How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights
Photographing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights as they are also called is not only super exciting but also challenging. However with a little preparation you can get ready to do less thinking while feeling the cold and more shooting.
In this guide I’ll walk you through some easy steps to prepare and what to do while capturing breath taking images of aurora borealis. Remember the images may look a little flat out of camera, but nothing some post production curve changes can’t fix.
First off you will need a few things, of course a wide angle lens 12mm to around 24mm is best with a wide aperture. A selection of batteries fully charged, the cold WILL eat them quicker. Memory cards, again a selection of them is best and make sure you dual write if possible.
Take a plastic ziplock bag large enough to fit your camera and lens. Before bringing your camera into a warm place after shooting, put it in the ziplock bag, seal and leave until it warms up to room temperature. Doing so will prevent condensation from building up on the electronics and glass in your camera, do not remove the lens from your camera as this can cause some condensation to reach your sensor. This is important, especially when shooting in extreme temperatures and can be applied in both hot and cold temperatures where your hotel or accommodation maybe 10+/- degrees different to the outside. You can read more on how to prevent condensation on your camera by reading my blog post about the topic I posted early 2019.
Alternatively you can just remove the memory card and batteries and leave your camera in your car or a secure location outside.
Before you go make sure you have your camera sensor cleaned and lenses. Not only does this mean you get nice clean images but removes the chance of having to spend hours in post production removing as spot from your beautiful lines in the sky. Check your lens every-time before you start.
Location, Location, Location
Not only do you need to be in a place where the northern lights are visible but you need something in the foreground to make the image interesting. So hunt for a shack, tree lined woods, mountain or anything that will grasp your audience while admiring your images.
Geographically speaking you will need to be 60 degrees north (normally within the arctic circle or close to it) so Iceland, Alaska, Northern Canada are great places to start and easily accessible from most airports worldwide.
The other consideration here is making sure you will see the northern lights on any given date, so check the sky is clear and the forecast for the northern lights. For North American readers and visitors to Alaska and Canada you can check forecasts here Alaska University Northern Lights Forecast but there are many others you can find online if you want to cross check.
In the most intense Northern Lights areas Alaska, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia and Yukon, the lights are observed from late August to mid April.
Places to see Best
Aurora displays can be seen overhead on average at high northern latitudes as well southern latitudes. Optimal locations such as Fairbanks, Alaska; Dawson City, Yukon; Yellowknife, NWT; Gillam, Manitoba; the southern part of Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Tromsø, Norway; and the northern coast of Siberia all offer a good chance to view the aurora in the night sky.
- Manual shooting or M mode.
- Shoot in RAW (and only RAW).
- Start your ISO at ISO 1600 (depending on sensor performance).
- Manual Focus (use foreground to get focus first with the tactical light, use peak focus or infinity).
- Set white balance to 2,800-5,000 (k); this can always be changed in post but keep it the same for viewing in camera.
- Shoot wide open at f/2.8 or better.
- Shutter speed to around 10 seconds, you may need to increase or decrease depending how bright the northern lights or auroras during your visit.
- Turn off any HDR or “Dynamic Range” assistance.
- Turn off any low noise processing in-camera if you have it.
- If your camera has “night mode” use it.
why do I need a tactical light ?
And you thought I forgot to explain that huh, well there is a very good reason why you would want to have a tactical light, finding the right one can be tricky but I’ll explain why shortly. Tactical lights are fantastic for lighting for the foreground when needed in a dark scene of long exposure. Having black silhouettes is great but sometimes you need to add a little spritz to your scene and this is where some light paining will come in handy.
Here is the method to practice. Turning your light on, you illuminate your subject and only your subject, passing the light from left to right in a sweeping motion: Doing so will create some light to the foreground that would otherwise look dark, make sure you kill the light when you finish the sweep and not continuing. Feathering the light into the scene and being aware of the edge of the light to also key.
In the scene(s) below are two examples of “with and without” additional light on the foreground subject.
This is very much trial and error and making sure you have a tactical light that has control of the light spill, and the power. I would suggest a tactical light that will be around 1000 lumen of output. A great starter is the Fenix PD35 which sells for about $80USD as a suggestion, which has a soft edge of light and 5 stage power control.
Of course you can shoot without.