How To Photograph the Northern Lights

Greenland in December
Greenland in December - Getty

To photograph the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), follow these instructions and tips to get the best photos. Try different settings shown here and learn what's best for taking pictures of the Northern Lights in all their nightly beauty.

How to Take Better Pictures of the Northern Lights

  1. Basic equipment: A tripod first of all, preferably used with a remote trigger so you don't have to touch the camera. The camera should be a 35mm SLR camera with manual focus (set to "infinity"), which works well for Northern Lights photography. Digital cameras will need to have manually adjustable ISO and zoom settings.
  2. Additional photo gear: Beyond the basic photography equipment, you should bring the following gear for great results: A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights. A wireless trigger is also very nice, so you don't nudge the camera at all. If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it.
  3. Taking a picture: You will not be able to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with short exposure times. Good exposure times for this are 20-40 seconds per picture (the tripod will help you eliminate shaking of the camera - you can't hold the camera by hand.) A sample exposure time for ISO 800 film with f/2.8 would be 30 seconds.
  4. Location and times: It can be hard to predict the Northern Lights so you may be in for a few hours of waiting during a cold night. Take a look at the profile of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) to learn more about the best locations and times to find and photograph the Northern Lights! Also, learn more about what kind of weather in Scandinavia photographers can expect. 

Tips for Northern Lights Photography

  1. Batteries don't last as long in cold nights. Bring spare batteries.
  2. Try lots of different exposure settings; night photography is challenging. Test your setup first.
  3. Include a part of the landscape to make the photos more attractive and as a visual reference for size.
  4. Do not use any filters, as they tend to distort the beauty of the Northern Lights and degrade the image.
  5. Turn on "noise reduction" and the white balance to "AUTO" on digital cameras.

What You Need

  • Digital camera with interchangeable lenses
  • Wide angle zoom lens (f/2.8 max)
  • Sturdy tripod, preferably with remote trigger
  • ISO 400 or ISO 800 setting
  • Spare batteries and warm, comfortable clothing

But before you book your flight and pack your bags, keep this in mind: There can be no guarantee that you will actually see Northern Lights if you only try to go out to catch them one night. Be flexible, since this is Mother Nature, and keep an eye on solar activity (available online) while planning 3-5 days of staying at your destination. If you don't stay that long, it will be hit or miss with the Northern Lights. Have fun, stay warm, and good luck.

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