Northern Lights photography has become increasingly popular recently. For many it is a dream only to be able to see the Northern Lights, maybe only once in their life. Not to talk about getting to photograph the Northern Lights.
Are you curious about Northern Lights photography?
When the Northern Lights are up there in the sky, taking pictures of them isn’t all that difficult. The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time.
There are other subjects in landscape photography that are technically more difficult to photograph than the Northern Lights. In doubt you can do it? Sure you can.
If you are a beginner photographer chances are your first Aurora photos will turn out better than your first Seascape photos.
The reason is the high dynamic range in the seascape scene. Too much contrast between light and dark is one of the most difficult challenges any photographers have. In this regard, Northern Lights photography is straight forward.
There are however some other big challenges to successful Aurora Borealis photography. I will discuss all of them in this article.
Northern Lights photography - what you will learn:
- What is the Northern Lights
- Where to photograph
- When to photograph
- The planning phase
- Camera, gear and clothing
What is the Northern Lights?
Northern Lights photography somehow seems a little mysterious for many landscape photographers. A lot of people have never seen the Northern Lights and don’t even know they exist.
It isn’t so strange because it is a phenomenon that happens in the sky in the Northern most parts and the Southern most parts of the world, around the magnetic poles.
Another commonly used name for the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis. I will use both names in this article, but I am referring to the same phenomena whatever name I use.
A lot of mystery is associated with the Aurora Borealis and in the old days she (I believe she is a she) was regarded as dangerous. We know better now.
The Northern Lights is a result of electrons and protons from solar winds interaction with the Earth’s magnetic field. It looks like Aurora is just above your head but she is about 90-150 kilometers above the ground.
She can appear in almost any color and mix of colors, but the most common is green. When the Aurora is red she is at the highest altitudes, above the green.
If the Northern Lights are very active they move all over the sky and can create different forms and shapes. The movements can be slow or very fast. How fast she moves is important for your camera settings.
Learn more about camera settings in the article how to photograph Northern Lights.
Where to photograph Auroras?
Aurora creates an oval around the magnetic poles. Due to the accessibility the most known is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
There are only a few countries in the world the Aurora Borealis oval covers. These are the northern parts (north of the Arctic Circle) of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Canada, Iceland and Greenland.
If the Northern light is very active it can be seen much further south, but it does not happen very often. If you live in an area a bit south of the Arctic Circle you should look for Aurora Borealis on the northern horizon.
There is also Aurora around the south magnetic pole. This is the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).
Very few people can see the Southern Lights because it appears in some of the most remote areas in the world, Antarctica. Only scientists stay in Antarctica during winter when it is dark.
In rear occasions when the Aurora activity is very high the Southern Lights might be visible in the south parts of Australia and New Zealand as well as South Africa and the southern tip of South America.
Due to this facts most Aurora images we see on the Internet is Northern Lights photography.
When to photograph the Aurora Borealis?
Time of year
The Northern Lights are on the sky year around but as it needs to be dark, it can only be seen when the nights become dark. Above the Arctic Circle, the sun is shining 24/7 during the summer months (the Midnight Sun).
Therefore, Northern Lights photography is best from mid-September to mid-March.
Time of night
The Northern Lights can be seen as soon it gets dark but in general Auroras are most active between 9 pm to 1 am, but no guaranty. You need to be prepared for a long wait. So don’t give up if the time passes well after midnight.
What about moonlight?
The best time to photograph Aurora displays is when there is no Moon in the sky. However, if the Aurora is strong, the Moon can make for a nice composition element in you photos.
Planning for Northern Lights photography
Unless you live up in the north where the Norther Lights are often seen, the planning is the most difficult part. Sometimes even good planning isn’t enough. You need to understand Northern Lights photography is a hit and miss activity.
Like most other types of landscape photography the weather and light is important. The challenge with Northern Lights photography is, even with great weather and a clear sky, the Aurora isn’t always there.
Like wildlife photography, you can never be sure to see the animals you are “hunting” to photograph. Therefore we often say we are out hunting the Northern Lights. The advantage of living in the north is you can go out and photograph the Northern Lights on short notice, as soon they show up.
Unfortunately you don’t have the same control if you have to travel to a Northern Lights area. I have been to Iceland once to shoot Auroras and during 7 days only one night the conditions was perfect.
On my two trips to the Lofoten Islands in Northern Norway I have been lucky to photograph Aurora 4 nights out of the 14 days I have spent there. Most nights a thick cloud cover has been the problem.
Not being able to photograph the Aurora because of clouds, when you know she is up there, is very frustrating.
Three success factors that needs to be in place
(at the same time)
There are three important conditions for successful Northern Lights photography. Only one is under your control. If Aurora shows up or not isn’t in your control, nor is the weather. What you can do is to find a good dark location.
1. Will there be Aurora Borealis tonight?
We never know 100% if there will be Aurora activity or not on a specific night. There are many services available which forecast Aurora activity. These forecasts are based on what has happened on the surface of the sun the days before.
The Aurora activity is measured by the Kp-index. The Kp-index ranges from 0-9 with 0 being the lowest amount of activity and 9 the biggest. When the Kp-index reaches 5 or higher, it is considered a storm. You can expect very strong Northern Lights under these conditions.
How do you know when there will be Northern Lights?
As mentioned there are many Aurora services available trying to predict the Aurora activity. But you should keep in mind these are like weather forecasts, sometimes they miss.
One good service for North America is the Aurora forecast from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. From this website you can also check the Aurora predictions for the other US states.
