You might have many reasons for yearning to photograph the Northern Lights, but my personal favorite requires a little explanation, so stick with me.
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.
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:
- Tripod - Absolutely compulsory for high-quality Northern Lights shots. The sensor will be exposed for as long as 30 seconds, so a sturdy tripod will keep the camera steady. Recommended model: Vanguard VEO2 265CB.
- Manual Mode - You need to tell your camera exactly what to do. ISO, aperture, and shutter speed all matter for Northern Lights photography, so ensure your camera allows you to adjust all of these with a manual mode. For the best results, a full-frame DSLR is recommended. A crop sensor DSLR is cheaper and will work if your budget is constrained.
- Wide Angle Lens - Not obligatory, but very helpful for capturing the full beauty and drama of the Aurora. A focal range between 14-24mm with a low f-stop value is optimal (f/2.8 if possible). Recommended models: see list.
- Lens Cleaning Cloth - If your lens fogs up or a snowflake lands on the glass, your pictures could be ruined. Don't take the risk and just stuff a small microfiber cloth in your pocket.
- Spare Batteries - Did you know camera batteries run out quicker in the cold? Where you're going, it's likely to be pretty cold and snowy, so carrying a couple spare batteries ensures disaster won't strike at the worst possible moment. Store batteries in your jacket to benefit from your body warmth.
- Photography Gloves - This falls into the "nice to have" category. Gloves with retractable fingertips for the index and thumb will keep your hand toasty, while providing the tactile control needed to maneuver your camera. You'll thank me later.
- Northern Lights Photo Taker App - Not all of us are lucky enough to own a fancy DSLR camera and tripod. But don't worry, you can still photograph the Northern Lights with your phone. You just might need an app to help. Northern Lights Photo Taker was suggested by our Icelandic guide. It has varied settings based on different intensities of Aurora, so this is your fallback option if you don't have a DSLR camera… or your batteries go flat.
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.
- RAW Image Format - This is standard advice for most styles of photography, but shooting in RAW makes post-processing photos in programs like Lightroom and Photoshop significantly easier. RAW captures the full detail off the sensor without compression getting in the way and destroying precious pixels.
- Focus - It can be surprisingly tricky to get the Northern Lights in focus. Turn off autofocus - your camera won't help. Manually focusing at infinity is a good starting point (lenses often have a helpful infinity symbol) and then make small adjustments using the focus ring.
- Aperture - This is the easy part. Choose a wide aperture like f/2.8, or as wide as your camera will allow (if you can't reach an f-stop quite that low). This will let the maximum amount of light in, which is essential for capturing a dark sky and the Northern Lights.
- Shutter Speed - This is where you have to get ready to make adjustments based on what the Aurora is doing. If the lights are moving quickly, then try between 5 and 8-second exposures. If they're slower, somewhere between 10 and 22 seconds should work. Test and experiment. The shorter your exposure length, the more your photo will look like what you actually saw with your eyes.
- ISO - More adjustments might be required here. The lower the ISO, the less noise and "grain" in the photo. Challengingly, you'll be taking these photos in the dark, so opt for an ISO of 800 and upwards. Start at 400 and keep increasing the ISO until your image is bright enough. Expert tip: if your camera can display a histogram, use that to determine if your image is too bright or dark.
- Post-Processing - Powerful editing software is essential to touch up your photos once you get them onto your computer. My favorite application, Adobe Lightroom, makes it easy to boost the greens and highlights in your image to accentuate the Aurora.
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:
- Aurora Service - A real-time map that shows the location of the Aurora, both at the north and south poles, and the likelihood of seeing it. The 3-day forecast is considered the most accurate.
- Space Weather Live - The general worldwide forecast should give you an idea of how active the Auroras are likely to be. A 27-day forecast is offered and updated weekly.
- Icelandic Met Office - A map that includes cloud cover specifically for Iceland and a 72-hour Aurora forecast.