Few experiences in the world are as awe-inspiring as seeing the northern lights in all their magnificence. It always takes my breath away and never gets boring. And that feeling can be amplified by successfully taking a beautiful picture of the them. I hope this guide can help you accomplish that.
However, if you are reading this in preparation for your first ever aurora hunt, I actually recommend you leave the camera in the bag. At least for the first hour or so. The photos probably won’t turn out great anyway, what with all your excitement. And it’s better to not miss the show by being distracted! Take the time to enjoy the experience.
That said, here are some of my tips for northern lights photography. Parts 1 - 3 are aimed at beginners, so if you already have some night photography experience, feel free to skip right down to number 4 - composition.
1: The equipment - what you need with you
The only piece of equipment that is absolutely necessary is a camera of some kind. Phones and tablets aren’t quite up to the task yet, so a proper SLR or mirrorless camera is strongly recommended. It doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg, but higher end gear makes your job easier and the end result nicer. If you have lens choices, pick the widest one you have. Northern lights are big, usually crossing the entire sky. You're almost always better off when you can fit more into the frame. With the possible exception of fisheye lenses, where the distortion can be distracting and displeasing.
The camera will also need to stay still for several seconds at a time, so a tripod is almost mandatory. Otherwise you will have to set it down on top of a rock or other steady surface. Which will greatly limit your choice of composition and shooting angles. The above photo was actually taken without a tripod, with the camera precariously balancing on the thin metal railing of a bridge. So it is possible to take pictures without a tripod. But you can believe I cursed loudly that night when I realized I’d forgotten the second most important thing at home!
2: Camera settings - Focus
One of the trickiest things about night photography is getting the right focus. If there is nothing bright enough in the distance to focus on, it can be difficult to get sharp images. The easiest method is probably to set the focus in advance during daylight. Pick some far-away subject, focus on it, and set your lens to manual focus. This is called infinity focus, and it’s the setting with which stars and auroras will be at their sharpest. Use some kind of marking to memorize the correct focus setting, or simply tape the lens to prevent the focus ring from moving.
In practice, if the moon isn’t up and I’m in the wilderness far away from man-made light sources, I usually focus on stars. Locate the brightest star in the sky and point your lens toward it. Switch to live view and zoom in on the star, then focus either manually or automatically on that. Note you have to be somewhere close to the infinity focus point to begin with, or you might never see anything in live view.
Focusing on the stars isn’t always the best choice, however. If there is a tree or other object close to the camera, I prefer focusing on that. An important foreground silhouette being blurry is much more distracting than stars being slightly out of focus. And the northern lights themselves will never be sharp anyway, so you don’t need to be at infinity for their sake.
3: Camera settings - exposure
You may already be familiar with the exposure triangle - ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. If not, don’t worry - this part is actually easier in night photography. The low light conditions mean you’re limited in your options, so choosing the right settings is a simpler task. To start with the easiest one:
APERTURE - This is the “iris” of the lens, the circular opening in the front that lets in all the light. If it’s wide open (a small f number like f/2.8 or f/4), it lets more light through. Conversely, the smaller the opening, the less light can fit through it (bigger f numbers, like f16, f32). Photos tend to be a little sharper at the middle values, like f/8 (the actual sharpest aperture depends on the lens). But tack sharp images aren't hugely important for aurora photography. The higher priority is getting enough light to the camera’s sensor. So my opinion is to pretty much always use the widest aperture (smallest f number) that your lens allows. If you look at my camera settings below the photos, you'll see that literally all of them were shot at f/2.8.
ISO - The light sensitivity of the camera. The higher the ISO (eg. 1600 and above), the more light the sensor will pick up. So the darker the environment and subject, the more reason you might have for increasing the ISO. Unfortunately with higher ISO comes more “noise”, the ugly graininess that plagues your cell phone or cheap old digital camera photos when shooting in any low light conditions. If ISO is low (100-200), the photo will be practically noise-free and higher quality. But at night a low ISO setting will likely end up too dark. So choosing the ISO is all about making compromises.
As a very general rule: If you have a cheaper or older camera, I would recommend ISO 800 or so. 1600 could start to be distractingly noisy, even after some post-processing. But if your camera is new or a more expensive model, you can use 1600 or even 3200 without too much of a problem. There are many exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good starting point. Ultimately you'll need to take some test shots in the dark and examine the results on a computer, to decide how high you’re comfortable pushing your ISO. Post processing makes a huge difference, so remember to use noise reduction in your preferred editing software before deciding what your maximum ISO is.
