how to take pictures of the Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights in real life is a wonderful and unique experience. And you might want some great photos to remember it by. But given the fact that Auroras are best observed during dark, clear nights, photographing them takes a bit of preparation. Here is a beginner-friendly guide on how to take pictures of the Northern Lights.

How to take pictures of the Northern Lights: Equipment to have

To get that perfect shot of the Aurora Borealis with ease, you’ll need to have some specific equipment.

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01. A camera that shoots in raw and that you can use on manual mode

Sure, smartphones nowadays have great cameras incorporated, but I still feel that a camera is a better choice sometimes, especially when shooting a natural phenomenon like Aurora Borealis. I would choose a camera like a DSLR or a mirrorless since they usually have bigger sensors which translate into better image quality. They also allow you to shoot in manual mode and change the lenses.

I used a Sony Alpha 5100 (mirrorless) to take pictures of the Northern Lights during my trip to the North Pole, back in 2018.  It is a great camera for people wanting to make the transition from classic point-and-shoots or smartphones to a more advanced device. It does extremely well on auto mode, but it’s also easy to use in manual mode if you want to.

And the most wonderful thing about it is that it packs DSLR-like power in a very small and light body. Yeah, I loved that camera! And it served me well for 4 years until we upgraded to one of its older brothers: Alpha 6000 (spoiler alert: sometimes I can be a bit of a tech nerd).

aurora borealis in abisko sweden
My favorite Aurora photo, that I took in Abisko, Sweden

02. Lenses

You know how our pupils contract when it’s too much light around us and dilate when the light conditions are bad? The first is to let less light enter the eye so as to not get blinded by it, while the second is to let pass as much light as possible, which will help us distinguish more details in bad lighting.

Well, the pupil of a camera is called the aperture and it is measured in f-stops. To take pictures of the Northern Lights, you’ll need a lens that can capture as much light as possible. So one with a wider aperture like: f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2. or f/2.8 (F-stops are fractions, so the smaller the number, the wider the aperture). 

But aperture is not the only thing to keep in mind. You’ll also want a wide lens that can capture as much scenery as possible. For this, you’ll want to pay attention to the lens’ focal length which is measured in mm. The rule is simple: the smaller the millimetric number, the wider the focal length.

Many photographers usually recommend a lens at least 24mm wide on a crop sensor or 35mm for a full frame.

My Sony Alpha 5100 came with a 16-50 F/3.5-5.6 pancake lens in the kit, so I opted to get another lens before my trip to the North Pole. Now, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money (lenses can be pretty expensive), especially since traveling to the Arctic Circle can cost quite a bit and I also had to buy appropriate clothes for the trip, as I didn’t have any.

For these reasons, I opted for a Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN Art, which was pretty affordable at 165 EUR (196 USD). It was the closest I could get to the recommended type of lenses, within a decent budget.

how to take photos of the northern lights
Camera and lens I used to photograph Aurora Borealis in 2018: Sony Alpha 5100 and Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN Art

03. Tripod

I cannot stress how important is to have a tripod for nighttime photography! You might think you can hold your camera steady for those long exposure aurora shots, but I can guarantee you won’t. So save yourself the trouble and bring a tripod with you on your Arctic Circle adventure.

While any tripod will work just fine, I’d recommend buying a sturdier one if you can. It’s even better if it has a hook from where you hang a heavy backpack. That’s because it can get windy at the North Pole and you wouldn’t want your precious camera to be knocked over in the snow. This is especially riskier with heavier cameras like DSLRs. 

04. Extra batteries

The cold of the Polar night will discharge your camera battery like crazy! So it’s important to bring extra batteries with you (another reason why you should use a camera and not a phone).

Make sure to keep these extra batteries safely tucked in a pouch or pocket close to your body (your warmth will protect them from the freezing temperatures of the Arctic). And only expose them to the cold when you actually start using them.

05. Remote control

As I already mentioned, you’ll want to use a tripod to keep your camera steady during long exposures. But thing is, even when you press the shutter button you can slightly move your camera and mess up the photo.

That’s why you need to bring a remote control. Any type will work, just make sure it is compatible with your camera.

06. Extra memory cards (make sure they are fast writing!)

Bringing several memory cards with you is actually helpful on any trip. But since you’ll shoot the Aurora Borealis in RAW, it is especially vital to have several memory cards at your disposal on this particular trip. RAW files are huge and you’ll take lots of pictures, trust me. 

Another tip is to opt for fast-writing memory cards. You don’t want to have the most beautiful display of the Northern Lights before you and your camera freezing as it writes on the card.

