The Northern Lights (or aurora borealis, as they’re scientifically called) are a natural spectacle. Only visible in the night sky, the Northern Lights create vivid colors and patterns as particles of gas collide with Earth’s magnetic field. As a swirl of striking colors and shapes, it’s no wonder that the Northern Lights have been fascinating photographers for generations.
Northern Lights photography, however, requires nuanced skill. There are many considerations in this type of photography, as the darkness of the night sky and the unpredictability of the clouds can throw off an entire composition. But, with thoughtful planning and an open mind, it’s possible to adapt to your surroundings and photograph the Northern Lights in their full glory. Here, we’ll give you the tools that you need for this special type of landscape photography.
Where To See Northern Lights
To see Northern Lights (or the aurora borealis, as it’s also called), you’ll need a combination of outdoor conditions: ample aurora activity, full darkness, and a sky that’s at least relatively clear.
It’s also crucial not to give up easily, as catching the Northern Lights takes a bit of luck.
Additionally, the season impacts the visibility of the Northern Lights. It’s virtually impossible to see them during the summer. But, from approximately September through March, auroras are visible in multiple regions.
Certain areas present optimal conditions for the Northern Lights. These include:
Look for Clear Skies
You’ll need a clear sky to photograph auroras. While you can shoot auroras somewhat successfully when the sky is partly cloudy, the result will be significantly better with a clear sky.
Unfortunately, the clarity of the sky is outside your control. So, in Northern Light photography, you’ll have to research the sky conditions when you want to shoot. Keep up with the local weather, looking out for nights when the cloud cover ranges from 0% to 20%.
To look at cloud cover on a large scale, check out the MeteoStar Weather Satellite Imagery Maps of the Northern Hemisphere. You can use their infrared (IR) tool online to get an idea of the cloud cover that will be occurring.
IR satellites are useful because they can track cloud coverage during the night and day, so you will always have visibility for your shoot.
Below is an example of the IR map found on the MeteoStar website. You can see there are different levels of cloud coverage in the northern hemisphere. The IPR map allows you to select the region as well as data and time you would like to see cloud coverage for.
Since the map uses real satellite data, you can only see cloud coverage from the previous day, current day, and a short three-hour forecast.
Avoid shooting under heavy coverage because Northern lights will no be visible. Aim for no or light cloud coverage; if there is light cloud coverage, you may be able to see northern lights through the gaps in the clouds or if it clears up a bit more.
Learning more about IR satellite imagery can give you a leg up in Northern Lights photography. With knowledge of this weather tool, you can create a detailed plan for your shoot and boost your chances for success.
I also recommend you use a weather forecasting app in unison with the Satelite radar. This will supplement and give you additional information you can rely on when looking at the cloud coverage over your location.
Weather apps are also useful because they offer more location-specific weather conditions than can help guide you in the right direction.
Avoid Light Pollution
The amount of light pollution in the area you are shooting will have a great impact on your ability to photograph the Northern Lights. In particular, the less light pollution there is the better chances you have. Even if there are clear skies and conditions are perfect, light pollution can make the Northern lights harder to capture.
When choosing the location of your shoot pay attention to the light pollution of the area. A great tool you can use is the dark sky finder, this website will tell you the varying levels of light pollution associated with specific locations. Below is a guide on how to read the maps on the Dark Sky Finder.
High Aurora Activity
Aurora activity is measured using a scale from zero to nine, with nine being the most intense.
When photographing weak auroras, such as in level two or three, it’s useful to always take a sample picture of the sky before calling it a night. Weak auroras are typically difficult to see with the naked eye, but will still show in your image. If the colors are green, it’s an aurora. But, if the area is just white in the frame, it’s a regular cloud.
Also, an active aurora always has the potential to gain activity at any time. So, the aurora is worth sticking around for a while longer.
Its important to note that the level of activity required to see Northern lights varies on your locations. The farther north you are, the less activity you need to see the Northern Lights. For example, in countries such as Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, you can see Auroras with activity between 1 and 5.
On the other hand, as you move south, such as Germany, Denmark, and Austria, you will need Aurora activity between 8 and 9 to get any visibility of this spectacle.
Aurora Forecast Websites
Many online resources provide information on predicted aurora activity across the globe. If you’re on a trip to photograph auroras, check with your hotel for local aurora forecast websites.
Frequently check weather forecasts and radar data, then use this information to plan your shoot. Areas with superior sky clarity and aurora activity than your current location could be just a short drive away.
SpaceWeatherLive.com is one of my favorite sources for aurora activity forecasts. They provide you with a variety of measures that affect auroras. I use the KP index and probability forecast the most.
I also suggest you keep an eye out for weather services such as NASA and NOAA who typically issue Aurora activity alters when they are particularly visible.
Set Your Focus To Manual Mode
Setting your camera’s focus is often the trickiest aspect of nighttime photography. That’s because even the most advanced autofocus systems today don’t focus as well in darkness. Without proper focus, your images won’t be clear and sharp.
Since autofocus doesn’t operate well at night and in darkness, it’s best to shoot in manual mode.
