Top tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights

Two friends watching the northern lights in norway

‘Have you got any advice for me on how to photograph the Northern Lights?’ has to be one of the most common questions I get asked. So I’m going to break it down for you, the first section below will be for beginners with entry level cameras and limited knowledge of photography. If you are a bit more advanced I’ve put some tips further down for you so jump the first section.

The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) is one of the most spectacular natural wonders you can see. It’s also one of my favourite things to photograph. The lights are caused by positively charged particles from the sun being drawn towards the earth by its magnetic poles (that’s right, there is a ‘Southern Lights’ too) and colliding with the Earths atmosphere. It’s not so easy to predict which I think makes it all the more desirable to see.

So lets start off with some basics

  1. You are going to need a tripod, this one’s really a necessity if you want a good shot.
  2. It is possible to capture the lights on compact cameras or phones, but really its much more desirable to have an SLR or at least a camera with fully manual settings and a good sensor.
  3. Stick you camera on Manual Mode (usually a big M on the dial or in the on screen options)

The settings are a bit more complex to explain. It depends on factors such as how bright the moon is, how bright the northern lights are, whether there’s snow on the ground. This is where you need to experiment a little more but here’s some guidance:

  1. A wide angle lens is best. I prefer to use a 14 – 24mm f/2.8 and generally I shoot closer towards 14mm. The wider the lens the more light it can take in and generally the sharper the photo at night.
  2. You want the biggest aperture your lens can do (so most of mine are f/2.8) the lower the number, the better. Primes lenses work great.
  3. You’ll need a high ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor. So the higher the number, the more light it can absorb. But as the ISO gets higher, the image quality goes down. It depends on the quality of your camera and the light. But I would recommend anywhere between 400 and 5000. It’s best to play around with these settings and check the quality as you do it. Sometime’s when it’s really dark, you’ll need a high ISO anyway.
  4. You are also going to need a slow shutter speed to capture the northern lights (hence the tripod). Again, it depends on many factors and you need to have a play, but I would suggest between 4 seconds and 30 seconds (any more than 30 and you start to get star trails as they move through the sky).

So there you have the basic tips. The most important thing is to experiment and practise, but as long as you follow the settings above, you shouldn’t have a problem capturing the Northern Lights.

Let’s delve a little deeper

So you’ve got the basics dialled down, and you have managed to get some shots of the Northern Lights. Now how do you take things up a notch and get those professional looking captures? Let’s take a look.

Add foreground interest

As stunning as the aurora is, if you are just photographing the sky, the photos all start to look the same. So add something interesting in the foreground, a stream, a rock, some interesting patterns in an icy lake, a good landscape. Think about composition in the way you would with any landscape shot. It doesn’t all have to be about the sky.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Throw in some scale

This is one of my favourite things to do in landscapes. It’s hard to see the size of a landscape in a photo unless your eyes have something to compare it too. Use a small hut or log cabin, a snowmobile, or a person.

A man watches the aurora across a fjord

Use reflections

This one is a big one for me! You can double the aurora by looking for reflections. Any water can work well, especially still lakes, beaches where there is a thin layer of water on the sand or even a puddle! Ice can sometimes work too. Moving streams may not reflect them exactly, but you can still get that green glow in the water which looks great.

A colourful aurora reflects on the beach in Norway
A man watches the northern lights over a lake

Capture some movement

I love adding some movement into my photos to make them look dynamic, especially with slow exposures. Streams, rivers, waves and especially waterfalls work great for this.

The Aurora across Kirkjufell mountain

Add another light source

Adding in more light adds more interest to the photo. It also adds in another colour as artificial light sources are usually yellow/orange and it contrasts against the aurora. For this you can use a head light on a person, car lights, a fire, light inside a cabin or the glow from a town or village.

Two people sit in front of a campfire with the aurora overhead The northern lights dance through the sky above a cabin

I hope that has answered your questions. I’m always happy to answer more, so send me an email or comment below and I’ll do my best to help. For more photos of the Northern Lights, check out my photos from Norway. If I’ve helped you to capture the lights, then I’d love to see, tag me on Facebook or Instagram and Ill check your photos out. Happy shooting!