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How To Photograph Northern Lights – Tips for Beginners

How To Photograph Northern Lights – Tips for Beginners

Traveling to Iceland, Norway, or Alaska hoping to see Northern Lights this winter? If you are like most of us, you probably want to document your whole trip, including auroras, in pictures. After all, just telling your friends that you saw something never has quite the same effect as posting your travel pictures on social media.

You have probably seen some amazing Northern Lights photography before you booked your trip. If you are like me, it’s those pictures that finally convinced you to travel to the North in winter, face the elements and inhuman temperatures, hoping to catch a glimpse of this amazing natural spectacle… And now you hope to not only see the Northern Lights but also to be able to photograph them…

But how to photograph Northern Lights if you are a beginner and don’t know much about night- or star- photography?

This short introduction to Northern Lights photography is meant for beginners who want to photograph Northern Lights. Without going into too many details and making it more complicated than it should be, I share all the basics you should know in order to be able to take a decent picture of auroras.

One more thing before we continue. I’m not a professional photographer either and I’ve never photographed Northern Lights in my life before I visited Iceland in winter for the first time. After that trip, I also went to Tromso in winter, went back to Iceland in September, and also visited Svalbard in winter.

Plenty of opportunities to practice aurora photography… But still – if you only do it once in a few years, it’s pretty much starting from scratch every time again. But with some simple tips and camera settings, I could take some really nice pictures of auroras. And so you can do it too. Find out how.

How to see and photograph Northern Lights in Iceland
Camera settings: f4 – 8sec – ISO 1600
 
 

How to See the Northern Lights

Before we talk about camera settings and how to photograph the Northern Lights, here are some tips for how to see auroras. After all, if you don’t catch them, you can’t photograph them, right?

Basically, you need three main factors in order to see Aurora Borealis: darkness, (partly) clear sky, and high aurora activity. Obviously, you can only see them at a certain latitude and in the right season. And, of course, don’t underestimate persistence and luck as well.

You can find more details about each of these factors below. I also included some practical information, such as aurora forecast websites. Take a look!

1. Where and when to see the Northern Lights

Iceland, Finland, Norway, Alaska, and North of Canada are the best countries for watching Northern Lights.

Aurora ring gets bigger depending on aurora activity and the closer you are to it, the more chances you have to see auroras even if the activity is very low. For that, Tromso in Northern Norway is one of the absolute best places to see auroras in the world.

LEARN MORE:
Northern Lights in Tromso
Northern Lights in Iceland

Needless to say, you won’t see any auroras in the summer. The best season to see Northern Lights can vary by location, but in general, you have pretty good chances of seeing auroras from September to March, give or take a few weeks.

2. Dark Sky

The second thing you need in order to be able to see Northern Lights is darkness. This shouldn’t be a problem up North in winter. That’s actually the reason why you can’t see auroras in the summer season – it doesn’t get dark enough in the Arctic in summer.

3. Clear Sky

Probably one of the least predictable factors for seeing auroras, clear skies is not something you can influence. So you just have to hope that it won’t be cloudy all the time since you do need a clear sky in order to be able to see Northern Lights.

That being said, I have seen auroras on very cloudy nights as well. Sometimes there’s a small opening in the clouds and you can catch a glimpse. Other times, Northern Lights are so strong that you can even see them through the (not so thick) clouds. So you never know. But it sure helps if there are no clouds.

PRO TIP: If you travel all the way to the North in order to see Northern Lights, be prepared to look for them. Go outside every night. Even if aurora activity is not very high, but the sky is clear, you might get lucky and see some beautiful auroras.

Watching and photographing Northern Lights in Iceland
My aurora selfie in Iceland. Camera settings: f4 – 6.2 sec – ISO1600
 

4. Aurora Activity

Aurora activity is measured on a scale from 0 to 9. Don’t despair if predicted aurora activity is only 2 or 3. You can see and photograph some really nice auroras even if the activity is quite low.

If you have never seen the Northern Lights before, it might be difficult to distinguish vague auroras from the clouds. If you want to be sure, take a picture – if it colors green, you know it’s aurora. If it’s white – it’s just the clouds.

When aurora is this weak, it will look better in pictures than in reality, but don’t get discouraged. Look at it this way: if you see it in pictures, it means that it’s active and it can become more active any minute. It might be worth waiting outside just a bit longer. We waited really long and it didn’t get any better one night, and then it did the next. So it’s still a bit a matter of luck.

Level 2 aurora in Iceland
Aurora activity level Kp2 looked more like mist or clouds and was only green in pictures. Camera settings: f4 – 21 sec – ISO 3200
 

5. Aurora forecast websites

There are many various websites and apps where you can find predicted aurora activity for different areas worldwide. My best tip is to ask the locals what they recommend. There are just too many sites and apps to list here.

TIP: Ask at the hotel about the aurora forecast websites they consult for the area where you are staying. Follow the weather forecast and radar information and act accordingly. It’s possible that it’s cloudy where you are, but the sky is perfectly clear just half an hour’s ride away.

