How to photograph the northern lights

After publishing my recent 2017 Gear of the Year article, in which I highlighted a lens I used for shooting the aurora borealis, numerous people reached out to ask if I would write a follow-up article on how to photograph auroras. So, I decided to team up with DPReview contributor, astrophotographer, and aurora tour guide, José Francisco Salgado, to share some insight into capturing this amazing natural phenomena.

The aurora is the Earth’s own special effects show, seen here from Grundarfjörður, Iceland.
ISO 2500 | 30 sec. | F2.8
Photo by José Franciso Salgado

What causes the lights?

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are natural displays of light that occur in the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere due to interaction between charged particles from the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.

The Sun releases charged particles (including electrons) into space in a continuous stream, called solar wind, as well as in sudden and violent releases called Coronal Mass Ejections. Several days after leaving the Sun, these particles can reach our planet. Most are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, but some find themselves inside the magnetic field and populate reservoirs within the field. Different events, including interactions with the solar wind, accelerate these particles towards an oval around the magnetic poles.

The Northern Lights are produced when these charged particles, guided by the magnetic field of the Earth, precipitate through the atmosphere and collide with nitrogen and oxygen. These collisions lead to atomic processes called ionization and excitation, which result in the emission of lights of varying color. A corresponding phenomenon in the southern hemisphere is called the Southern Lights, or aurora australis.

The aurora occurs when charged particles, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field, collide with nitrogen molecules and oxygen atoms in the upper atmosphere.
ISO 6400 | 3 sec. | F2.8
Photo by José Francisco Salgado

Getting to where the auroras are visible

Auroras are typically produced in a band known as the auroral zone, which can be 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles. This means that auroras are normally seen at very high latitudes (north and south). The region where auroras occur at any given time is called called the auroral oval. Auroras are also produced in the dayside of the Earth, but since sunlight is about a million times brighter this renders them invisible during the day.

Although it’s easier to see auroras at higher latitudes, solar activity can cause the auroral oval to enlarge, making them visible at lower latitudes, including the northern regions of the continental US. Since geomagnetic activity responds to solar activity several days later, it’s possible to forecast auroral activity to help with your planning.

NOAA provides long-term (3 days) and short-term (30 min) aurora forecasts online. Also, there are several alert systems including email notifications from spaceweather.com or smartphone apps that can provide alerts when the aurora is active at your location, such as My Aurora Forecast & Alerts (iPhone; Android) and Aurorasaurus (iPhone; Android).

NOAA’s 30-minute forecast shows the intensity and location of the aurora forecast for the time shown at the top of the map.

When Northern Lights are forecast to be visible, find an open field with an unobstructed view of the north. If you don’t want to wait for that to happen, or if you want to see the most intense aurora, you’ll need to move to higher latitudes. Before traveling to a particular northern location, consider three factors:

  • Is the location within the auroral zone?
  • Is the weather usually clear at that location during the month you’re planning to visit? (Clouds occur at much lower altitudes than auroras, which occur above 100 km.)
  • Will local light pollution impede your observations and photography? The website Lightpolutionmap.info can be of assistance here.

Some locations to consider are:

  • Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Yellowknife, NT, Canada
  • Churchill, MB, Canada
  • Outside Reykjavik, Iceland
  • Norwegian Lapland, Norway
  • Swedish Lapland, Sweden
  • Finnish Lapland, Finland
  • Stewart Island, New Zealand
  • Ushuaia, Argentina
  • Antarctica
Photographing the Northern (or Southern) Lights is not very difficult, but you do need to get to a location where you can see them. One of the advantages of shooting from frozen lakes in Yellowknife, Canada, is the unobstructed views they provide of the entire sky.
ISO 5000 | 5 sec. | F2.8

Remember, locations at extreme latitudes will have almost no nighttime close to the summer solstice, so avoid visiting these place from mid-April to mid-August in the northern hemisphere, or mid-October to mid-February in the southern hemisphere.

Equipment

There’s no ‘correct’ gear for taking pictures of the auroras, but having the right equipment can translate into higher quality images and provide more creative options.

Camera: A camera with a full frame sensor will provide better high ISO performance than those with smaller sensors. That said, modern sensors are extraordinarily good, and it’s possible to get great aurora photos even if you don’t have a full frame sensor, so don’t let that stop you. On a recent trip, some friends of ours captured great aurora pictures using a Sony RX100 III, a camera with a 1”-type sensor.

This photo was captured using a Sony RX100 III, a camera with a 1″-type sensor. The Big Dipper and Ursa Major can be seen in the sky behind the aurora.
ISO 3200 | 6 sec. | F1.8
Photo by Steve and Colleen McClure

Lens: A fast, wide lens will let you capture as much light as possible. Anything wider than 24mm will work, though a 14mm or 16mm lens will allow for more dramatic shots. A lens with a maximum aperture of F2.8 is a good starting point, but faster is better. For example, a lens with an aperture of F1.8 has 2.5x the light gathering ability of a F2.8 lens. That’s a big difference in low light.

