The northern lights — or aurora borealis — are a unique light phenomenon spotted closer to the North Pole in the Northern Hemisphere.
The sibling of the southern lights (aurora australis), photographing the northern lights is equally as tricky and rewarding.
A wonder to behold, they appear to belong more so in a sci-fi film or an Avatar sequel — not here on planet Earth! From the galactic hues to the unique aurora formations and undulations, they sure know how to put on a show!
Quite stunning but equally unforgiving, a northern lights display doesn’t sit still for quite as long as many other astronomical phenomena, though. That’s why using a faster shutter speed is recommended — as well as some of the aurora-friendly camera settings and techniques listed below!
Tracking Down the Northern Lights
Before you can find out how to photograph the northern lights, you need to actually track them down. Unlike many other popular astrophotography subjects — such as the Milky Way or planets and stars — the aurora borealis aren’t visible from everywhere in the world. They’re also seasonal and unpredictable, showing themselves on or at select days and times of the year.
Where can I photograph the northern lights?
Mainly appearing nearer to the North Pole, the Northernmost territories are the ideal place to view and photograph the aurora borealis. Primarily Scandinavia, Greenland, Iceland, and any parts of Scotland, Russia, Canada, and Alaska that are nearby or fall within the Arctic Circle.
When can I take northern lights photos?
The Nordic and Northermost territories offer the best northern lights displays. However, from April until August, these regions experience midnight sun — up to 24 hours of daylight per day. The further North you are, the more daylight, making the northern lights faint or invisible during summer.
So it’s best to plan your northern lights trip to coincide with the winter months, instead — ideally, from the beginning of September to March (or “aurora season”). During these periods, the skies are dark enough at night to view aurora borealis displays regularly.
What causes the aurora borealis and australis (polar lights)?
Auroras form when the charged ions streaming from the sun (solar wind) and oxygen and nitrogen atoms present in the Earth’s atmosphere collide. For the most part, the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar winds, which could wipe us out.
However, at the poles, the geomagnetic field is the weakest, leading ions to collect and cause auroras to predominantly form here. However, more extreme solar weather — including the solar flares and sunspots that cause solar winds — can sometimes make auroras appear further away from The Poles.
Pro Tip: Instead of leaving things up to chance, rely on an Aurora forecast site or app to track them for you. These platforms utilize weather and astronomical data to predict aurora activity more accurately. Some apps and websites even track the current locations of both strong and faint aurora borealis or australis displays.
Camera Equipment for Photographing the Aurora Borealis
The right equipment is everything — particularly when photographing tricky subjects such as the northern lights. Astrophotography usually demands the use of niche tools and equipment, such as professional-grade telephoto lenses, filters, and even telescopes and telescope adapters.
Since the auroras are nearer to Earth, the recommended camera equipment is slightly different.
A Full-Frame Camera Body
If possible, you want to pack a full-frame camera for your northern lights trip. Full-frame cameras are better than a crop sensor camera (APS-C) at capturing detail, as they feature a full-size 35 mm (26 mm by 36 mm) sensor. However, they are on the pricier side and aren’t mandatory for northern lights photography.
Interested in upgrading to a better camera? Check out our list of the top night sky photography cameras, featuring some of the best full-frame cameras available.
A Wide Angle Lens
The most highly recommended lens for astrophotography — including northern lights photography — is not a telephoto lens. It’s actually a wide-angle lens (16 mm to 35 mm). The preferred lens for portraits and architecture also features a wider or more “realistic” field of view.
Wide-angle lenses are closer to the natural field of view of the human eye than telephoto camera lenses, enabling them to capture more of the sky and its phenomenon in night sky shots. They just don’t feature as long of a focal length, which isn’t really necessary for northern lights photography anyway.
A tripod is a must for any expedition to avoid the dreaded “camera shake” and ensure sharp pictures. Since you aren’t always guaranteed a flat, even, or stable surface outdoors, tripods are truly indispensable. Just be sure to choose one with (or add) a ball head or equatorial mount.
