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 Instagram or Facebook…
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 nature 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 info too many details and making it more complicated than it should be, I’ll tell you 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 last winter. So if I can do it, you can do it too. Find out how.
How to see and photograph the Northern Lights
I. How to see Northern Lights
You basically need three factors in order to see Aurora Borealis: darkness, (partly) clear sky and high aurora activity. Don’t forget persistence and luck as well.
1. Where and when to see Northern Lights
Iceland, Finland, Norway, Alaska and North of Canada are the best countries for watching Northern Lights.
Needless to say, you won’t see any auroras in summer. Best season to see Northern Lights can very 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.
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 clear sky in order to be able to see Northern Lights.
4. High Aurora Activity
Aurora activity is measured on the 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 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 colours 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.
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.
5. Aurora forecast websites
There are many various websites where you can find predicted aurora activity for different areas worldwide.
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.
II. Best camera equipment for Northern Lights
- You need 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 fast aperture (f2.8 or max. 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.
III. Best camera settings for Northern Lights photography
I’ll give you some general settings 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.
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. Select manual mode on your lens, focus to infinity, adjust as needed and mark your lens at the right place. You can use permanent marker, 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 flash light 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.
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 a f2.8 lens or at f4 if you have a 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.
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 colours 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 Custom mode and choosing Kelvin values of 2,800-4,000 worked best for me.
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.
I indicated my camera settings under each picture to give you an idea on the settings that I used. They were not perfect all the time, but this was my first time watching and photographing Northern Lights. Also the first time photographing something so unpredictable and so rapidly-changing. I’m quite happy with the results and glad I have some showable pictures of this amazing experience. Hence this post – to help any novice photographer capture Northern Lights for the first time.
IV. 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 photograph.
- 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 watching and photographing auroras
- Camera gear as discussed above.
- Warm clothing. You cannot dress too warm. Think at least 4-5 layers, incluing thermal underwear and a really warm wind- and waterproof 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.
You may want to check this post about what to wear and what to pack for Iceland in winter as well. See also our other posts to help you better prepare for your trip to Iceland.
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