You’d think the aurora borealis, that extravaganza of shifting shapes and colours, would be easy to keep track of. But try to take a photo and – poof! – it disappears as if by magic, leaving in its wake only a dark square of sky. Of course, it’s still up there – your camera has just failed to capture it. The unfortunate truth is that it's surprisingly difficult to photograph the Northern Lights. Even though the aurora appears bright, its actual levels of illumination are quite low, so your smartphone, tablet or point-and-shoot camera are just not going to cut it. Instead, reach for your DSLR and follow these tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights.
Shoot under the right conditions
First, an unsurprising news flash: you’ll need to be based in the north to photograph the northern lights. Ideally, you should be within the Auroral Oval, which is the area with the highest probability of seeing them. It covers Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland, as well as parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
They’re best viewed away from sources of light pollution on long, dark nights when the sky is free from clouds. For this reason, the optimum time to see them is in the autumn and winter months, between mid-September and mid-March.
The app My Aurora Forecast is a useful tool for planning your trip, as it can tell you how likely you are to see the northern lights. It forecasts the KP number, namely the strength of the aurora – anything over KP5 is considered a geomagnetic storm and worthy of grabbing your camera and sprinting out the door.
Northern Lights over illuminated tent in Swedish Lapland © Jens Ottoson / Shutterstock
Invest in a tripod
The first piece of equipment you’ll need is a tripod, as you’ll be shooting long exposures and will therefore need to keep your camera very still. Don’t think you can get away with resting your camera on a fence or your loved one’s head; even the slightest movement will result in a blurry, disappointing photo.
Heavier tripods are better, as they’re far less likely to move around in the wind. Opt for one that can be disassembled if the prospect of your luggage allowance makes you nauseated – some fold down small enough to fit into a rucksack. For bonus aurora points, invest in a cable release. This will allow you to take your photo without touching your camera and risking a wobble.
Frame your shot
The sheer scale of the aurora can be difficult to show. How many photos have you seen with the same miscellaneous green smudge? Including a landmark in the foreground of your photo is a good way to lend the sky some perspective – take Van Gogh’s Starry Night as your inspiration. Tilt your camera down and include a lake, a chocolate-box village or a snowy peak.
Once you’re satisfied with your framing, the camera tinkering begins. Make sure you’re familiar with your DSLR before you reach this point, otherwise you’re in for a long, frustrating struggle in the dark.
Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall © Thampitakkull Jakkree / Shutterstock
Set to manual
Now comes the dreaded part: setting your camera to manual mode. You’ll need full control if you want to photograph the northern lights; in manual, you’ll be able to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
When your camera is taking a picture, it opens a shutter allowing light to hit its sensor. Shutter speed determines how long this shutter is left open – the longer it’s open, the more light hits the sensor and the brighter the photo. Longer exposure times are perfect for picking up the northern lights.
What shutter speed to use depends on how fast the aurora is moving. If you choose a slow shutter speed while it’s moving quickly, you’ll have a bright image but will also capture the full range of movement – resulting in a lovely photo of a green blob. Five (5”) to ten (10”) seconds is enough to capture the detail if the aurora is bright and fast, up to twenty is perfect for one that’s slow, and thirty should be enough to capture even the faintest of glows.
Aperture is a more complicated concept than shutter speed. To put it simply, aperture is how wide the shutter opens when you take a photo. This impacts how bright the photo is, as light hits the sensor over a greater surface area. A low aperture (like f/1.4, f/2.8) creates a wide opening, while a high aperture (f/22) creates a small one.
But aperture isn’t just about light, as it also impacts the depth of field, or how much of your shot is in focus. A low aperture will only have part of the image in focus, and the rest will be blurred. A high aperture keeps every part of the photo in focus.
So to summarise: very low apertures result in bright images with blurred backgrounds, and very high apertures result in dark images with everything in focus. To photograph the northern lights, you will need as low an aperture as your lens allows to pick up the maximum amount of light – f/1.4 or f.2.8 are perfect.
The ISO measures how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. But the higher you go with the ISO, the lower the quality of your photo, so it’s best to keep it as low as possible. An ISO of 100 is usually perfect for shooting during the day; for the northern lights, you should start anywhere between ISO 400 and ISO 800, and increase as needed. If your photos are dark even with your lowest aperture and a slow shutter speed, you need to increase your ISO.
The Northern Lights in Norway © Tsuguliev / Shutterstock
Get in focus
Settings adjusted, it’s time to focus. You’ll need to use manual focus to photograph the northern lights, as the automatic setting won’t work well in the dark. Note this isn’t the same as setting your camera to manual; there’s usually a separate button for switching to manual focus on the camera body, and there may be an additional one on your lens, too.
First, select a point within your frame – a star, the moon, a tree – and rotate the focus ring on your lens until that point appears crisp. Take a few test shots and adjust until you’re satisfied your photos will be in focus. You’re now ready to photograph the northern lights.
Adjust – and adjust again
Of course, you’re never really “ready” to photograph the northern lights, as they change all the time. Over the course of a few minutes they can get brighter, move faster or change position in the sky, and you’ll need to be ready to adjust your settings accordingly. The key is to understand your camera, and this only comes with practice – aka good old-fashioned trial and error.
Georgia Stephens was a guest of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which sits beneath the Auroral Oval in Arctic Canada. Its dedicated northern lights learning vacations start at $1425 and include room, board and activities. For more information, visit Destination Canada and Travel Manitoba.