How to Photograph the Northern Lights

how to photograph the northern lights

ISO 400; 18mm; f/3.5; 30 seconds

Seeing the Northern Lights was one of my all-time favorite experiences. It was one of those things I’d dreamed about for years and after watching them for a bit, I wanted some photos to remember the experience.

Photographing the Northern Lights isn’t difficult, but it takes the right equipment, the right weather, the right settings, and a bit of trial and error.

Timing

The best time to catch the Northern Lights is between September and March, and generally from just after sunset until about 1 or 2am. It’s also good to note the weather during the day–if it’s cloudy, rainy, snowy, etc., chances are low for seeing the lights. The night I finally saw them, the clouds had just cleared up before sunset (and then slowly moved back in as I watched). Another good idea is to check out the local aurora forecast for wherever you are hoping to see them. I checked the aurora forecast for Iceland several times a day for the week that I was there, hoping to get an active day. The night I saw them was low on the activity levels, but I still managed to get a good show!

northern lights aurora borealis iceland

ISO 400; 10mm; f/4; 30 seconds

Equipment

I’ve read that it’s possible to get shots with a compact camera that has manual capabilities, but I haven’t tested that, so I’m only going to include what I know and have tried.

Tripod: A tripod is an absolute necessity. You could probably try to set up on a solid object (post, trashcan, etc.) wherever you are, but a tripod is going to be your best bet. It allows you to not only keep your camera steady for the duration of the shot, but it also allows you to angle the camera to exactly where you need it for the shot.

DSLR: It doesn’t have to be a super fancy one, you just need the ability to change the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Lens: The absolute best lens for Northern Lights is going to be a wide angle with a low aperture (around 2.8). This will not only give you a broad shot, but the low aperture will let as much light in as possible.

Shutter Release: A shutter release is a good idea so that you don’t get any shake by pressing the shutter button on the camera. If you don’t want another piece of equipment, you can easily set your camera on a 2-second timer and then that removes the possibility of shakes as well.

Flashlight: You can use the flashlight capability on your phone too, if you want, but light is a necessity to take a look at your camera buttons. Even when you’ve memorized where everything is on your camera, it’s good to have light for moving your tripod around, changing lenses, switching out batteries, etc.

northern lights aurora borealis iceland

ISO 400; 10mm; f/4; 30 seconds

Settings

This is where you kind of need to play around a little bit to get it right. Generally though, I’ll give you some settings to start with and you can adjust as necessary. These are the settings I used to get my shots.

There’s not much to do on the lens, so I’ll start with that–ensure that it’s on manual, rather than auto focus (there should be a little switch on the side of the lens), select the level of zoom you want (my lens was 10-20, and I generally shot wider, so around 10-14mm), and ensure that your focus ring is turned all the way to infinity.

Camera settings are the trickier part and may need to be adjusted based on how bright/active the lights are and what type of photo you’re hoping to get. I wanted my photos to have as much movement and color as possible, so I opted for longer shutter speeds.

First, ensure your camera is on Manual (M) rather than on auto, any scene modes, or other shooting priority modes. Then, these are the settings I’d start with:

ISO: Your ISO should be somewhere between 200 and 400. I went up to 800 for a couple shots, but found I preferred it around 400 most of the time.

Aperture: Aperture should be as low as you can possibly go. My lens was a 3.5 at its lowest end, so the majority of my shots were at 3.5 or 4. Just be aware that the more you zoom in, the higher the aperture will be (so the less light that will be allowed in; e.g., if you zoom in to 20mm, your aperture may be 5.6, whereas at 10mm, your aperture may be 3.5).

Shutter speed: You want your shot to be at least 10 second long, but upwards of around 30 seconds. If you want even more, you can set your camera to the bulb setting, but I found that 30 seconds was the sweet spot for my photos.

If you want some further information on what all of these settings mean in a nice little infographic, I highly recommend this one.

I’d take a few test shots to see which you like the most:

  • ISO 200; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 10 seconds
  • ISO 200; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 20 seconds
  • ISO 200; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 30 seconds
  • ISO 400; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 10 seconds
  • ISO 400; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 20 seconds
  • ISO 400; aperture 1.8 to 4, and 30 seconds

You get the point–just run through the rounds to see which you like the most and then try to stick around those settings.

northern lights aurora borealis iceland

ISO 400; 10mm; f/4; 30 seconds

Tips & Tricks

Pack lots of extra batteries. Cold weather and long shots drain battery life and switching out may be necessary several times, depending upon how long you’re shooting. I had two extra batteries with me for 2 hours of shooting.

Wear gloves. Seriously–it’s cold out there. Keep yourself as warm as possible.

Scope out a shooting spot earlier in the day if you can. Know what kind of place is going to have the landscape you want to include in your photos. Including landscape can make the photos more interesting. The place where I shot wasn’t my ideal shooting location, but it was sort of a last-ditch effort to shoot and I didn’t have time to scope out an area before.

Make sure you’re outside of a city. Try to pick a place that has as little light pollution as possible.

northern lights aurora borealis iceland

ISO 400; 10mm; f/4; 30 seconds

Happy shooting! When you’ve tested it out, send me some of your shots! I’d love to see them.

15 thoughts on “How to Photograph the Northern Lights

  1. Awesome! Thanks for the excellent tips Megan! Perfect timing too since I’m heading there in 10 days – as long as the volcano erruption doesn’t get any larger.

    • Hope it all worked out for you Jonathan, and that you’re enjoying your time in Iceland! It’d be great if the Northern Lights put on a wonderful show for you! :)

  2. Great tips Megan. It’s been on my bucket list for a LONG time to see the Northern Lights. I’ve always wanted to either visit Iceland or the far Northern Plains of Canada where I hear they put on quite the show.

    I’ll be switching from my standard point-n-shoot camera to a DSLR here in the next week or two so, although I hear it’s going to be quite the learning curve, I’m looking forward to the upgrade. Thanks for the tips, I’ll keep all of them in mind for long exposure shots! :-)

  3. This is so great Megan, thank you! I have yet to see any northern lights but I was stunned to find out that when I was living in Vancouver this past winter they were visible from the suburbs. Someday I’ll see them and I’ll remember your tips :) Suzette – TrySomethingFun.com

  4. Thank you so much for the easy to understand tips and instructions. I’m heading out in a few minutes to attempt my first try at this. I’m super excited and your post has been the easiest to understand. Love your pics as well!!!

  5. Thanks so much for writing this, Megan! The Northern Lights is, like it is for so many other people, on my bucket list. I’m not very good at night photography, due to not having had much practice at it. However, this post certainly contains a lot of pointers. I can’t wait to try it out!

  6. Pingback: Favorite Travel Photos (Part 1) - meganotravels

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