How to photograph the Northern Lights

Anne JohnstonPhotography tips and inspiration2 Comments

Northern Lights Aurora Borealis Balgavies Loch Forfar

Are you completely in awe of the Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights? Have you been searching for an awesome display but you haven’t seen them yet? Do you want to know how to take amazing photos of this beautiful natural phenomenon? I’ve been photographing the Aurora in Scotland for over 5 years and I’m going to share with you all you need to know from how to find them, what gear to use and what settings to use on your DSLR camera. I’ll even let you in on some of my favourite locations.

My first encounter of an Aurora was back in November 2012. I wanted to photograph the sky at night and had been driving around the Angus countryside trying out different locations. Checking the screen on my camera I saw a green arch across the sky. What was this? Could it be? Oh yes it was! I’d heard of the Aurora Borealis before but since I stumbled across it by accident I was hooked! I’ve been lucky to witness the northern lights with my own eyes and photograph them several times over the years and want to share with you some tips so you can photograph them too.

 

What are the Northern Lights?

 

If you haven’t heard of the Aurora Borealis then allow me to explain. I’m no expert so in simple terms the Aurora is an absolutely amazing light show in the sky caused by electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere and colliding with gases, producing an arch of greens, reds and purples across the sky. Auroras that happen in the northern hemisphere are called “Aurora Borealis”  or “northern lights” and if they’re in the southern hemisphere they’re called “Aurora Australis” or “southern lights”. I live in Scotland so where I’m seeing the lights it’s the Aurora Borealis or northern lights. 

If you get the chance to see the display for yourself, it is out of this world! Camera sensors do a much better job at picking up the Aurora than we do with our own eyes. Sometimes what you see with your eyes may look more like a grey rainbow in the sky but if it’s shining really bright where you are you may be lucky and be able to see the green, red and purple lights shimmering in the sky above you.

 

Northern Lights how to

 

How to photograph the Northern Lights

 

1. Find out if an Aurora is forecast

 

If you want to photograph the Aurora, first you’re going to have to find it and it isn’t an exact science. In Scotland I’ve had success photographing the Aurora in the winter months between October and March. That’s why I don’t mind when the colder months come in. We may not have long sunny days but we can marvel at the night sky instead!I don’t predict Auroras but leave that in the hands of the experts. Every indication can be there that we will be able to see an Aurora but unfortunately as the conditions can change so quickly you really do have to be be prepared to get out there and wait and see. You could go out for hours at night when an Aurora is forecast and only see it for a few minutes.

I follow Dr. Tamitha Skov, a Space Meteorologist, on Twitter and find her Solar Storm Conditions and Aurora 5-day Outlook reports invaluable. She’s based in Los Angeles but wherever you are in the world you have a real chance of seeing the Aurora if you follow her. She also shares amazing pictures of the Aurora so her Twitter feed is a visual feast! Another account worthy of following on Twitter is Aurora Watch UK which is run by Space Physicists at Lancaster University in the UK. You can sign up to to receive Aurora alerts by text, which is a handy tool, especially if you don’t have time to check forecasts.

There are two Facebook groups that I recommend you join if you’re in the UK and interested in photographing the Aurora. They are AUK – Aurora UK and Aurora Research Scotland. What’s great about these groups is that there are heaps of people in these groups that are so helpful in posting updates when and where the Aurora is visible in real time and generally most folks are quite open at helping you out with camera settings too.

Lots of people have asked me over the years if I’ll let them know when I’m going out to shoot the Aurora so they can either come with me or go out looking for themselves. Unfortunately it’s not something that can be planned weeks or months in advance so I’m sorry if you’ve wanted to join me and haven’t been able to yet. Most of the times I’ve photographed it I’ve checked the forecasts and decided at the last minute to jump in the car and go for it and the people that have been interested haven’t been able to join me at that time. 

I tend not to have a mobile signal in the places I shoot so my advice to you is if you really want to photograph it be prepared to go at the drop of a hat and get active in the Facebook groups and on Twitter. I do send an occasional tweet when I’m heading out the door or quick update on Facebook but you don’t usually see me for dust haha!
 

 

2. Know where the best places are to see the Aurora

 

Once you know if an Aurora is likely you’re going to want to know where to go to see it. For the northern lights, the further north you are in the world the better. I’ve seen photographs of the Aurora in England so don’t think it’s not possible for you to see it there. It might just not be as strong.

The best advice I can give you is to get as far away from towns and cities as you can. What you’re trying to avoid is light pollution and you’ll be amazed how much street lights and other sources of light can pollute the night sky. It also helps if you’re on higher ground too. I don’t mean that you have to climb a mountain but you will have more chance of seeing an Aurora if you’re on higher ground.

There are several dark sky discovery sites in the UK that have great views of the night sky that aren’t blocked by trees or buildings. Check out Dark Sky Discovery and see if there are any spots near you. 

Locally in Angus I’ve photographed the Aurora Borealis at Balgavies Loch, Monikie Country Park and Cairnconon Hill. Further afield I’ve photographed the Aurora above Kilt Rock and Storr in Skye. That was my favourite Aurora-hunting night ever and the sights will stay with forever. Never before had I seen the lights dancing like they did that night.

 

3. Get yourself kitted out (and your camera too)

 

For photographing the Aurora you’re going to need a DSLR camera. A point and shoot compact just won’t cut the mustard I’m afraid. If you haven’t bought a DSLR yet check out my blog how to choose your first DSLR camera for all you need to know. You’ll also need to use a tripod for photographing the Aurora Borealis. You need to create exposures of several seconds so this is a must.

As for a lens you’ll probably want to use a wide-angle lens so you can fit in as much as the Aurora as possible but if you want to get in closer to the pillars then consider a longer focal length. Look for a lens with a wide aperture so that you can capture as much light as possible. The wider the aperture the better (small f number).

