How to photograph Northern Lights is as much about planning as it is about your camera. But when everything is well planned, it is time to get the camera settings right. Hopefully with the Northern Lights present as well.
What you will learn:
- How to prepare and set up your camera
- How to focus when it is dark
- How to get the exposure right
- How to compose Northern lights photos
- Other tips when photographing in cold and dark conditions
How to prepare your camera for Northern Lights photography
The first thing you must do is to remove the filter if you have one in front of your lens. A lot of people put a UV filter in front of their lenses for protection. Now it is time to remove it.
The extra glass in front of the lens makes it easier to get unwanted lens flare in your photos.
Make sure you batteries are fully charged before you go out, both camera and flashlight. Bring at least a couple of spares. Cold weather drains the batteries fast.
Lower the LCD brightness
In the dark, the LCD is a bright light source. If you use the image preview on the LCD to evaluate your exposures, you can be tricked.
On the LCD, the exposure might look OK. In reality, the exposure is too dark. Therefor you must learn how to read and use the histogram.
I did not use or trust the histogram for a long time. The problem was I did not know the purpose and how to use it. After I learned the purpose of the histogram, it has become an invaluable tool in difficult light situations.
There are a lot of discussions if you should save your files as JPG or RAW. There are mainly two cons saving your images in RAW.
One is the big file size. Memory cards are cheap now so why loose important image data to save some space.
The other drawback is RAW files needs to be processed in an RAW converter before they can be viewed. Both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop have built-in RAW converters.
The most important advantage with RAW is the file contains a lot of image data. This is very important when you photograph in dark conditions.
With all the data in an RAW file, you have much better chance to fix slightly over or underexposed images.
Long exposure noise reductionThis feature is meant to correct for “hot pixels” on the camera sensor. When doing long exposures the camera sensor can be warm and unwanted “hot pixels” can be seen in the image.
The camera takes an extra exposure with the shutter closed (complete dark). Whatever noise the camera finds in the dark exposure is subtracted from your photo.
The problem is this extra dark shot doubles the exposure time. With already long exposures when photographing Northern lights, you want to avoid this.
As Aurora shots typically are made in cold weather, it is not much of a problem. I don’t use this feature when shooting Auroras.
High ISO noise reduction
Is intended to remove noise when using high ISO. If you shoot in RAW, you can do all the noise reduction later when editing your photos.
With the high ISO noise reduction on the exposure will take twice the time similar to the long exposure noise reduction.
How to photograph Northern Lights - the short version
- Set focus and exposure to Manual mode
- Set aperture to the lowest possible f-number (wide open)
- Set focus to infinity (8)
- Set ISO to 1600
- Set the shutter time to 20 seconds
- Compose and shoot
- Look at the histogram - adjust settings
- Shoot again
I agree, this sounds like experimenting. In some way it is. The camera can’t focus or make a proper exposure in dark conditions. So it has to be a bit of trial and error in the beginning.
My suggested settings are dependent how bright the Northern Light is. After some shots you will understand the concept. Now, let me explain the settings above more in depth.
You will have fewer problems if you take control over your camera and do all settings manually. Any camera will struggle to focus properly when it is dark. The light meter will also be fooled in the dark.
Light is a limiting factor when photographing Northern Lights. You need to set the aperture to the widest opening the lens allows - the lowest f-number. The lower, the better.
The higher f-number, the more you will have to increase either the ISO or shutter speed. And you might not want to do that of reasons I will come back to.
Maybe you have heard it is not a good idea shooting with the lens wide open because you will lose depth of field. When photographing Auroras this is not a problem because you’re focusing on infinity. Remember Auroras are several kilometers above your head. S
o what if you include a foreground you ask? As you (preferably) are shooting with a wide angle lens, this is no problem. With the lens I use, at 16mm and f4 everything from about 2 meters away to infinity is in focus.
If you want to include a foreground in your Aurora shoot, it is likely a tree, a pond or maybe a house. None of these elements are likely to be any closer than 2 meters. So you are safe setting the aperture wide open.
When you learn how to photograph Northern Lights, one of the most important skill to master is focus.
Focusing in the dark is what most beginners struggle with when they shoot Auroras. It is easy to deal with. Just a little preparations before you go out.
As I mentioned above, focus should be set to infinity (∞). Most lenses have a distance scale and an infinity mark on them. But not all lenses are focused at infinity on the exact mark.
You can find where infinity is on your lens by using auto focus and focus on something in the distance when the light is good.
When the lens has focused (on infinity) turn the lens back to manual mode again. Look at the scale to see where the infinity point is. It should be somewhere near the infinity symbol. You can do this procedure before you go out and put a tape to fix your lens at infinity.
I find this a little cumbersome, so it is better to memorize where infinity is on your lens.
It is possible to focus when you are outside photographing Aurora. But then you are dependent on some light source. If the moon is up, you can use the moon as a focus point. If there are any other weaker light sources in view, you can try to focus on one of these. It can be a light post, a house or similar. Even one of the bright stars can be used if you see one.
If your camera has Live View you should use this feature to focus. Zoom to the biggest magnification you can on the LCD and manually focus on the lights source.