Tripod: Exposures are usually measured in seconds, so a sturdy tripod is a must. ‘Sturdy’ is the key word. It doesn’t have to be a fancy, state of the art carbon fiber model. As long as it holds your camera steady it will do the trick.

There are some optional accessories worth considering as well. If you plan to capture time-lapse sequences, an intervalometer is required, and these are included on many cameras today. A remote trigger, such as a cable release or smartphone app, will make it easy to trigger the shutter without touching your camera. Finally, since you’re working in the dark, a headlamp that allows you to see what you’re doing while leaving your hands free to work will be useful. (Fellow observers will appreciate you using a headlamp with a red light.)

Footage from The Legend of the Northern Lights, a film shot and produced by José Francisco Salgado to augment symphony orchestra concerts. These time-lapse sequences were shot in 2014 with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G lens on a Nikon D4 and D3s.

Taking photos

Shooting aurora isn’t technically difficult, but every night is different and you may need to experiment a bit. It’s best to operate your camera in manual mode, with manual focus, for predictable, consistent results.

File format: Set your camera to capture Raw files. This provides the best image quality and the most latitude for making adjustments in post processing, particularly useful if you need to tweak settings like exposure or white balance. Don’t depend on a manufacturer’s baked-in Jpeg profile.

Focus: Focusing directly on the aurora is little bit like trying to focus on smoke. Fortunately, relative to your position, the aurora is effectively at infinity. It may be tempting to just rotate the focus ring on your lens to the infinity marker, but on many lenses that’s really more of an approximation.

Aurora in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
ISO 3200 | 4 sec. | F2.8
Photo by Dale Baskin

If you’re focusing at night, use your camera’s live view feature. Point the camera at the brightest star you can see, magnify the view to the maximum, and rotate the focus ring until the disk of the star looks the smallest. Once you think you’ve achieved critical focus, take a test shot and review the image for sharpness. If adjustment is needed, repeat.

Once focus is achieved, a useful technique is to lock the focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape to prevent it from moving. Alternatively, you can place marks on the lens with a marker in order to return the ring to the same position. These methods can also be used if you want to focus on a distant object during the day and save the focus position for later.

Aperture: Set your lens to its widest aperture to let in as much light as possible. If you’re concerned about optical performance wide open you can stop the lens down a bit, but doing so will quickly reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. If at all possible, shoot at F2.8 or wider.

Shutter speed: Optimal shutter speed will depend on the brightness of the aurora and how quickly it’s moving. A short shutter speed will capture detail and structure that would otherwise be averaged out over a longer exposure. On the other hand, a slight motion blur can make an aurora photo more aesthetically pleasing. Take a few test shots to find the optimal balance, but 5-10 seconds is a good starting point to work from.

If the lights are dancing around quickly, shorter shutter speeds will let you capture more of the detail and structure of the aurora that would be otherwise be averaged out in a longer exposure.
ISO 1600 | 3.2 sec. | F1.8
Photo by Dale Baskin

ISO: Set your ISO to the highest level that gives you acceptably clean results on your camera. This will allow you to keep shutter speeds as low as possible in order to capture more detail in the aurora. Depending on conditions, you may be able to get by with ISO 800, though you may have to go to 6400 or higher.

Long exposure noise reduction: If you’re planning to take individual photos, turning this on will provide some benefit; however, it will effectively double exposure time while the camera shoots a dark frame. If you plan to shoot time-lapse sequences, leave this feature off to avoid long delays between exposures.

Other considerations

Embrace the landscape. Part of what makes the aurora interesting are the remote places where it’s frequently seen. In Alaska, photos may contain mountains. In northern Canada, it might be silhouettes of trees in the taiga forest. Iceland might present you with glaciers. Each place is unique and part of the story behind the photo.

Embrace landscape features and even man-made objects to enhance your aurora photos.
ISO 6400 | 8 sec. | F2.8
Photo by José Francisco Salgado

When creating compositions, think about other features or objects you could include. Snow and water can reflect light from the aurora, though in very different ways. Man-made structures can provide interesting elements in a scene or silhouettes. Since a wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field, avoid objects close to the camera unless you want them to be way out of focus on purpose.

Know your equipment. Depending on where you are, aurora can quickly go from being a slow, undulating wave to a rapidly moving, multi-colored light show. Be prepared to shift gears and adjust your settings quickly to avoid missing great photo opportunities.

Finally, be patient. Mother Nature works on her own schedule, and you’ll need to work around it. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. It’s worth it.


José Francisco Salgado, PhD is an Emmy-nominated astronomer, science photographer, visual artist, and public speaker who creates multimedia works that communicate science in engaging ways. His Science & Symphony films through KV 265 have been presented in 200 concerts and lectures in 15 countries.

José Francisco is a seasoned night sky and aurora photographer and filmmaker. If you would like to view, photograph, and learn about the Northern Lights then you can inquire about his Borealis Science & Photo Tours in Yellowknife, Canada.

You can follow him on: Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Facebook, and Twitter

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