For Iceland, we used this website, checked it almost hourly every evening and it was very accurate. Here is a general aurora forecast website worldwide and this one is more focused on European locations.

Best Camera Equipment for Northern Lights

Here is the camera equipment that you need for aurora photography:

  • A camera that has manual mode functionality. Ideally a full-frame DSLR.
  • A sturdy good-quality tripod.
  • Preferably, you also need a wide-angle lens with a fast aperture (f1.8, f2.8 or maximum f4).
  • A spare battery or two (batteries tend to run low in very cold conditions, so keep the spares close to you – inside pocket is best) and memory cards that work well in cold conditions.

Can You Photograph Auroras with a Smartphone?

A few years ago, I would have told you that it was impossible to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with a phone. Nowadays, smartphones have evolved so much that yes, you can take pretty decent aurora pictures with your phone.

If you have the newest Samsung or iPhone with the built-in Night Mode feature (like Samsung Galaxy S20 or iPhone 11 Pro), you can take relatively good pictures of auroras. The brighter auroras, the more chance you have that the pictures will turn out good.

Of course, it will never be the same as images photographed with a good camera. But I’ve seen some really nice aurora images shot on the smartphone. So it’s definitely possible.

TIP: If you are planning to use your phone to capture auroras, you should also consider getting a good phone-tripod. It’s essential that your camera doesn’t move when the shutter is open. And with night photography, it might require several seconds.

Best Camera Settings for Northern Lights Photography

Below, you can find some general camera settings that you can use to photograph Northern Lights and they’ll probably work in most situations.

However, a lot will depend on the auroras you see. So you might need to adjust the settings depending on how bright auroras are and how fast they are moving. 

I’ll spare you the reasoning behind the settings and just show you what to do in order to take a good picture of auroras, even if you don’t know much about (night) photography. This is a good starting point for photographing Northern Lights for beginners. Read on!

Amazing Northern Lights display in Iceland
Camera settings: f4 – 16 sec – ISO 3200
 

Camera settings for Northern Lights:

1. Set your camera focus to infinity

Setting focus is probably the most challenging step of night photography since your camera will not focus well in the dark. If you don’t do this right, you won’t get sharp pictures.

How to set your camera to focus to infinity? In human language, it’s basically making sure that your pictures are sharp at the far horizon. It’s best to do this during the day or in your hotel room before you go outside.

Select manual mode on your lens, focus to infinity, adjust as needed, and mark your lens at the right place. You can use a permanent marker, a silver sharpie, or tape for it. When you’re outside at night, all you need to do is set your lens to the right position.

If you couldn’t do this during the day, try looking for a brighter point (a house or a lit road in the distance) in the area you are and focus your camera sharp on it. In the worst case, you might try using your flashlight to illuminate the point as far from you as possible and focus on it. Make sure you don’t turn the lens after doing this, reframe for the Northern Lights, and shoot.

2. Metering mode

Use the following metering mode for Northern Lights photography: Evaluative Metering for Canon cameras or Matrix metering for Nikon. Not sure how important this is, though.

3. Wide aperture

Set your camera to Manual Mode for Northern Lights photography (M on most cameras) and make sure you set the aperture as wide as possible. So at 2.8 if you have an f2.8 lens or at f4 if you have an f4 lens.

4. Exposure time

If aurora moves slowly, try a 12-20 second exposure. For very vague auroras you might even need 20-25 seconds. If aurora moves fast, however, 5-10 seconds might be more than enough. When you are lucky to see very bright and fast auroras, sometimes even a second or two will be sufficient.

5. What ISO value to use to photograph auroras

Depending on how bright auroras are, you might need to adjust your camera’s ISO settings. Remember: the higher the ISO, the bigger chance of ‘grain’ in your picture. Try shooting at ISO 800 if auroras are very bright. You may need to increase ISO to 1,600-3,200 or even more if it’s really dark.

6. Best white balance settings for Northern Lights photography

You’re probably not shooting in RAW as a beginner (neither do I, to tell you the truth). So you want to get the colors as close to reality as possible straight from the camera.

You can use Automatic white balance mode and see what it gives. I found that setting white balance to the Custom mode and choosing Kelvin values of 2,800-4,000 worked best for me.

Aurora borealis in Iceland
Camera settings: f4 – 10 sec – ISO 3200
 

General Camera Settings for Photographing Northern Lights

  • Lens focus to infinity.
  • Evaluative or matrix metering mode.
  • Aperture at 2.8 or 4 – the lowest number as your lens can go.
  • Exposure at 15 seconds for slower auroras and 10 seconds for faster ones. Adjust as needed.
  • Set ISO at 1,600 to start with and experiment.
  • Set custom white balance to Kelvin value around 3,000.

All the pictures in this article were taken the first time I saw and photographed Northern Lights. I indicated my camera settings under each picture to give you an idea of the settings that I used when taking pictures of auroras for the very first time.

They were not perfect all the time, but this was my first time watching and photographing Northern Lights. It was also the first time I photographed something so unpredictable and so rapidly-changing. I’m quite happy with the results and was really glad to have some ‘showable’ pictures of this amazing experience.