One way you can do this is by manually setting your focus is to infinity. The infinity focus point is marked with a “∞” symbol on the majority of lenses. When your focus is set at infinity, your photos will be sharp from the foreground to the furthest horizon.
Keep in mind, although setting your focus to infinity will allow you to keep most of your frame in sharp focus, you won’t necessarily achieve the sharpest image possible with your lens. This is the case in any type of photography, not just Northern Light photography.
Focusing at infinity will result in nearly your entire image being in-focus. Unfortunately, to achieve such a wide range of sharpness, the degree of sharpness level deteriorates. As a result, when you focus at infinity, your images will be in focus, but they will not be as sharp compared to if you used just a deep depth of field.
The main takeaway is that when you set your focus to infinity, you forgo the quality of your sharpness for quantity.
If you’re not comfortable with manually setting your focus, you can use your autofocus in live view mode. Point your camera to the furthest bright object you can find, such as the stars or lights at the distant horizon. Use the live view mode to help you focus on a bright object in the distance.
Place your focus point on the horizon and press your shutter halfway until your camera is done focusing. Doing this will automatically set your camera to infinity. Once you have your focus locked in, change your settings from auto to manual by turning the AF/MF button on your camera or lens to MF. Switching to manual focus will hold your focus while you recompose your shot and find the exact composition you want.
Take a few test shots to check your focus. If it isn’t focused, redo the previous steps.
Shoot in Manual Mode
The first set of exposure settings won’t often produce the best exposure for your scene. It’s essential that you play around with different settings and take more shots to determine which settings work best.
I typically like to start by setting my ISO and shutter speed first. I set my aperture last to choose my exact depth of field. When making adjustments, I typically work backward, first adjusting my aperture, then my shutter speed, and finally my ISO unless I am trying to solve a specific issue.
For example, If the problem is too much noise, decrease your ISO to reduce the noise levels.
On the other hand, If the issue is too much movement, reduce your shutter speed. Or if the problem is underexposure, use a wider aperture setting.
Although you can use either setting to adjust exposure, remember they will have an impact on other features of your images as well.
The right shutter speed in Northern Lights photography depends on an aurora’s activity. If an aurora is weak, an exposure as long as 20 to 25 seconds may be necessary to capture a clear image. But, for highly active auroras, an exposure of 5 to 10 seconds can work well.
When the auroras are relatively weak, an exposure of 10 to 25 seconds is ideal. However, when aurora activity is high, you’ll need to use shorter shutter speed to capture color and detail in the auroras.
Why do you need a short exposure for highly active auroras? To answer this question, let’s consider if you were to shoot a fast aurora with an exposure of 30 seconds. In those 30 seconds, the auroras will move across the sky, rather than stay in one place. So, the sensor will record the full range of motion of the aurora instead of its distinct shape.
In other words, when you use a long exposure to capture a highly active aurora, the colors and details will simply blur together, making the subject of the image indiscernible.
Note that these values are approximations. Set the exposure to the best value for the unique conditions of your shoot.
Use the Widest or Maximum Aperture
Your camera’s aperture (or f-stop, as it’s also called) refers to the width of the lens opening. The width of this opening corresponds with the amount of light that can go through the lens and reach your sensor. The smaller the ‘f’ number, the wider the aperture opening and the more light is let into your camera.
In Northern Light photography, using the lowest possible f-number is ideal as it will provide you with the most flexibility when setting your aperture and ISO values.
That said, most lenses produce a softer image at the maximum aperture, so it might be good to stop down one or two stops. For instance, if your max aperture is f/1.4 increases to f/2 or f/2.8. Doing so will increase the sharpness of your image while still capturing plenty of light. Ideally, you want to avoid using any aperture values above 2.8 because the lens will likely not collect sufficient light.
All said, remember that these settings are all dependent on one another. So finding the right balance is key, and will often take practice.
Your ISO setting will need to be adjusted in accordance with the brightness of the auroras that you’re shooting. The higher the ISO, the brighter the image will be. Keep in mind, however, that using a high ISO will increase the appearance of noise in your image. So, you’ll want to use the lowest ISO value possible.
Begin with your ISO set at 400-800. Take a test image and see how the brightness played out if the shot is lacking brightness, up the ISO setting to around 1200, and try again.
If the image is yet again too dark, keep upping your ISO until it’s bright enough. Generally, we find that ISO settings within the range of 800 to 3200 work for nighttime photography.
Note that when you consider the histogram, your photo shouldn’t appear properly exposed. After all, you’re shooting in the complete darkness of nighttime – the image isn’t meant to be as bright as daytime shots. Make sure your histogram is not entirely shifted to the left to avoid losing details.
It’s also important to avoid overblowing highlights in your image. That is, avoid having your histogram too much to the right of the frame.
When you are shooting northern lights, it is often best to expose for the highlights, even if it leaves the rest of the image underexposed. Exposing for the highlights allows you to capture as much detail as possible. Plus, you can always enhance dark photos with Photoshop.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the color histogram just as much as the luminance histogram. The color or RGB histogram is the individual luminance distribution of green, blue, and red wavelengths, respectively. The RGB histogram will appear as either one single histogram with each wavelength or in individual histograms.
