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How to Photograph the Northern Lights: 10 Tips for Capturing Auroras

Seeing the Northern Lights is an extraordinary experience! Naturally, you'll want to capture this magical phenomenon in photos. We’ve witnessed and photographed the auroras in Iceland and Finland, and in this guide, we'll share what you need to know to photograph them successfully!


Polarlichter über See am Sternenhimmel


 

Table of Contents

 


1. Important Information About Northern Lights


Northern Lights, known as Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south, are stunning natural light displays that occur in polar regions. They are created by interactions between energetic particles from the sun and gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.


The characteristic colors of the Northern Lights range from green and pink to violet and red.


bunte Polarlichter


2. Best Places and Times to Photograph Northern Lights


The best chances to observe the Northern Lights are in polar regions during the dark winter months. In the Northern Hemisphere, this period is from September to March, and in the Southern Hemisphere, from March to September.


Places to Witness the Light Show in the North:


  • Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland are popular destinations, especially from September to March.

  • Canada: Particularly in the northern parts of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska.

  • Russia: Regions around Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula.


...and in the South:


  • Antarctica: Due to its inaccessibility, it’s not an option for most travelers.

  • New Zealand: Especially on the South Island, primarily in winter.


To see the colorful lights, a dark sky free from light pollution is crucial. Hence, the best chances are away from urban areas on clear nights. Additionally, keeping an eye on aurora forecasts and solar wind conditions helps pinpoint the best times for observation. We recommend the "Aurora" app for this.



3. Essential Camera Equipment for Photographing Northern Lights


Now, let's get to the nitty-gritty! To capture stunning shots of the Northern Lights, you’ll first need a camera. For best results, we recommend a full-frame sensor camera as it captures more light than an APS-C sensor, allowing more of the auroras to be captured in your photos.


It’s also possible to photograph the Northern Lights with a smartphone, and we'll cover that in detail later.


Which Lens to Use for Photographing the Northern Lights?


Apart from having a good camera, a suitable lens is crucial for your success. Two key factors to consider are focal length and aperture.


A shorter focal length captures a larger portion of the night sky, including more of the Northern Lights. Focal lengths between 15 and 35 mm are ideal for capturing both the landscape and the night sky.


Remember to account for the sensor’s crop factor. For APS-C sensors, a focal length of around 10 to 23 mm is optimal, while for MFT sensors, it corresponds to a lens with approximately 8 to 17 mm.


Since cameras are not as light-sensitive as our eyes, a lens with a large aperture (small f-number) is essential. An aperture smaller than f/2.8 is ideal.

Large-aperture zoom lenses are less common, so prime lenses (fixed focal lengths) are a great alternative, offering a wide selection and often being more affordable than high-aperture zoom lenses.


Don’t Forget Spare Batteries!


It’s likely to be very cold when photographing the Northern Lights, which causes your batteries to drain much faster than in normal temperatures. Be sure to bring spare batteries so your adventure doesn’t end prematurely!


Ideally, keep spare batteries close to your body to prevent them from getting too cold and losing power.


Memory Cards


Of course, you’ll need multiple memory cards, as long exposures and burst shots require a lot of storage.




4. Helpful Accessories for Finding and Photographing Northern Lights


In addition to your camera, lens, and memory cards, there are a few other essential tools for photographing the Northern Lights:


Use a Tripod for Stable Photos of the Northern Lights


A tripod helps stabilize your images, preventing them from being blurry or shaky. We recommend this tripod.


Discover Northern Lights with Apps


The Northern Lights are not always visible, and sometimes they are hard to see. To use your time outdoors in the cold efficiently, we recommend using an app to check when and where you can see the Northern Lights in your area. We use the Aurora app.


Photography Gloves for Warm Fingers


To keep your fingers warm, we recommend photography gloves, so you don’t have to take them off when adjusting settings.


Keep Your Hands Free with a Headlamp


To find everything quickly in the dark and keep your hands free, bring a headlamp!



5. Proper Camera Settings for Ideal Results


Before photographing the Northern Lights, set your camera to manual settings to ensure you get the best shots.


Mann im Vordergrund am Himmel Nordlichter


Exposure Time


Since the Northern Lights are constantly moving, make sure your shutter speed isn’t too long, or the lights will blur (as will the stars, which will appear as streaks instead of points).


We recommend an exposure time of around 5 seconds or less. This also depends on the lens you’re using and the intensity of the Northern Lights. The stronger and brighter the auroras, the shorter your shutter speed can be. Less intense auroras mean less brightness and thus a longer exposure time.


