland

  5. Tasmania, Australia

Dream Location: South Georgia Island

My top location is Tromsø – it’s easy to access, warmer due to the Gulf Streams so that you won’t freeze and best of all Tromsø is located in the Auroral Oval. If you’re interested in joining me for a photography workshop learning how to photograph the Northern Lights and Landscape Photography in the Arctic Circle, you can find out more information here.

Below is a map of where the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis occur. (Yes, there are Southern Lights) 

 Aurora Borelais & Australis Locations - Worldwide Map
Aurora Borelais & Australis Locations – Worldwide Map
 Northern Lights KP Index - Europe
Northern Lights KP Index – Europe

5 tips on planning to capture the Northern Lights

50% of the hard work to capture the Northern lights we can prepare in the warmth of our homes! Below I will go through in order step-by-step planning tips for witnessing and achieving that dream photo of the Northern Lights.

  1. Time of year – Above I explained about providing a location to witness the Northern Lights, now we need to select a time of year. The best time to observe the lights is during the winter season from November to March due to the nights being much longer.

  2. Duration – To maximise your chances of photographing the Northern Lights, it’s a good idea to stay in the area for at least five days. My photography workshops in Tromsø are six days long increase the probability of viewing the Northern lights due to it being located on the Auroral Oval, meaning lower KP ratings are possible to photograph facing north.

  3. Dark Skies – The darker the skies, the more probability you’ll have of witnessing the Northern Lights. An app called ‘light pollution’ will help you locate the best areas – I talk in-depth regarding this on my YouTube Video, which you can watch here.

  4. Weather – The weather is the second most significant obstacle to overcome when trying to photograph the Northern Lights. I recommend the weather forecaster called windy; this will allow you to observe the percentage of cloud cover, wind directions and temperatures. Try picking a day which will be clear skies, make sure to research multiple areas around where you are located for clear pockets from the clouds, mainly when situated near the water.

  5. Forecast – The biggest hurdle to overcome when photographing the Northern Lights is the occurrences itself. An app called ‘Aurora‘ will help give a calculated prediction for your particular area. The app will predict future observations, but I highly recommend you disregard this and concentrate on the hourly forecasts, remember it’s a rare and unpredictable phenomenon. In my recent trips to Tromsø even on low forecasted nights, we’ve still witnessed the rare occurrence. 


BEST Camera Setting for Northern Lights?

Now we’re going to discuss the best camera settings to photograph the Northern Lights for beginners; remember some settings will change depending on other factors, but generally, this will work in most situations.

Below is a comprehensive overview of everything you will need to know to capture the once in a lifetime image you’ve always dreamt of, even if you do not know about photographing the night skies.

  1. Focus to infinity on your lens

  2. Aperture at 1.4 to 4 – the lowest your lens to go

  3. Shutter Speed between 5-15 seconds – Depends on other factors read below

  4. ISO between 1600-3200 at the beginning

  5. Custom Kelvin white balance of 3800K

Focusing to infinity – Setting focus is a critical element of photography and one component we’re unable to fix in post-production if we make a mistake. Focusing in the dark is near on impossible, that’s why we need to find the lenses infinity focusing point – this will change on each lens your own.

How to set your camera to focus to infinity? Finding infinity on each of your lenses is best practised during the day. Practise this by heading out to an open area, making sure there is something far in the distance such as mountains or trees. Set your camera on a tripod and place your camera into manual focusing, then zoom in as far as you can on the back of the LCD screen. Move the focusing ring, usually located on the front of the lens until the object in the distance is the sharpest it can be.

When you’ve found the sweet spot on the lens, use a marker or tape to remember the exact location, (Pictured on my Samyang 12mm F/2) this will significantly benefit your workflow when out in the field at night.

You’ll often notice that the infinity symbol marked on the lens in comparison to the reality of focusing it quite a bit different. It’s essential to practise this before heading out; we can not sharpen an unsharp image!


Aperture – Ideally you’ll want a lens with a maximum aperture of 1.4 to 2.8. If your lens doesn’t go this high don’t worry, I’ve had clients and also myself personally that have captured images at F/4 before. Your aperture will depend on the intensity of the moon, but a tip for beginners, use the largest aperture that your lens can handle.