A wireless remote control will also help give you greater control over your exposure time and you don’t need to touch the camera when you’re taking the photo so it helps minimise any vibrations. I use the Hahnel Giga T Pro II Wireless Remote Control and if timelapses are your thing, you’ll love it!

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There’s more to photographing the Aurora than just a camera and lens though. There are a few things that will really make a difference. It’s going to be cold out there so please wrap up warm with layers. I love fleece-lined hillwalking trousers to keep me warm in the winter nights along with cosy winter boots, gloves, a buff, a fleece, a jacket, gloves and a hat. I might look like the Michelin man but it’s comfort over fashion for me every time, especially at 3am!

A compass will help you see where to look for the lights (north for the northern lights). If you don’t have one see if there’s an app on your mobile. A nice flask of hot chocolate doesn’t go amiss either! A head torch is also useful to help you see in the dark and you can switch it on and off easily.
 

 
Once you’re at your spot it will take around 5 minutes for your eyes to adjust the dark so stay cosy in your and then look north. A good tip here would be to park your car facing north if you can.

 

4. Know which camera settings to use to photograph the Aurora

 

Photographing the Aurora needn’t be difficult or daunting. Like every other genre of photography, it helps if you have an idea as to what settings you want to use but there will be differing amounts of light each time so you need to know how to respond to it.

As a starting point, it makes sense to set your camera to capture northern lights photos in RAW. Also set the white balance to tungsten and with shooting in RAW you have far more flexibility over shooting in JPEG during the editing process. Remember that if you shoot in RAW you will need to edit your photos in Lightroom, Photoshop or other editing software before you can use them on social media, email, etc.
 

 
Switch the focus on your camera to manual focus and then focus to infinity. The symbol for infinity looks like the number 8 sideways on Canon lenses. Some lenses are designed to focus beyond infinity so the number 8 symbol indicates that. If your lens also has a backwards L shape marked on it next to the infinity symbol the small end of the L shape is where you want to try. You have a couple of other options here for finding your focus point at night. You could either use autofocus to focus on the moon (if it’s out) and then switch back to manual. Alternatively if you have live view mode then temporarily bump up your ISO then zoom in as far as you can on live view mode to focus on the stars.

Switch your camera to manual mode too so that you can have full control over the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. You’ll want your aperture to be as wide as your lens allows (smallest f number) so you can bring in as much light to the sensor as possible. As for ISO and shutter speed here you can experiment a little depending on how dark the sky is. I’d suggest an ISO from 800 to 3200 and a shutter speed of up to 25 seconds. If you use a shutter speed of more than 25 seconds it’s likely that you will notice movement in the stars. If you want to expose for more than 30 seconds, you’ll need to switch the mode on your camera to bulb mode (if your camera has it) as you’ll only be able to expose for 30 seconds otherwise. 

The more you use your camera you’ll know how much you can push the ISO. The higher the ISO generally the more noise you will see in an image but this can be reduced during editing. Experience will let you know what your camera is capable of. If you know your camera can handle it there’s no reason why you can’t use a higher ISO and a shorter exposure time.
 


 

5. Top tips for Aurora photographs

 

  • Remove any filters on your lens otherwise you’ll see a strange circle appear in the middle of your photos (I learnt that the hard way)
  • Switch off your head torch when taking your photos unless you want additional light appearing in your photos
  • Cover the viewfinder with a rubber eyepiece cover to stop extra light getting into the sensor (you may find this on the camera strap)
  • Try to avoid times where the moon will be visible as the moon is a big light source. If the moon is out choose a shorter exposure time and lower ISO
  • If there is full cloud cover you won’t see the Aurora no matter how strong it is so check the cloud forecast before you go out
  • If your camera has inbuilt noise-reduction, switch it off. This may sound counterintuitive but if you expose for 20 seconds it will take another 20 seconds before you can take another photo if you use the camera’s noise-reduction and your time photographing the Aurora can be very valuable. Switch it off and apply noise-reduction when you’re editing your photos
  • Have a think about how you can be creative with your photos. Do you want to paint with light? Do you want to write your name in the sky? How about an Aurora selfie? Can you go to a place where the Aurora will be reflected on water? Are there any buildings or landmarks you could use as a feature in your photo?

 

Above all, I want your Aurora-hunting experience to be an enjoyable one, so be prepared to get out there last minute, wrap up warm and just have some fun with it!
 

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Here are some examples of photos I’ve taken and the settings I’ve used:

 

Cairnconon, February 2014

Focal length: 17mm, ISO: 800, shutter speed: 40 secs, aperture: f/2.8

 

Loch Fada, Skye, October 2015

Focal length: 17mm, ISO: 500, shutter speed: 14 secs, aperture: f/2.8

 

Balgavies Loch, near Forfar, November 2015

Focal length: 24mm, ISO: 3200, shutter speed: 26 secs, aperture: f/4

 

Balgavies Loch, near Forfar, November 2015

Focal length: 24mm, ISO: 3200, shutter speed: 13 secs, aperture: f/4

 

Monikie Country Park, Angus, March 2016

Focal length: 24mm, ISO: 1250, shutter speed: 20 secs, aperture: f/4

 

Over to you

 

If you’ve been lucky enough to photograph the Northern Lights, pop into the comments below and let me know your favourite place to see them. I’m sure my readers would love to know!

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I won't send you spam because I don't like it either. You can unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Do you feel like your camera's not giving you the amazing photos it's supposed to?

Sign up for Start Shooting on Manual, my free 5 part weekly course that will break down the jargon and help you take back control over your camera.


I won't send you spam because I don't like it either. You can unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit