PhotographyNight PhotographyAstrophotography

Best Northern Lights Photography Tips for Beginners

Dan Steeden
By 26 days ago

You might have many reasons for yearning to photograph the Northern Lights, but my personal favorite requires a little explanation, so stick with me.

TL;DR

The keys to capturing the Northern Lights is: the right gear, the right camera settings, traveling at the right time of year, and throw in a pinch of luck.

You know that joke where you ask someone what color a blue house is, and they answer 'blue'? Then you cycle through colors until you get to a green house and they say 'green' and you say 'HA! Greenhouses are transparent you dummy!'

You can do the same with the sky. When someone tells you the sky is blue, you can proudly present them with your dazzling, perfectly in-focus and flawlessly exposed photo of the Northern Lights and not even bother trying to hide your wide, smug smile.

Intrigued? You should be, who doesn't love showing off to their friends. With that in mind, here are the best Northern Lights photography tips for beginners looking to nail that perfect shot.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

Let's get scientific. Put your Bunsen burner away though, this is the kind of science lesson where I talk at you for a while. You'll look back on it as interesting later, I promise.

Contrary to historical belief that the lights reflect the blood of martyrs entering the sky, it is now understood that they are caused by the interaction between gaseous particles in Earth's atmosphere and charged particles from the sun.

When the charged particles collide with those in the atmosphere, electrons in the atoms jump to a high energy state. When they return to normal, photons are emitted which appear as dancing lights.

The different colors stem from the various gases that make up the atmosphere. We have lower altitude oxygen molecules to thank for the famous ethereal green. Ok, the science lesson is over.

Northern Lights above a wreck of a DC Plane on Sólheimasandur, Iceland

What Photography Gear Do You Need to Capture the Northern Lights?

Don't ever let anyone accuse you of having all the gear and no idea. Having the right gear is what will set your photos apart from those aimlessly pointing iPhones with cracked screens at the dim sky. Plus, you'll look like a real pro by comparison. Here's the required basic gear:

Photographers capturing the Northern Lights (notice the tripods?)

What Are the Best Settings for Your Camera?

If you're anything like me, hours and hours of YouTube photography tutorials will have taught you that there is no right way of taking photos. Everyone has their methods, but these are time-tested best practices for beginners to follow when it comes to Northern Lights photography.

Photography Tip

Remember to get familiar with your camera settings before taking the trip, so you're not fumbling around in the dark.

Where Can You See the Northern Lights?

Remember the science lesson from earlier? Well, those charged particles congregate at Earth's magnetic poles. You could argue that 'Northern Lights' is a bit of a misnomer as they appear above Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean too.

For the best chance to photograph the Northern Lights, however, you'll want to head north. The places with ample viewing opportunities are Iceland, Finland, Norway, Alaska, and northern Canada.

You'll can book Northern Lights tours in all these locations, but sadly there are never any guarantees. In Iceland, most tour companies offer a policy to re-book you on another day (during your stay) free of charge if you don't see the lights. Luckily there are some amazing things to see in Iceland even if you don't get lucky with the sky.

Finland is one of the most popular destinations for night sky gazing, especially for couples hoping to mix the Auroras with romance. Stay in a glass igloo in Kakslauttanen, which offers a view of the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed.

When Will the Northern Lights Appear?

You may have guessed by this point that the Northern Lights can be very elusive. One thing is for sure - you won't see them when the sun is out. That means summer is not going to be very fruitful.

September to March is the best time to see the Northern Lights.

Darkness is a given, but as you're so far north, that shouldn't be hard to come by. There were just 4 hours of weak sunlight each day when we visited Iceland in December. You'll also need a few things to work in your favor that you can't control.

The sky needs to be clear. Those pesky clouds will block your view of the Aurora and make photographing them even more challenging than it already is.

The Auroras need to be active when you're out there freezing your cheeks off, knee-deep in snow. Unfortunately, they don't perform on-demand. Aurora activity is measured on a numeric scale between 0 and 9 called "Kp". If it's low on the scale, that doesn't mean you won't see them, it just means they may not be as bright and vivid. Your camera will also be able to pick them up more easily than your eyes will, so try photographing the sky while you wait. If it's tinged slightly green, you know there's at least some activity.

Here are 3 helpful online tools to help predict the intensity and location of the Northern Lights, which serious photographers use to chase them:

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