Hence this article – to help any novice photographer to capture the Northern Lights for the first time. Your pictures might not be perfect and practice makes perfect. But for most of us, seeing auroras and taking pictures of them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With no time to practice.

So I hope that these simple tips and general settings will help you get some good pictures even if you only have very few chances to do it.

For more general tips, please also check our guide to travel photography. Further below, you can find some very useful tips that should help you catch the Northern Lights on camera. Read on!

Star shaped aurora display in Iceland
Camera settings: f4 – 8 sec – ISO 1200. Here, I should have used lower ISO and 4-5 sec shutter speed when auroras moved so quickly, but I had no time to adjust the settings. So it was this picture or none.
 

Practical Tips for Photographing Northern Lights

  • Go outside and look for auroras. Don’t stay in bed hoping that hotel personnel will wake you up in time. Sometimes auroras last several minutes, sometimes just a few seconds.
  • Have your camera gear ready and set in advance. You don’t want to start playing with the camera settings if you only have one chance. If you are not ready, better leave your camera alone and enjoy the spectacle. If it lasts long enough, you can still find the time to set your camera and photograph the Northern Lights. Don’t miss watching them just trying to take a picture.
  • If you have a car and there is a good chance for high aurora activity at night, consider driving to a nice location. Your Northern Lights pictures will look so much nicer if there is a beautiful lake, a forest, a mountain, or a waterfall in the foreground.

What to Pack for Aurora Hunting

  • Camera gear (as discussed above).
  • Warm clothing. When spending hours outdoors in the Arctic in winter, you cannot dress too warm. In winter, you’ll need at least 4-5 layers, including thermal underwear and a really warm wind- and waterproof jacket. In September, you might be ok with just a sweater and a jacket…
  • Two pairs of gloves. Warm outer gloves and thin thermal gloves that you can keep on when photographing Northern Lights. Consider hand warmers as well.
  • Warm shoes. Wear warm wool socks and insulated winter boots. You will still be cold, but it will be bearable.
  • Thermos. Fill it up with some warm tea before you leave the hotel – you’ll thank me later.
  • Headlamp or a flashlight. Headlamp is probably more practical for photography as it keeps your hands free.
  • Some snacks. 
  • A little chair or a blanket might be handy if you’re planning to spend hours outdoors.

READ ALSO: What to wear and what to pack for Iceland in winter & What to wear and what to pack for Norway in winter

See also our other articles to help you better prepare for your trip to Iceland or to Norway.

If you found this post useful, don’t forget to bookmark it and share it with your friends. Are you on Pinterest? Pin these images!

Northern Lights photography tips and camera settings
How to photograph the Northern Lights
 
Northern lights hunting and photography guide for beginners based on personal experience in Iceland

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Carol

Wednesday 7th of July 2021

I am headed to Alaska..Denali in September. I am hoping to see the Northern Lights. Your camera settings and advice are really welcome. Also tips for for composition are very useful. I have another tip for your readers ,provided in an article I read..when using a headlamp or flashlight, make it red. It helps with night vision and other photographers will thank you.

Nikita Kamat

Friday 30th of July 2021

Hey @Carol, we are planning to be in Alaska at Denali in mid September. Can you please suggest few places to visit in Denali for the Aurora.

Thank you in advance. Nikita.

Jurga

Friday 16th of July 2021

Thanks for the tip, Carol. It can be useful when there are other people around, indeed. Have a great trip and hope you get to see the Northern Lights in Alaska!

Melissa

Monday 3rd of May 2021

Thank you so much for these tips and for sharing all of your travel adventures. So helpful with our planning!

Jurga

Tuesday 4th of May 2021

Glad to help, Melissa. Hope you get to see the Northern Lights!

Desmond

Saturday 20th of March 2021

I'd leave out the bit about metering mode. If you're using manual settings and 'experimenting' then the metering mode you select is meaningless.

Jurga

Monday 22nd of March 2021

Thanks, Desmond. As I already said in the article, I'm not sure how important this is, so thanks for confirming that it doesn't matter if people are indeed shooting in Manual mode.

Jamie

Thursday 23rd of January 2020

I rarely comment on things on the internet, but your excellent, well-written article inspired me to do so.

I think you have simplified it well enough for me to take some photos of the NL...and then to experiment a bit once I am there. I really appreciate your efforts.

Now if I could just be sure that I am going to see them in Yellowknife in early March, then I will be all set!

Thanks again!

Jurga

Monday 27th of January 2020

Thank you for taking the time to comment, Jamie. I'm glad that you found these aurora photography tips useful and fingers crossed you get to see the Northern Lights! Enjoy your trip!

Vita

Saturday 7th of December 2019

Hi Jurga, Thank you so much for these tips. I read them just as we were about to go outside to look for auroras and thanks to your tips I took some really nice shots. Aurora was not very strong, but we saw it and the pictures will be great memories.

Jurga

Tuesday 10th of December 2019

Hi Vita, glad to hear that! It's an amazing experience, seeing the Northern Lights, isn't it?! Happy travels!

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