I prefer the first method - pre-focusing. Because in most situations I have photographed the Northern Lights, there has been no other light source available. I have tested all my lenses so I know exactly there the infinity (∞) focus is on each lens
If you know the Exposure Triangle you know ISO is one of the parameters you can use to set the correct exposure. Most of the time you want to keep the ISO at its base level - the lowest possible (ISO 50 or 100).
When you photograph Northern lights, you will have to play with and often increase the ISO (significantly). Increased ISO is one of the challenges in Aurora photography.
Not all cameras do well with increased ISO. In some cameras you will start to so see noise already at ISO 800. But sometimes a little noise is better than no image at all.
With this in mind, you don’t want to increase the ISO more than necessary.
The shutter speed is the second setting you can play around with for the best exposure of the Northern Lights. Most of the time you will need exposure times of 10 seconds and longer.
This is why a tripod is a must. The trick is to find the correct balance between shutter speed and ISO. When you have increased your ISO to the max of what your camera can handle, there is no other way than increasing the shutter speed.
Ideally you want as low ISO and short shutter speed as possible. The faster the Northern Lights are moving, the shorter shutter speed you want to use. You don’t want the Northern Lights to be blurred.
A second reason to keep the shutter speed as short as possible is to avoid the “moving star” effect.
Moving stars - The “rule of 600”
As a guide, you can use the ”rule of 600”. You divide 600 by the focal length of your lens and get approximately how long exposure time you can use without seeing star movements.
With a 24mm lens on a full frame camera, the longest exposure time you can use is 25 seconds (600/24).
With a crop sensor camera and the same lens, the max exposure time will be even shorter at around 16-17 seconds (600/(24*1,5)).
Note this is math and should only be used as a guideline. And maybe you like the moving stars effect and want them in your Northern Lights photos.
How to photograph Northern Lights is not only about getting the camera settings right. It is as much about composition as elsewhere in landscape photography. So don’t forget to compose your shots.
We often see Aurora Borealis images with nothing but the Aurora. The first time you’re maybe happy only to get a snap of the Northern Lights. This is OK, but you can make the image so much more interesting if you add other elements to your composition.
Snow and ice are an advantage. First it makes the whole scene so much brighter. Second you can play around with reflections on the Aurora in both the snow and ice. Some of my Aurora shots are taken on a beach. The Northern lights are reflected in the wet sand on the beach.
Therefore, the next step in how to photograph Northern Lights is a quick test exposure to check your composition. If there are trees, mountains or anything else you want to include, you better make a test exposure (yes, it is hard to compose when it is pitch dark).
The test exposure - this little trick save you time
- Set the aperture to the widest and increase the ISO to the max of what your camera does.
- Set the shutter to somewhere between 1-5 seconds and do a test exposure.
- This image will be overexposed and have a lot of noise. But you will see where the different elements are.
- Recompose your shot if needed
Don’t forget to set the ISO back to the lowest setting.
Now you are ready to set the correct exposure
Expose for the brightest parts of the Northern Lights. You don’t want the highlights to be blown. As the Northern Lights change in intensity, you will need to adjust the exposure. If the light gets brighter, I tend to reduce the ISO first to reduce noise. The exception is if the Northern Lights are very active and are moving fast. In such a case, I might prefer to reduce the shutter speed to avoid getting soft and blurry Northern Lights.
What if you can’t see any Northern Lights, but it is supposed to be up there (it is forecasted)
If there are a few clouds in the sky and the Aurora is weak, it can be difficult for the eyes to the green colors. A tip is to do the same test exposure as I described above. The camera is better than our eyes to see colors in the dark. If your test shot has signs on green Aurora light in it, this is an indication of Aurora activity. Now you need to be patient and don’t give up. The intensity of the Aurora can change quickly, so be prepared.
The histogram is your friend
Learn how to use the histogram. There are many good articles on this topic on the Internet.
Don’t forget when photographing Northern Lights a lot of your scene will be very dark. This is reflected in the histogram that will be positioned on the left-hand side (dark tones). It is important not to overexpose the image. The Northern Lights are the brightest and most important part of the image. If you clip the highlights, your Aurora Borealis image is destroyed. You check this by making sure no parts of the curve touches the right side of the histogram. If it does you either have to lower the ISO or use a shorter shutter speed.
Other useful tips on how to photograph Northern Lights
Aurora photography is an exercise in being patient. In cold conditions if you bring your camera inside a warm cabin or car while waiting, the lens will condensate. It can take a long time to get rid of the condensation. If you have to run out because Aurora suddenly shows up, you might be too late to get you camera ready. If you have really bad luck, the condensation can freeze to ice on the lens. Here is one tip if you need to take the camera inside. Put your camera in a big plastic bag which can be sealed. A big enough zip-lock bag is fine. Keep the camera in the bag until you are outside again.
Don’t overuse the LCD
Turn the LCD of or program it so it only shows for a few seconds, enough for you to evaluate the exposure. Keeping the bright LCD on for long influences on your vision in the dark and make it harder to see. The LCD also drains the batteries if kept on too long in the cold.
When you get some experience, bring a flashlight or your external camera flash and try some light painting. You can light the foreground with your flash for some interesting effects.
Now as you have learned many tips on how to photograph Northern Lights, go out and have fun. Whenever you have an opportunity to see and photograph the Northern Lights it will be a blast. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment. From behind the camera, you will not get the full experience.