ISO Value


The ISO value indicates the level of electronic amplification of incoming light signals—in our case, the Northern Lights. This amplification is necessary to capture the auroras at all. For setting the ISO, remember: as much as necessary and as little as possible.

To avoid excessive noise from a high ISO, it should not exceed 6400.


Aperture


With the aperture, you can ensure that, despite a short exposure time and a low ISO value, a maximum amount of light reaches your sensor.

We recommend using an aperture between f/1.4 and f/2.8.


Image Stabilizer


Important: since you’ll be using a tripod, the image stabilizer must be turned off, or false movements will be corrected, and your photos will be blurry.


Focus


Since you’ll be seeing the Northern Lights at night, your camera will likely have trouble finding a focus point automatically, so set the focus to manual and do it yourself.

Check with a test photo to see if everything is sharp by zooming in on your camera screen.


White Balance


Set the white balance manually as well. You can use 3500 to 4500 Kelvin as a reference.


Self-Timer


Set the self-timer on your camera to 2 seconds when shooting with a tripod. This avoids possible vibrations from pressing the shutter button, ensuring maximum sharpness in your photos.


 

Here you will find the most important camera settings at a glance:


  • Camera Mode: M (manual mode)

  • ISO Value: between 1600 and 6400

  • Exposure Time: max 5 seconds (depending on the maximum aperture of your lens)

  • Aperture: we recommend f/1.4-2.8, but other apertures are also possible

  • White Balance: 3500 to 4500 Kelvin

  • Focus: manual, just before infinity

  • Image Stabilizer: off (very important!)

  • Self-Timer: on

 


6. How to Create Exciting Compositions


The Northern Lights are impressive on their own, but for the perfect photo, you need a great subject.


We recommend scouting for an appealing location during daylight. Here are a few ideas to help you capture amazing Northern Lights photos:


  • Use light sources like a flashlight (we like to use a headlamp to light up the night sky).

  • Balance the night sky with the rest of the landscape (incorporate elements like mountains, a tree, or a lit cabin into your composition).

  • Use lakes or the sea as reflective surfaces (a long exposure can create a smooth water surface).

  • Include a person in your photo to add emotion.


zwei Personen sitzen nachts in Winterlandschaft über ihnen Polarlichter


7. Capturing Northern Lights with Your Smartphone


Smartphone cameras are getting better, and it’s possible (though a bit more challenging) to photograph the Northern Lights with a smartphone.


Most phones have a night mode where the phone automatically selects the best settings for low-light photos. Depending on your model, you might also be able to manually adjust your phone camera’s settings—use the same settings as described above for cameras.


To avoid blurry photos, use a smartphone tripod, which greatly increases your chances of capturing the Northern Lights with your phone. We recommend this tripod.

The quality won’t match that of a professional camera, but for a social media photo, it might be sufficient.



8. Getting the Most Out of Your Photos with the Right Editing


To maximize your photos, make sure to shoot in RAW format. This gives you more flexibility in post-processing.


When editing, focus on darkening the shadows, increasing the saturation and brightness to highlight the intensity of the Northern Lights in your photo.


We primarily use Adobe Lightroom for editing, but there are many other good tools available.




9. The Right Clothing for Photographing Northern Lights


Photographing Northern Lights requires two things: patience and warm feet. To stay warm for as long as possible, we recommend the following gear:


  • Heated Insoles: Essential for staying outside longer. We recommend these heated insoles.

  • Warm Winter Boots: In addition to warm insoles, you’ll need proper winter boots. We recommend these winter boots (for women / for men).



  • Hand Warmers: The counterpart to heated insoles and equally essential: hand warmers.


  • Warm Gloves: You’ll also need suitable gloves for your Northern Lights adventure. We recommend this brand.


  • Balaclava: A game-changer—keeps part of your face warm and ensures you’re covered from head to neck. We used this balaclava during our Lapland trip and highly recommend it.


  • Cold Protection Cream: If you want to protect your skin from the cold, use a cold protection cream. Make sure it doesn’t contain water. Don’t apply regular face cream before going out, as the water content can have the opposite effect.



10. Practice Photographing Northern Lights in Advance


Unlike most people, you probably don’t have Northern Lights right outside your door. That’s why you should practice in the few opportunities you have to make sure everything goes smoothly.


For example, find a dark spot in your area (or visit a stargazing park) and practice astrophotography before you tackle the Northern Lights.


This will help you get a feel for your camera equipment and determine which settings work best for you.



 

Want more insights into our travels? Check out our Instagram channels: tom_rbg_ and anna_mser! If you have any questions about the routes, feel free to contact us through these channels!

 

*This post contains affiliate links. You don’t incur any extra costs by purchasing through these links; you’re simply supporting our work.


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