How to shoot the Northern Lights
Are you travelling to see the Northern Lights, or do you just live in close proximity to them? Either way, here are a few tips for photographers who want to capture the aurora borealis phenomenon.
Stian Klo shares his tips on how to succeed shooting the Northern Lights:
- Avoid towns and other light sources. You will be able to capture the Aurora better when you are out in the dark
- When onboard, you need to account for the ship’s movement. To ensure sharpness, be certain the shutter speed is no slower than 1/200th sec
- Use a tripod or monopod to secure stability
- Use a fast lens
- Set the camera at a high ISO value to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible
- Set your lens to infinity focus and start shooting
Read more about Stian Klo, whose excellent photos of northern Norway and the aurora borealis keep impressing his almost 300k followers on Instagram (@stianmklo)
10 photography tips for beginners
Photographing the Northern Lights isn’t an exact science; there are a lot of variables to consider. All cameras and lenses will give different results, so a bit of trial and error is needed to find out what works best for you. It’s also important to remember that no two auroras are the same. This means that settings which work one night may not work the next. But don’t let that put you off; experimenting with different settings and seeing the range of results they produce is all part of the fun.
To get you started, we’ve put together some tips that will help you take some great photos of the Aurora Borealis. We hope they help you capture some incredible memories that you can treasure!
1. Manual mode
To begin, you’ll need a camera with a manual setting. Being able to control the various settings is essential for photographing the lights. And remember to turn on manual focus and switch off the flash.
2. Be steady
You’ll need a tripod to steady your camera because the Northern Lights are constantly moving across the sky. A tripod allows you to take clear photographs with a longer exposure time and is especially effective when you’re on board the ship.
You’ll also need some spare, fully charged batteries. In cold weather, batteries lose power faster so keep some spare in a coat pocket as a backup to ensure you have enough power to take some stunning photographs.
4. Memory card
Make sure you have a memory card with a lot of storage or bring a few memory cards with you. There are two good reasons why you should make sure you have extra memory:
- If you plan on editing your photos, you’ll want to shoot in RAW format, as this allows you to capture all the data from the sensor. RAW takes up a lot of memory space.
- Getting the perfect shot of the Northern Lights can take time and lots of attempts so carrying spares means you won’t run out of memory before you have ‘the one’.
A good wide angle lens will allow you to cover as much of the sky as possible and more of the light show. For this, you’ll need a lens which can be set to a fast aperture of minimum f4, and ideally f2.8 if you can.
Optional extra equipment:
- The newer your DSLR camera is, the better as you’ll need a high ISO setting
- A cable release allows you to control your camera remotely, which reduces blurring from manually pressing the shutter
6. Get focused
To capture the Northern Lights as they dance across the sky, you’ll need to adjust your focus. A lot of lenses feature the infinity (∞) symbol. Begin with this setting and adjust your focus accordingly from there.
- Try focusing your lens during the day. It’s a lot easier to set the focus in daylight when you can see more of the landscape.
- If you can, pick out a bright star or planet in the night sky and use this as a marker to help set your focus.
There is no ideal ISO when capturing the Northern Lights .It all depends on how much extra light you need and how the ISO affects other settings, such as the shutter speed and aperture. The higher the ISO, the more light you capture, but remember that the photos also get grainier with a higher ISO.
8. Shutter speed
You’ll also need to find the shutter speed that works best. This is the biggest variable because you won’t know the speed or brightness of the lights until you actually see them. As a rule of thumb, if the aurora you see is bright and active, try a shutter speed between 5 and 10 seconds. Between 12 and 20 seconds is a good place to start for a slow-moving aurora, and for a faint aurora, you could take the shutter speed up to 20 or 25 seconds.
When taking photos in the dark, you want your lens to be as wide open as possible. For the best results, set your aperture (f-stop) to at least f4 to let in enough light to capture the aurora. If you can adjust the aperture on your lens to f2.8, choose this setting instead, but avoid going any lower than this or images can become ‘noisy’ or grainy.
10. White balance
The white balance should be set to “daylight” to ensure the light in the photos isn’t too yellow or blue.
Looking up at the incredible spectacle of the Northern Lights is a magical experience and there is no substitute for seeing them with your own eyes. Remember to take a few moments to step away from the lens and take it all in. But if you want to capture the moment, don’t worry too much about the details. Just snap away and adjust your settings as you go.
And if you don’t manage to capture the perfect photograph, you’ll still have some amazing memories of watching them dance above you.