Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

Mysterious and elusive, the Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular natural shows on earth. With senior NASA scientists predicting the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, will be the best in a decade as the sun reaches its solar maximum in its 11-year cycle, more and more people are booking trips to the Arctic in hopes of seeing the lights dance across the sky like oil in lava lamp. But seeing the Northern Lights isn’t enough; witnesses to this amazing phenomenon hope to capture it forever on their cameras to show friends back home. We get it! We’ve spent countless nights waiting for the Aurora to dance and have been lucky enough to capture it several times in Iceland, Norway, and Finland over the last two years. We’ve already shared 5 Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights, and now we’re sharing these tips for photographing the Northern Lights:

Northern Lights over Myvatn, Iceland

Northern Lights over Myvatn, Iceland

1. You need a tripod, and preferably a sturdy one as when you’re shooting the Northern Lights it will be dark and probably cold and windy. Plus to get that perfect foreground you are looking for, you may not be on flat and level terrain. Since we are always on the go, we needed a travel friendly tripod. We use the Slik Sprint 150 tripod, it only weighs about 2lbs and folds down to 20″ so it fits inside or strapped to my backpack. A nice feature is the bubble level on the ball head so you can see if your horizon is level. An alternate is the Slik Sprint Mini tripod which folds down to just over one foot so you have no excuse for not being able to bring the tripod.

Northern Lights Lapland

Northern Lights low on the horizon in Lapland, Finland

2. Keep your hands from being exposed to the elements. Weather in the Arctic during Northern Lights season, which is basically September – March, is not only cold, but often windy. You’ll likely be outside for long periods of time and you want to keep yourself from being exposed to the elements as much as possible. This includes your hands. Have you ever tried to work your camera while wearing thick gloves? It’s not easy and constantly taking your gloves off isn’t ideal. A pair of fleece gloves with removable fingertips like Freehands Photographers Gloves, only expose your index fingers while keeping the rest of your hands toasty.

Iceland Northern Lights

Northern Lights in the West Fjords of Iceland

3. Invest in a remote shutter release. Even just pressing the shutter button on your camera can jostle it, so invest in a remote shutter release that allows you to trigger your camera without touching it. A remote shutter release is also great for taking photos of yourself, so you’ll use it for more than just your trip to the Arctic. These are affordable at around $10 and we use the Amazon Basics Wireless Remote Control for Canon models. So you forgot to buy this before your trip, don’t worry just use the cameras self-timer.  The 2-second self time does just fine and gives the camera enough time after you hit the shutter button.

Northern Lights Iceland

Northern Lights in Keflavik, Iceland

4. You don’t need an expensive camera, but you do need one with manual settings. Set your camera on manual focus with an ISO of 800 or higher. Set the aperture to the widest setting (smallest f-number, i.e. 2.8 or whater your lens can handle). The smaller the f-number the more light the lens lets in, this is key for capturing the northern lights. Investing in a quality wide angle lens like the Tokina 11-16mm will enable you to capture some great shots. Plus the wide angle is great for other landscape shots or in big cities to capture large buildings. Your camera probably won’t be able to focus at night, so pick out the furthest thing your camera will focus on (maybe that barn or house in the distance, then set the lens to manual focus and be sure not to bump the focus ring. Last, set your shutter speed to somewhere between 5-30 seconds. I usually start with 20 seconds and work up or down from there.  If the lights are bright and moving fast, you may need a shorter time, if they are dim and slow then longer.

We used two cameras to capture Northern Lights photography: our Canon EOS 7D Digital SLR and our Canon PowerShot S90. For those not wanting a heavy camera, try the new Sony NEX-6L/B, compact and small but yet DSLR quality pictures.

Northern Lights Norway

Northern Lights with a full moon and clouds in Tromso, Norway

5. Keep light pollution to a minimum. Keep in mind that, especially if you are on a Northern Lights tour, that light sources such as your LCD screen, accidental flash, and even iPhone or other smartphone screens can not only damage your Northern Lights exposure, but also the photographs of others on your tour. Set your camera on the proper settings before heading out on your tour.

Icelandic horses under the Northern Lights

Icelandic horses under the Northern Lights

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6. When possible, include a foreground. Try to capture the Northern Lights reflecting on a lake, frame them with trees, or find an interesting subject to photograph them with. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a lot of different compositions! Scout the area around you during the daytime, so when you finish dinner and run outside and see the lights dancing around you know the location you want to set-up in.

Have you captured the Northern Lights? What would you add for tips for photographing the Northern Lights?

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Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

Comments

    • says

      Thanks, Ellen! That is a nice camera. The best tip I have is to read the booklet for your camera. And then just experiment! If you don’t like a shot, just erase and try something else. You know what they say – practice makes perfect. :)

  1. says

    These are great photo tips! Also, I am quite jealous that you got to experience the Northern Lights in person–what a fantastic thing! I like the idea to capture the foreground (and love that photo)!

  2. says

    Seeing the Northern Lights is an experience that’s definitely at the top of my bucket list! These are great tips – I especially like the tip about the gloves and the remote shutter release. Thanks for sharing. And I love the pic with the horses in the foreground!

  3. says

    All excellent tips, I especially like the one about using things in the foreground or framing the image with other things so you get and great DOF, depth of field to the exposure. Nice job!

  4. says

    Photography is a important passion to me. I’m being learning how to do photography professionally. This post shared tips are very effective for good photographing. I’m pleased to learn these tips. I’ve never visited Northern Lights Iceland because I live far away from that country but such amazing views at night and day of those places really made me convinced to visit there someday soon. Thanks.