You can also set a shutter delay of 2 seconds and pack a remote shutter release app or cable.
Can you photograph the auroras with a smartphone?
Yes, you can photograph the auroras on mobile phones. But the aurora image quality likely won’t be the same as with a mirrorless or DSLR camera if your smartphone allows you to. Do try to apply some or all of the tips and camera settings below. A handset with a more powerful camera and some adjustable camera settings is ideal.
What equipment is indispensable for northern light photography?
An interchangeable lens camera body, powerful lens, spare batteries, and a tripod are a good starting point for northern lights photography. Ideally, choose a professional-grade full-frame mirrorless or DSLR camera body and a wide-angle or telephoto lens. You can also pack novelty lenses, lens filters, and a remote shutter release cable.
General Camera Settings for Northern Lights
If you’re used to shooting astrophotography, the best camera settings for northern lights photos may surprise you. Since auroras move fast and are also situated closer than many other astronomical phenomena, the same rules don’t always apply.
Use Your Camera’s Manual Mode
If you’re a beginner to astrophotography, your first thought may be to use night mode when shooting northern lights pictures. But this isn’t actually the ideal route to take. Manual mode is the best mode to photograph northern lights — even if you’ve never used it before.
In manual mode, you can adjust your aperture, shutter speed, and a number of important camera settings. To make it easy, we’ve outlined all the recommended settings below.
Fast Shutter Speed
Set a shutter speed between 1-12 seconds when photographing northern lights. Since the aurora moves, faster shutter speeds than this will result in a blurry image. Maximum exposure time should only be used to intentionally capture long exposures of star trails or for slower auroras.
Set your lens’s aperture to the lowest f-stop value possible to open it as wide as it will go. Doing so will let in more light, allowing your camera sensor to capture a well-exposed image — even at a shorter shutter speed and lower ISO.
On your camera screen, select a higher ISO (800-2000). Note that though a higher ISO is recommended for night shots, it can produce digital noise. So avoid picking the highest ISO unless necessary. Cameras with dual-gain sensors do offer noise reduction at higher ISOs.
Auto White Balance
Auroras come in many shades. Generally, you should set your camera’s white balance to neutral (3500-4000K) to ensure color-accurate aurora images. You can also set your white balance to automatic if these white balance settings aren’t working for you. Or vice versa if you have tried auto white balance with no success.
For northern lights photography, use evaluative or matrix (the name varies per camera brand) metering mode. You want the camera meter to focus on the entire scene, not a select area. This setting works well for many types of photography, from landscape photography to portraits.
Focus Settings for Northern Lights
When it comes to achieving a sharp focus when photographing the northern lights, professional astrophotographers have two preferred methods — manual focus and infinity focus.
To manually focus, switch autofocus off on your lens and in your camera settings. Now, your camera won’t automatically focus when you press the shutter button. Instead, you need to manually adjust the focus ring on your lens to focus. Ideally, manually focus on a distant light.
Alternatively, you can set your camera focus to infinity (∞). You just need to ensure you crop out any foreground in the hyperfocal range. Otherwise, this area may be blurry. Or you can take two separate exposures and stack them in photo editing software later to create the sharpest images.
Shoot RAW Images
If you want to get good shots of the auroras, some post-production editing may be required. That’s why it makes sense to take RAW images of all your northern lights photographs. Considered the digital version of film negatives, RAW files are lossless (uncompressed), storing all sensor data.
So they’re easier and more effective to edit later on. You can set your camera up to take images in RAW format by selecting RAW + JPEG from your camera’s image file options. You might also want to set your camera up to take dark frames to reduce noise and graininess in post-production.
3 Northern Lights Photography Tips for Beginners
Shoot Clear Skies
When photographing the northern lights, light pollution is your enemy — just like with other types of astrophotography. Any light pollution, such as a Full Moon or city lights, will impact the visibility of the northern lights.
