How to Photograph the Northern Lights

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis light shows are out of this world and leave you with the feeling of being on a planet. The Northern Lights are formed by the burning of atmospheric gases high above the earth as a result of solar winds from the sun. You stand on this planet and realise how small and insignificant we really are, how short our lives are and how beautiful the Nature is. Northern lights photography will create stunning pictures for your portfolio, so investing in the right gear and right trips can reap exciting rewards.

Photographer’s guide to Northern Lights

Photographing Auroras successfully means learning some Night Photography basics, but once you have it, it becomes as easy as taking any regular photograph.  Northern lights photography is so much about being in the right place at the right time.  Nt many people live in good Aurora Borealis zones, so it means travel for most people.  Browse through our selection of Iceland photo tours for plenty of great opportunities to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Northern lights over glacier lagoon


Aurora Photography Equipment

This article discusses the use of digital SLRs (DSRLs) or modern Mirror-less bridge cameras, but a film camera is equally good and in some respects better. Whatever your camera, you need the ability to open the shutter for at least 10-30 seconds. If you have a bulb setting (B) and you have a shutter release cable, then you will have much more control. I have seen people use a two second exposure on a compact camera and they got a result, but not the kind of result we are going to try and achieve. For good control choose a DSLR with good high iso settings. This is more about dates, than makes. The powerful sensors that are good for night photography started appearing on high end cameras around 2010 and got much better again around 2014 and slightly better again 2016. Choose a full frame camera to get the most out of a wide angle lens.

A good lens is important. If you can choose your lens, go for a fairly wide angle (17mm – 24mm) and one with a large aperture f/2.8 is preferable. I always manage to capture a decent amount of the display with a 24mm on a full frame, but sometimes, I wish I had wider. 17mm is easily wide enough to capture a big light show without too much distortion of the landscape.

Next you will need a tripod or a way of keeping the camera perfectly still for long periods. I once forgot my tripod head and successfully shot with my camera resting on my camera bag. Choose a tripod carefully, not too heavy, but not too light. You don’t want to struggle carrying it over icy landscapes and you don’t want the wind to be able to jog the camera. Try and choose one where it is easy to set up with your gloves on. You certainly don’t want to be handling bare metal without gloves in Arctic conditions.

A spare battery is very important. The cold zaps your battery and on average you battery life will be cut in half. In cold climates, I would recommend not using a battery pack because this is keeping your spare battery out in the cold with little insulation. It is far better to have one battery in the camera and one battery in an inside pocket, so it keeps warm with you. When you swap your dead one over, you could restore some life by warming the dead battery. Remember to take plenty of memory or film, it is not nice to run out.

Aurora Conditions

The second consideration is the weather. If you are far north enough to see them, then you will probably have very changeable weather. The ideal conditions are very very clear skies. The moon plays an important role. It is a matter of taste, but I prefer not to have the moon in the shot. Having the moon behind you can really help to expose the landscape, but a full moon makes your shot look like a day time photograph. This is enhanced further if the landscape is covered in snow. The wind can be a challenge… the less wind, the better.

The most important weather consideration is space weather and you can check the Northern Lights Forecast on this site. If this site says it is good, then it will be good. The thing to look for (if you can’t see anything yet) is a feint green streak across the sky, this is a good sign that it is worth waiting around for an hour or so.

How high in the sky are the Northern Lights?

All that energy is going on 70-90 KM up where atomic gas particles glow.

Fjallsarlon Northern Lights

Fjallsarlon Glacier lagoon and a Northern Lights display.

Northern Lights Exposure Guide

OK, you have perfect weather and you have all the equipment. What do you do next? If you have a digital camera you can take many exposures and judge from your viewer. Use these exposure times as a rough guide. They will give you a result in most Aurora conditions. Then adjust accordingly.

ISO800
ISO1600
F stop f/1.4
4 sec
2 sec
f/2
6 sec
3 sec
f/2.8
12 sec
6 sec
f/4
20 sec
10 sec

Thanks for Reading!!

