How To Photograph Northern Lights

The northern lights are considered to be a once-in-a-life opportunity to witness for many people. Therefore, you may want to capture the moment to remember it forever. 

How To Photograph Northern Lights

The northern lights are some of the most unpredictable night displays to capture. That said, they are some of the most spectacular views, too. 

As quickly as they appear, they can leave. Therefore, you’ll want to be prepared and ready to trek and photograph the Aurora Borealis

With this in mind, this article will provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to capture the northern lights. 

Let’s get started. 

What Are The Northern Lights?

The natural light show in the northern hemisphere is referred to as Aurora Borealis, whereas the one in the southern hemisphere is referred to as Aurora Australis. 

Both spectacles occur in an irregular oval shape over the north and south magnetic poles of the Earth. The result is a spectacular light show. 

These lights are formed by electrons – particles that have been electrically charged from the sun (solar winds) which have entered Earth’s atmosphere. 

The particles that have come from the sun will then hit Earth’s magnetic field, increasing the activity found in the atmosphere. 

Depending on the specific altitude at which these collisions occur will determine the types of colors produced. 

Step 1. Set Your Camera To Manual

  • Adjust your settings to manual. 
  • Adjust your lens to manual. 
  • Switch of Image Stabilization. 
  • Turn off your Flash setting. 

In the daylight, automatic settings can be beneficial when your camera is able to measure and sense its surroundings. 

However, unfortunately, cameras can’t see in the dark. Therefore, when it comes to capturing the northern lights, automatic settings are useless. 

If you were to leave your camera on automatically, it could continuously zoom in and out in an attempt to focus in the darkness. 

Plus, since it is dark, your camera will try to use the flash to help read the surroundings. This, however, is a hard light pollutant that will wash out the northern lights and temporarily blind your team. 

Therefore, make sure the flash is off. 

Step 2. ISO Setting

  • ISO 1600 is great for beginners. 

This is the setting that controls the light sensitivity of your ‘film’. Before you would have to change between ISO films. Today, all it takes is a turn of a button. 

Essentially, the higher the ISO, the less light is required to ‘develop’ a picture. Although, a higher ISO also means lower quality, too. 

Most modern cameras can work well with an ISO of 1600 without compromising the quality. That said, older cameras may produce grainy results on a camera above an ISO of 400/800. 

Step 3. Aperture = f-stop

  • F-2.8 (or any lower f-number you can achieve)

The aperture, of the f-stop, of your camera informs you how wide your lens is open = the amount of light being let into the camera. 

You can modify this by adjusting the f-stop setting. The lower the f-number, the bigger the opening – this can sometimes get confusing! 

When it comes to capturing the northern lights, you’ll want the biggest opening (or the lowest f-number) possible. 

This is because the more light your camera can take is = the lower the shutter speed = shots are captured quicker = a more detailed capture of the northern lights. 

How To Photograph Northern Lights

Step 4. Shutter Speed

  • A good start is 20 seconds

Shutter speed = the amount of exposure = the length your lens is open to absorb the light. 

As the strength of the northern lights changes in the evening, you’ll want to adjust your shutter speed. 

For instance, for strong lights opt for a shutter speed of 1-6 seconds. For soft lights, opt for a shutter speed of 15-30 seconds. 

Step 5. Use A Tripod

  • Use a tripod to mount your camera

Holding your breath and remaining as still as possible isn’t the best option for capturing the northern lights. 

You may find yourself taking a picture for 30 seconds – that means holding dead still for half a minute! If you’re exposed to windy conditions, this becomes infinitely harder. 

The bottom line is that if you move, your pictures will become blurry. Therefore, your best option? Use a tripod! 

Step 6. Zoom And Focus

  • Zoom your camera out (setting your lens to the lowest mm setting)

Below, we have outlined some focus-finding options:

  • Set your camera to the infinity symbol: ∞
  • During the day, make sure to pre-set your focus 
  • Zoom in on the moon or a star to help set your focus and then zoom out again

You may be thinking, “But my camera has auto-focus!” Well, it doesn’t in the dark! 

Therefore, you’ll want to become accustomed to your manual focus option. If you have the infinity symbol (∞) option then great! 

However, you’ll want to test it before capturing the northern lights as it may not be precise. First, you’ll want to find your focus during daylight hours. 

From here, you can either memorize your setting or mark it out on your lens rim using Tippex, tape, or a white marker. 

Then you can completely zoom out – since the northern lights occupy a large space in the sky – allowing you to capture as much of the spectacle as possible. 

Step 7. Release The Shutter Remotely

  • Take a remote control, or
  • An app, or
  • A 2-second self-timer.

Every time you press the camera, you’ll end up shaking it – causing your photo to come out blurry. This can also happen when you push the shutter-release button. 

Therefore, a remote control is the best option here. 

Final Thoughts

The northern lights are a spectacular sky show that everyone should witness at least once in their life. To cherish these moments forever, you may want to capture them. 

With the help of this guide, you’re sure to be able to capture the northern lights to remember the experience forever. 

Laura McNeill
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