Dark skies are ideal, as are ones clear of cloud cover, smog, and other obstructions. Luckily, you can use light pollution and weather tracking apps and websites to find the clearest locations from which to photograph northern lights.
If you want to photograph northern lights, you’re in for some chilly weather. Hunting auroras in the Northern Hemisphere entails heading out to remote areas where ice and snow reign supreme. So, be sure you stay warm — you don’t want to end up getting sick or in any danger.
Pack clothing suitable for sub-zero temperatures, including photography gloves — as well as plenty of food and water. Bringing expedition gear, such as a headlamp, crampons, snow boots, and camping equipment, is also a good idea.
As soon as an aurora appears in the night sky, you want to be ready to photograph it. Otherwise, it may slip away undocumented! Make sure you’ve tested out and applied the best camera settings before you head out. So you won’t need to fiddle with your shutter speed, aperture, and other vital settings when the aurora moves or appears suddenly in the night sky.
Since you’ll likely be shooting somewhere remote, you also want to come prepared. Ensure you pack all your gear in your camera bag — including spare batteries — and charge your lights battery, camera, tripod, and equipment. Make a checklist and run through it before you leave your accommodation to shoot.
Be Inspired by these Stunning Northern Lights Photo Compositions
The northern lights are predominantly viewed from regions in and near the Arctic Circle over winter. As such, your foreground is generally limited to mountains, pine forests, lakes, snow, rock formations, ice, and regional architecture and landmarks.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t (or won’t) find exciting elements to incorporate into your northern lights photography to make it unique! In fact, aurora photography can be as varied and captivating as any other subject matter.
Here are a few truly inspiring compositions to motivate you! Featuring reflective lakes and ice, distinctive landmarks, and one-of-a-kind aurora shades and formations, they’re sure to get you thinking about ways to level up your northern lights photos.
1. A Glacial Beach Day | Skagsanden Beach, Norway
Unlike your typical beach scene, this Skagsanden Beach and Aurora formation is rather icy.
2. Sparkling Mirrored Aurora | Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Try to leverage reflective ice and lakes in your northern lights pictures — just like in this stunning image!
3. Mystical Fiery Auroras | Arctic Henge, Iceland
Unique Nordic and regional architecture — such as Iceland’s Arctic Henge in Raufarhöfn featured in this photo — make for a fitting contrast.
4. Santa’s Sleigh Sky Trails | Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Juxtapose aurora activity and shapes complementarily with underlying foreground landscapes for the best effect.
5. The Way to the North Pole | Finnish Lapland
To photograph auroras alongside interesting landscapes, vary your exposure time for your foreground images and aurora photos. Then, image-stack them to create a well-balanced composite image.
Captured Light: Northern Light Photography Wrapped-Up
Auroras are a fascinating and enrapturing photography subject — never mind just experiencing them in person! Viewing the aurora borealis has long been on my bucket list. I’m so crazy about them; I even named my dog Aurora!
Hopefully, this post helped you better prepare for your exciting northern lights photography expedition. Wherever your aurora hunt takes you, be sure to make the most of it. Pack all the right camera gear and practice your techniques so you’re ready to capture the moment!
What should I keep in mind when photographing the northern lights?
A standard crop sensor camera isn’t going to produce as good quality aurora images as those featured in glossy magazines and online publications. They’re likely taken with the most expensive cameras money can buy. However, if you want to make the most of your northern lights expedition, you can also rent a professional camera and lens for the trip.
Are the northern lights hard to photograph?
Night photography is generally challenging, but the auroras can be somewhat forgiving. Beginner or not, just apply all the settings for the northern lights recommended in this post to see results.
Can I use a 50mm lens for aurora photography?
The best camera lens for northern lights photography is a wide-angle lens. However, since it’s close in focal length, using a 50 mm lens is perfectly suitable. The most important thing to remember is to let as much light in by setting your camera aperture to its widest aperture (lowest f-stop). You also want to use a faster shutter speed to avoid blurry auroras.