Aurora Composition

Composition can be challenging if this is your first time photographing the Aurora. Because it covers such a large part of the sky and can move around, photographers might pay very little attention to the landscape and their composition. While having some green on your sensor might be the priority, it is good to consider composition if you have the opportunity. I say “have the opportunity” because some people are on short trips and might only have one single chance to take photos. Having the right focal length is an important part of composition and being able to include a large part of the sky plus some interest in the landscape will serve you well. The aurora might be in a different part of the sky when you find a decent composition, but remembering the composition for future reference can be beneficial if the Northern Lights position changes again. With a wide angle lens, I might use the rule of thirds to capture a third landscape and two thirds sky. If there is a great reflection, I might put the horizon dead centre and shoot with the rule of Symmetry.

Moon Phases

Photographing Northern Lights is possible during all moon phases. The moon is a source of light pollution which means that the sky wont be properly dark with a full moon. A successful aurora picture would require a very strong aurora display. Most pictures in anything more than a half moon will capture only green auroras because it is not dark enough to define the other colours. A half moon in the opposite sky to the Norther lights can be useful to expose the foreground without any tricks. A new moon is difficult to expose and process but gives a much fuller spectrum of Northern Lights colour.

 

Very dark moonless night meant using higher iso and destructive processing, but the colours are rare.

A half moon was useful to light up the glacier ice. The colours are mostly green with hints of red.

Can you photograph the Northern Lights from a boat?

You can photograph the Northern lights from a moving car, so long as you are travelling in a straight line and keep the camera pointed in the same direction. The landscape will be a blur and there will be no stars, but the aurora will be in your photo. I have seen one photo from a ship with good stars and this was taken with a tripod on a very very calm ship. If the sea is rough, the tripod will at least give you a sharp boat and aurora borealis.

Composition

For successful Northern Lights photography, the sky is going to be a major part of your image. Use a focal length which will allow the shape of the Northern Lights to dominate the frame. I have usually managed with a 24mm prime lens, but sometimes I wished I had something wider such as a 17mm because the Aurora can really fill the whole sky sometimes. Often the shape of the aurora will determine your composition, for example, when the light streaks straight up, you have to capture some vertical frames. It is perfectly sufficient to follow some of the basic rules of composition while you are following the Northern Lights around the sky.

Carefully composing some of the land will help give you image a sense of perspective. Favourites of mine are perfectly still water… this can be rare in Iceland, but a reflection shot is a real prize winner. If it is very dark, then look for some interesting shapes on the horizon. You might have to wait a while for the lights to appear, but if you spend this time taking some long night landscapes, you will have a better idea of composition when they arrive.

Northern Lights photography

An HDR image from Hafravatn lake

HDR Northern lights Photography

Go for it if you have the patience. The image above was from two exposures: 30 seconds to capture the sky and 6 minutes to capture the foreground.

The downside is that you will miss out on a lot of Northern Lights exposures while you are exposing your foreground shot. For post-processing it is best to bring the original sky back into the image for natural looking stars (see comment below).

Magic Cloth Technique

You can apply the Magic Cloth Technique in a similar way. As soon as you know the right exposure for the sky, just cover the sky and allow another 3 times the exposure for the landscape. More info here:
Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique This has the same downside that you will miss shots while exposing the foreground, but because it is a single exposure, you do save a bit of time over the HDR 2 exposure method.


Ice Beach Aurora

Ice Beach Aurora
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
ƒ/2.8 – 24.0 mm – 30sec – iso1600

Beauty and the Beach

Beauty and the Beach

This was one of the most rewarding mornings I ever had at the Diamond Ice Beach at the Glacier lagoon at Jökusarlon,  I used to run tours to Jökusarlon and back (to Reykjavik) in a single day.  This was a 14 hour trip with 10 hours of driving.  In December, the sun...

Mirror mountain

Mirror mountain

This beautiful Iceland Landscape features a mountain called Hofell which is an ancient volcano in the South Eastern part of Iceland.

Magic Cloth

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