For Europe, this Aurora service is a great source.
2. You need a clear sky
You can’t take Northern Lights photos with an overcast sky. The light will simply not shine through the cloud cover. This is where the next step in the planning comes in. The best you can do is to study the weather forecasts. Ideally a clear sky is the best but partial cloud cover might work as well.
MeteoStar Weather Satellite Imagery Maps of the Northern Hemisphere is a good source that predicts the cloud cover conditions. Sometimes the local weather forecasts are even better, so check them as well.
3. Dark conditions are important
As you are photographing the night sky you don’t want any influence from ambient light. You should find an area as dark as possible. So you will have to drive quite a distance from any city light.
If you can’t avoid ambient light from a city, you should position yourself so you have the city or light source behind you when you are turned to the north. Light from a city will add yellowish color cast to your photos.
The best way to find good spots is to scout during daylight. Trying to find a good spot after dark isn’t easy unless you are a local.
Northern Lights workshops and tours
For most photographers, the safest bet if you want to photograph Aurora Borealis, is to attend a tour with experienced guides. They have photographed Auroras before and know about great locations for night photography. The other advantage is you don’t need to do any of the planning yourself.
But even if you book a guided tour there is never a guarantee you will see the Auroras. Tours are booked moths and sometimes a year ahead. No one will ever know if the Northern Lights will show up the week you have booked.
This is what makes Northern light hunting so fascinating and awarding. When you make it for the first time, you will be amazed by one of the nature's wonders.
Camera and gear
(you don’t necessary need an expensive camera)
Northern Lights photography with a beginner’s camera
As I have mentioned, the most challenging when photographing Aurora isn’t the camera and technical skills. Gear is of course important if you want the perfect Aurora shots.
For some just being able to photograph the Northern Lights once, is a goal. If you are a beginner photographer and don’t have the most fancy camera you can still photograph the Aurora. You need a camera that can be set to manual focus and exposure. Any camera having these possibilities can be used.
The stronger the Aurora activity is the easier it is to get a “decent” Aurora image, with less advanced camera. But if you are serious about Northern Lights photography and you want the best possible photos, you have to use a DSLR. Some of the newer Mirrorless cameras are also good choices.
DSLR cameras are the best choice for Aurora photography
The camera sensor is the limitation in low light conditions. Serious Northern light photographers use cameras with high ISO capabilities.
The best camera sensors for low light photography are full-frame sensors. Cameras with full-frame sensor will have less noise as you increase the ISO.
In Northern Lights photography little light is a limiting factor. You need to collect as much light as you can. Therefore, the lens is also very important.
Which lens to use? As the Northern Lights move all over the sky, a wide-angle lens is preferable. Ideally you want to cover as much as possible of the sky, so the wider focal length the better.
On a full frame DSLR the widest lenses used for Northern light photography are 14mm lenses. You can photograph Auroras with any lens, but wider than 24mm is preferred. On a crop sensor camera a lens in the range of 10-20mm is good.
The other important factor when choosing a lens for Northern Lights photography is the light sensitivity. You should aim at a lens with an aperture of f4 or lower for the best results.
My Northern Lights images shown on this page are all shot with my Nikon 16-35mm f4 lens.
A sturdy tripod is a must for Northern Lights photography. It is simply impossible to get decent Aurora images without using a tripod.
A small gorilla type camera can do if you have a small lightweight camera. As you can expect wind on a winter night up in the north, the best is to bring a bigger and sturdier tripod.
If you have an aluminum tripod it can be a good idea to insulate the tripod legs. This isn’t because the tripod needs to be protected. It is simply because the cold weather can cause your fingers to stick to the frozen metal parts.
It hurts badly when you try to separate your fingers from the tripod again. If you use gloves this is of course not an issue.
Remote shutter release
To avoid unwanted camera movement when releasing the shutter, you should use a remote shutter release. These are available as Wired or wireless models. Remember to bring spare batteries if you use a wireless type.
If you don’t have or don’t want to spend money on a remote release, you can use the camera self-timer. The self-timer is not so convenient because it slows you down.
Cold weather sucks the power out of the batteries. Don’t expect to get the same number of exposures from the batteries a cold night as you do in a warm environment. Therefore, it is extremely important to bring at least one extra set of batteries.
To better preserve you spare batteries, it is a good idea to keep them warm. You can do this by keeping them close to your body. A pocket inside your jacket will help a lot.
As you are out in the dark a headlamp may come handy. Remember it is pitch dark and unless you know your camera really well you will need the light to make the camera settings.
If you want a foreground element in your composition, the flashlight can be used to “light paint” a rock or a tree which otherwise will be totally dark.
A light is useful but please pay attention to any fellow photographers and do not waive around with the light. This unwanted light might disturb their composition. Many photographers use lamps with red light when working in the dark.
Some seem to believe the red light isn’t captured by the camera. Totally wrong, the red light is if possible worse than the white light in destroying fellow photographer’s exposures.
Red light is used because it does not impact your night vision as much as a strong white light.
Last but not least photographing Auroras is most about waiting. Be prepared to wait out in the cold for hours, sometimes the whole night.The best Aurora displays happen on cold winter nights, so make sure to bring proper clothing.
Maybe most important is a good pair of insulated boots. You will most likely be standing on snow or ice. A pair of good gloves is also essential. Thermal underwear and windproof jacket and trousers are of course a must.
Next step - how to photograph the Northern Lights
Now you are well prepared for a night out hunting for the Northern Lights. The next is to learn the camera settings and how to photograph the Northern Lights for the best possible result.