A color histogram will tell you if a particular color is overexposed or underexposed. This is important because if your colors are not exposed properly they will not be representative of the actual scene.
For example, if your green pixels are overblown, your green colors will look oversaturated and start to approach white. On the other hand, if your green pixels are underexposed, they will look too dark, and your image will appear dull.
Of course, as you watch the color histogram, pay attention to the luminance histogram to ensure that you’re not overblowing the overall image.
The Best White Balance Setting For Northern Lights Photography
Before you begin, try using automatic white balance mode, then compare the result to the colors you see with your own eyes. Often, you will find that the colors do not match.
For Northern Lights photography, I typically use the custom white balance setting and set my white balance between 3200 and 4000. You will need to adjust your white balance as you shoot to find the setting that produces the most accurate colors for your scene.
I highly recommend you avoid using auto white balance or shoot in JPEG. Auto white balance is often inaccurate in low light situations. Also, avoid shooting in JPEG as you will have less control over your white balance in post-processing.
Recommended Gear For Photographing Auroras
Having the right camera gear for Northern Lights photography is crucial to creating balanced, clear images. At a minimum, you’ll need:
A quality, sturdy tripod that can stay steady throughout a 10 to 20-second exposure. Poorly made tripods can sabotage the quality of your photos by shaking or swaying.
A camera that offers manual mode. Manual mode will enable you to alter your f-stops, shutter speed, and ISO separately, according to the conditions of your shoot.
I recommend you use a carbon fiber sturdy tripod such as the Manfrotto Horizontal Column Tripod. This tripod is well built and sturdy and extremely flexible when composing your images. My favorite part of this tripod is how easy it is to get set-up and the countless angles the horizontal column offers.
When you’re photographing in low light situations, a full-frame DLSR or mirrorless is the best bet option. It will produce better quality images with a higher dynamic range and more detail.
For Northern Light photography, the Sony a7R III and the Nikon D850 are excellent camera options. They both offer full-frame sensors with at least 40 megapixels and variable ISO with a maximum value of 32,000, which is great for low light situations.
Wide Angle Lens
One of the best ways to photograph Northern Lights is above a sweeping, beautiful landscape. For this type of image, I highly recommend using a wide-angle lens with f-stop values at a minimum of f/2.8 to f/4. Being able to set your lens to a low f-stop value will enable you to shoot clear and bright images at night.
I recommend using the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It offers the perfect wide-angle range to capture a vast image or northern lights, and the high maximum aperture is great for low light conditions.
Image Format: RAW
For the most accurate and quality photo, shoot in RAW. RAW images have some key advantages that prove extremely beneficial when shooting northern lights.
First, RAW images produce a wider dynamic range allowing them to capture more precise changes in lighting. This is extremely helpful when you are shooting in low light situations such as northern lights.
Second, RAW images are capable of a wider color gamut. As a result, RAW images capture images more accurately due to the wider range of colors used to recreate a scene.
In any photo, but especially when photographing the Northern lights, you want to capture the most accurate colors as possible.
Finally, RAW images offer greater editing flexibility compared to other shooting formats such as JPEG. When using RAW, you will have no issue adjusting settings such as white balance, exposure, contrast without affecting the quality of the image.
Resource: RAW vs JPEG: The Full Story
Scout Your Location in Daylight
Trying to find compositions in the dark can be difficult, so you’ll want to arrive before nightfall.
This will give you enough time to find several compositional ideas if one or two don’t produce the image you are looking for.
Also, since northern lights are ephemeral, limiting the time spent deciding on your composition is a great way to ensure most of your time is spent capturing the best shots rather than moving around.
Creating an excellent Northern Lights composition involves the same key guidelines as all other forms of photography. However, the nature of your subject and the conditions of the shoot will complicate the process. Keeping in mind the standard compositional rules, consider these tips for photographing auroras:
Try having a foreground element in the shot. An element to offset the auroras will create balance and visual interest in your composition.
Try omitting a foreground element from the shot. When you’re working with a stunning aurora, it can drive the entire composition on its own.
Don’t get stuck on a single method of shooting. Try out different settings, positions, and elements in the shot.
Add color and brightness to your foreground with the use of a headlamp. To switch things up, try incorporating your car’s headlamps into the foreground.
If you want to place more emphasis on your foreground, align the horizon with the upper horizontal line. On the other hand, you want to place more emphasis on the sky, or the background then align the horizon with the lower horizontal line.
Once you have your horizon aligned, position your focal point on or around one of the four intersections. This will provide your image with an inherent sense of movement and a natural focal point.
Unlike your typical daytime shootings, taking pictures at night tends to be cold, tedious, and time-consuming. You’ll have to think on your feet and go wherever the auroras take you. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re just starting. Don’t let this discourage you; good things take time. Keep an open mind and stay flexible about changing your location.
Prepare as much as possible and practice patience. The beautiful pictures you’ll get in the end will be well worth your effort.