07. A camera bag or backpack

Since you’ll need to bring with you all these accessories, a camera bag or backpack will help you keep them safe and neatly organized. Besides you can hang it on your tripod to further stabilize it if it’s windy outside.

How to take pictures of the Northern Lights: Easy to follow tips

Photography terminology and settings can be daunting to a beginner. So I’ll try to explain how to take decent pictures of the Northern Lights in simple terms, from one amateur to another.

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Camera settings

01. Apperture

This depends on your lens – in night photography: the wider, the better.

A wide aperture will allow for more light to reach the camera sensor. So I would just set it on the lower available setting. 

02. Shutter speed

Shutter speed controls the amount of time the shutter of the camera remains open when taking a picture.

A short shutter speed means a short exposure. But we already mentioned that we need to do a long exposure when we shoot the Northern Lights. That’s because longer shutter speeds allow for more light to pass through the lens. This benefits the photographer when shooting in low light conditions as it helps illuminate the dark scene.

There is a downside though: anything moving in the frame when the camera takes a photo with a long shutter speed will be blurry. That’s why the cars’ stop lights look like light beams when photographing a busy road at night using long exposure.

A good shutter speed when taking photos of a slow or static Aurora is usually around the 15 sec mark. If the lights are really faint, you might need to raise it to 20-25 sec.

You don’t want to raise the shutter speed past the 30 sec mark or you’ll end up with star trails and blobs of color since both the stars and the Northern Lights are moving. Depending on the conditions, you can lower the shutter speed to 5-10 sec or even less: if there’s a full moon (which means you’ll have more light to work with) or the Aurora Borealis is moving very fast.

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03. ISO

Simply put, ISO is a camera setting that will brighten or darken a photo. High ISO translates into brighter images, while with lower ISO it’s the other way around.

However, before you crank your ISO all the way up, you need to know that raising it has a huge consequence: grain (also known as noise). You need to balance your settings to avoid it.

For bright Auroras, an ISO of 400-800 should be fine. Raise it higher as needed, but watch out for noise.

04. Focus

To get crisp photos of the Auroras, you also need to focus to infinity. Here’s how: Make sure to set your focus to manual, since autofocus will do nothing to help you in this case. To focus to infinity you just need to focus on something very far away, like a distant house, tree or even a very bright star. You can also set your focus during the day as it’s easier and make a small mark on your lens with some tape or a pen.

05. Shoot in RAW

A RAW file is an image as seen by the camera’s sensor. These files are usually quite big because they contain a lot of data. For this reason, they give a lot more flexibility in post-processing, especially when dealing with dark, under-exposed pictures. In contrast, when a camera is saving the photos in JPEG format, it actually processes and compresses the raw file. Further post-editing can be limited.

You will want to set your camera to shoot in RAW when you photograph the Aurora, in order to have complete control of the processing and lots of data to work with.

What settings I used

I put my camera on Manual mode, set it to save the pictures as RAW+Jpeg (meaning I got 2 files: a raw and a jpeg version of the image I took) and set the aperture on the lowest setting (2.8 for my lens). I focused on infinity using the brightest star in the sky as a reference.

I then played with the shutter speed and the ISO. Since I feared noise, I tried to keep my ISO way under 1500. I often used the 400 or 800 settings, since the display was also pretty strong. To compensate for the ISO, I increased the shutter speed, keeping it between 15 and 30 sec.

Composition

The first 2 nights when I photographed the Aurora, I didn’t think one bit about composition and just shot the sky (in my defense, during the 2nd night even though the display was strong, it was also snowing so the lights were only visible through ‘holes’ in the sky). But when I browsed through the pictures, I felt that they came out kinda boring.

On the 3rd night, I tried to be a bit more mindful and incorporated the mountains surrounding Tornetrask lake into my pictures. I loved the result way more.

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vs.

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So try to add elements like mountains, trees, a teepee tent, sleigh, etc to your pictures. It will make them a lot more interesting, in my opinion.

How to take pictures in front of the Northern Lights

There are 2 ways you can take photos with the Aurora Borealis:

  1. Keep your camera settings as they were when you were photographing the lights. Make sure to position yourself further away from the camera (the focus is set to infinity, remember?). Sit as still as possible for the duration of the shot, since any movement will produce blur (because of the long exposure). TIP: Try turning your back to the camera, since the pose works very well with this method of taking a photo with the Northern Lights.
  2. You will need the help of a second person for this version: switch the focus on yourself and sit very still. As the camera is taking the picture, have someone flash a bright light on you for a split second (I used the flash of my phone). This is enough to illuminate you, but the Aurora will still be visible behind.
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So there you have it: my beginner guide on how to take pictures of the Northern Lights. Hope you found it helpful and easy to understand.

Happy travels~

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