  5. says

    Great tips! Seeing the Northern Lights has been near the top of my bucket list for a while. I’m hoping we’ll get to see them once we’re settled in Latvia and exploring that part of the world. I’ll have to file this post away for reference :-)

  6. says

    Great tips Jen! Never thought about how cold it would be or the LCD screen lights! Although i think if I was shooting I’d try to drop my ISO and increase my decrease my aperture to like an f/8 (get more in focus) and then drag my shutter longer. But it just all depends on the scene. Love your shots!!!

    • says

      That’s the great thing about photography – you can experiment! The Northern Lights are easiest to capture when they are slow moving, though they aren’t as interesting to the naked eye then. Fast moving, which is typical, is a bit harder.

  7. Joyce says

    Hi Jennifer

    I’m interested to go to Norway for the Northern Lights but I’m not sure if a 4/3 camera with wide range of ISO is good enough to capture the Northern Lights. Hope you can give me come advice.

    Thank you.

    • says

      Hi Joyce! I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but the main disadvantage of a 4/3 camera is the reduction in incoming light hitting the light sensitive part of each pixel of the sensor. I think whether the pictures would turn out would be dependent on the strength of the aurora, but you’ll be left with really grainy photos.

  8. says

    What excellent advice Jennifer. I haven’t seen the Northern Lights yet and have to admit to being more than a little bit envious that you’ve seen them on several occasions. Your photos are gorgeous and I can see why you suggest including a foreground. I must use these tips next time I try to capture the moon – it never works!

    • says

      Thanks, Mandy! I definitely think these tips can also apply to photographing the moon. The best photos of the moon I usually see are very zoomed in or ones that include some sort of foreground. Give it a shot and we’d love for you to share the results with us!

  9. Emily says

    This is wonderful advice, thank you! My fiance and I will be going to Iceland for our honeymoon over New Years and we hope to see the Northern Lights.

    And, your photos are stunning!

  10. lovelei says

    Hi, Your photos of the norhern lights are amazing. I am going this February & I was wondering what settings did you use for the S90? I currently have a canon s100 and if I can be able to use that camera instead of getting an SLR, it would be great. I know the s100 and the s90 are similar so maybe the settings you use for s90 would work for the s100? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  11. scott says

    Good tips. But I would add that the aperture setting has to do with the lens, not the camera. You need a fast wide angle lens that will preferably allow you to set the aperture as low as 2.8. You want a wide angle so that you can capture as much of the sky as possible. Wide angles also allow you to have a lot of depth of field so that everything will be in focus at an f stop as low as 2.8. You’ll also need a decent enough SLR that can take pictures at high ISO speeds with minimal noise. And one of the most important tips is to prefocus your lens in the daytime and then switch to manual. You will have a hard time focusing at night while the lights are out.

  12. Kj says

    Hi, very informative post!! My husband and me are planning to travel to Reykjavik in November, 2014. Do you think we can get good pictures of Northern light with canon sx 510 in manual settings and mini tripod?

      • says

        It looks like Canon SX510 should be able to work for you. The fastest aperture at wide angle is F/3.4 for that camera, My current set-up is F/2.8 but I’ve used F/4.0 as well so it should work. Practice taking pictures at night now. Put it on manual and set the manual focus on infinity or focus in on the furthest away object you can see, set the shutter speed to the max which is 15 seconds from what I’ve read and bump up the ISO between 1600 and 3200. Now try that out at night, if the picture is too bright you can lower the ISO and shutter speed a bit. The biggest thing is learning the controls now, not when it’s freezing out with a 30mph wind in Iceland. Test the mini tripod out with these test night pictures. It’s not ideal but I’ve managed to make them work and the SX510 is much lighter than a DSLR.

  13. Soumitra says

    Hi… My wife and I are planning a trip to Tromso (Norway) in September 2014… Keeping my fingers crossed hoping for a sighting then (the new moon is on the 24th).. Loved your tips on taking pictures… Might have to buy some equipment to make my Canon 1000D usable to capture some memories… If at all I get lucky that is!

  14. Janet says

    I have a Canon Rebel T3… Can you tell me step by step what I need to do with this camera to take night shots? Northern lights? I try so many things but I press the shutter button and it won’t ever click a pic!:( so confused

    • says

      Janet the most likely culprit for not being able to take night photos is the lens not being on manual focus. When taking night pictures with an open landscape like the sky you need to set the focus to infiniti or focus to the furthest object you can, then switch the lens over to manual focus and try not to bump the focus ring. Give that a shot and let us know.

  15. Joan Tachado says

    Hi! I’m just wondering what techniques could I use with a basic DSLR. I have a Canon 1100D and I’m really weak with night time photography. It has been my lifetime dream to see the northern lights. I really want to capture it beatifully. Thank you in advance.

    • says

      Hi Joan,

      The 1100D is comparable to the first DSLR I started out on. Really the techniques are the same as mentioned above regardless of the camera. I would practice at night under normal conditions. Get the camera setup for dark so when it’s time you are ready to go. Sometimes the Northern Lights only last a few minutes so you must always be prepared and check frequently. One key thing to remember is you must switch the lens to manual focus and focus on a far away object, this is also something that can be done during the day, you must just be sure not to adjust the focus ring after you do this. If you forget to set it on manual the camera won’t be able to find anything to focus on at night and won’t take a picture.

  16. katy says

    Hi!

    Thank you for this post! Very informative.

    I am heading to Iceland beginning of April to photograph the Northern Lights. I’m at amateur photographer, and am determined to get a good pic of this phenomenon. I have a Canon Rebel T3 with a 18-55mm lens. I know that lens will not do me any good in Iceland for the lights. Would you have any suggestions as far as how I can shoot the lights with that camera? Would you have any budget friendly suggestions on the lens? I am willing to purchase one before the trip. Thank you for your time and I look fwd to hearing from you.

    Katy

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