Shutter Speed – For a general guide, I recommend shooting with a shutter speed between 10-15 seconds, and this will capture an overview of what’s in the night skies.

Something we need to consider when photographing the night sky is not to break the golden 500 rule. During a perfect night of photography, the Aurora may be dancing above our heads for 1 to 2 minutes. If we left our shutter open for this long, the stars would show significant movement in our image, below is the basic rule to work out the shutter speed for our particular lens.

Shutter Speed 500 Rule:

Guide: 500/Focal Range (X’s by crop factor if necessary) = Shutter Speed 

Samyang 12mm: 500/12(x1.5 – Fujifilm) = 27 seconds


ISO Settings – 3200 ISO is an ideal starting point to assess the surround conditions. This setting differs depending on natural and artificial light in your surroundings, such as the moon and light pollution. Below is a rough starting point for different situations:

Rough Guide for Moon / Light pollution %s at F/2.8 aperture.

0% Moon / Light pollution – ISO 6400

50% Moon / Light pollution – ISO 3200

100% Moon / Light pollution – ISO 1600


Kelvin Temperature – Locking down our white balance is essential, and often overlooked. A kelvin temperature of 3800K works best for the Northern Lights and snowy foreground. If your camera doesn’t enable you to allocate a manual white balance, enable a preset setting in the camera that works best for your current scene. Please, DO NOT leave this set on auto.


Still worried? Concentrate on ISO value. Select the maximum aperture, 15-second shutter speed and focus to infinity. If image is:

Overexposed – Lower ISO

Underexposed – Raise ISO

Below are images to help explain. These settings will guarantee you to capture an image.

 Northern Lights - Overexposed
Northern Lights – Overexposed
 Northern Lights - Underexposed
Northern Lights – Underexposed
 Northern Lights - Correctly Exposed
Northern Lights – Correctly Exposed

BEST camera for Northern Lights?

The camera that you already own. Seriously! If you’re a hobbyist, professional or just starting in photography, the camera that you already own will 99% of the time be good enough?

Photography’s expensive, and it’s easy to start pouring money into a new gear, but with the suitable condition – it’s possible! I would invest the funds into new locations before investing in that new low light lens you might use once.

If your interested in purchasing a new camera for low light photography brands such as Panasonic, Nikon, Fujifilm and Sony are great options. Samyang/Rokinon, Sigma and Tokina make wide-angle low light lens options easy with their superb quality and ridiculously affordable prices!

Need help deciding what camera suits your needs, or what low light lens will suit the camera you already own? Please contact me!


What equipment do I need to capture the Northern Lights?

Photography Equipment – Expensive camera equipment is not essential to capture the Northern Lights. I’ve previously used a Canon G5X to capture the Northern Lights before. Therefore, a newer camera will be capable of capturing the event, especially with manufactures such as Samyang/Rokinon, Sigma and Tokina making fantastic wide-angle low light lens at an affordable price.

  • Camera (DSLR, Mirrorless or MFT system)

  • Wide-angle low Light Lens (F1.4 to F2.8 preferred)

  • Sturdy Tripod

  • Head Torch (With red torch feature)

Clothing – This may not be photography related, but is a critical topic to talk about before heading out in the elements. Can I remind you that the Aurora occurs during the winter season in the most northern/southern countries in the world? It’s going to be cold.

  • Baselayers

  • Fleece / Merino Jumper

  • Down jacket

  • Hat & Gloves

  • Winter boots & Socks


Conclusion

This article is an outline of camera settings that will enable you to capture the Northern Lights in 90% of situations. If you’re still worried concentrate on your ISO, as I said the most important thing is capturing the image. Wish to learn how to capture the northern lights or improve your low light photography skills? Consider joining me on one of my photography workshops.

 Matthew Storer
Matthew Storer

Travel & Landscape Photographer

Australian. YouTuber. Adventurer.



YouTube Video



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Yearly Calendar


Pro Tips

  • Keep Batteries Warm

  • If you hit ISO 1600, consider raising your aperture

  • Take multiple images of the same scene

  • Consider adding a human element for scale


Map Location

 



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