SHUTTER SPEED - As you already know, the longer the shutter takes, the more light ends up on the sensor and the resulting photo. When it’s very dark, it’s typically necessary to use shutters several seconds long. The downside is motion blur: things that move end up blurry with long shutters. Stars become lines instead of dots, and auroras become blurry and lose their definition. So once again you need to compromise. You have to let enough light in for the picture to not be too dark, but shouldn’t take so long that the northern lights end up looking like a large green blob all over the sky.
We chose a wide open aperture and high ISO, so that the shutter speed can be faster. 2sec is great if possible - faster than that can be difficult to attain with most cameras, unless the auroras are exceptionally bright. 10sec is starting to be pretty slow, and 30sec is usually too slow in my opinion, for most lenses and situations. Of course there are always exceptions. The thing that really ends up determining shutter speed is the brightness of the auroras themselves, as they can vary a lot from very bright, to hardly visible with the naked eye.
So when you manage to get the focus and exposure right, you start to get technically proficient photos. Congratulations! Now it’s time to get creative.
If your photo is simply of the northern lights and nothing else, except maybe a line of trees in the foreground, they don’t really stand out yet. Try shooting from interesting angles, like low and close to the ground. Or straight up, as in the above photo. Or better yet, find some particularly interesting secondary subject and compose your shot so that it creates foreground interest. A wilderness hut, a small pier into a lake, reflections from water, a tree with character.. these are my go-to foreground objects.
Look around and try to find or come up with something that would turn your photo into a contest winner. It helps to be in a photogenic area, but you’d be surprised what you can find if you go for a walk and examine your surroundings.
What makes composition such a challenge is the fact that you can't predict the shape or location of where the auroras will appear. Even when you get everything set up the way you want, they can suddenly move to a completely different part of the sky. You could wait for them to return, so you can catch your perfect photo, but what's more likely is that you'll react to the changes and run around looking for another composition (I certainly do).
Try different things and be patient. As with most photographers, for every photo that I feel is decent enough to show anyone, I’ve taken at least a hundred bad ones.
5: Light pollution
While sometimes the glow of city lights in the horizon can add to an aurora photo, usually light pollution is undesirable. It makes it more difficult to see the northern lights, and gives off a (typically) orange light that doesn’t match well with the night sky. It’s best to go to a remote location with few light sources. Sometimes it’s enough to walk just a few hundred meters away from artificial light. In the more inhabited areas you may need to go quite far to experience true darkness. But seeing the Milky Way with your bare eyes, and the auroras in their full glory, makes it absolutely worthwhile. The idea of a long hike may feel intimidating in the winter, so prepare well or bring a guide with you.
If you want to shoot the above "mirror aurora" phenomenon, it’s best to see the northern lights in the autumn. Lakes and rivers tend to freeze in the winter in Finland and other places where auroras are usually visible. In the spring they take a long time to thaw, and the season may be over by the time water is in liquid form again. Because, of course, in the summer our northern latitudes don’t get any darkness even during the night. So the best (and often only) months to see aurora reflections are September and October.
I recommend bringing your widest lens to any aurora hunt, but especially so for the mirror effect. Otherwise you may find it difficult to fit both the sky and the water in the same frame.
7: Prepare for cold weather
In the winter the temperatures can get very cold in typical aurora hunting areas. Finnish Lapland is often at -20C (-4F), and sometimes as cold as -40C (-40F). Shooting in these conditions requires some preparation and good gear. With some good winter clothes you can be perfectly comfortable. Just bring a thermos of something hot to drink. And try not to breathe on your camera, because the lens will fog up immediately.
Cold and humid air will result in the camera and lens being coated by frost, if you are out long enough. You can prevent this from happening by keeping the lens even slightly warmer than its surroundings. Just don't try to heat it up too quickly, because that will result in fogging up again. One thing that helps is simply holding the camera in your hands between shots. Even through your gloves you'll emit enough heat to slightly warm the lens and avoid frost.
If you are like me and shoot time-lapse, you'll need to leave the camera untouched on a tripod for extended periods. In that case, I recommend taping or tying a hand-warmer packet to the underside of the lens, near the glass. I do this all the time and it's a very easy way to keep your lens clear and photos sharp all night.
After you’ve taken a good photo, you still need to make it great with post-processing. How much and with what style you edit your photos is entirely up to you, so I can’t help much here. But I very strongly suggest you shoot raw files to have more room to tweak things. There are many software options to choose from, but I use Lightroom and Nik Collection, and in some cases Photoshop.
That's it, now good luck with your shoot! Let me know if you have any further questions, or if you'd like to see a follow-up article specifically for aurora time lapse photography.