How to photograph Northern Lights

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How to photograph Northern Lights? After reading our guide, you’ll never end up with a blank or blurry picture, and you’ll be on a good path to create something outstanding.

Northern Lights are a completely thrilling phenomenon. It’s not a great surprise that everyone wants to have their own trophy of the night hunt. The beginnings are often rather difficult. How to photograph Northern Lights? After reading our guide, you’ll never end up with a blank or blurry picture, and you’ll be on a good path to create something outstanding.

Photo equipment for photographing Northern Lights

  • Camera. The best camera for Northern Lights is definitely a DSLR. It allows you to photograph in a manual mode and you can use it with a quality, fast lens. Besides, many DSLRs work great at higher ISO, which makes them a perfect tool for night photography. Even at ISO 2000, the noise can still be not so visible. It allows us to shorten the exposure time, and that’s our aim when photographing the Aurora. A DSLR will yield best quality pictures of the Northern Lights, but if you have a mirrorless camera, the results still will be very good. And what if you only have a point-and-shoot camera? You can get decent results provided that it works in a manual mode. A mobile phone camera is not a good option for Northern Lights photography.

  • Wide-angle fast lens. If you have a full frame camera, a good choice is, for example, a prime 24 mm f1.4 (or f1.8) lens. It allows you to take night pictures of excellent quality. It doesn’t mean that with a zoom f2.8 lens you can’t take beautiful pictures of the Aurora. Of course, you can. Some of the pictures which you can see here and in the previous part of our guide were made with a not so fast zoom lens. You probably wonder why you should get the fastest lens you can. The aurora moves in the sky pretty fast. You’ll never freeze its motion in your picture, but the faster the lens, the shorter the exposure. This makes the shape of the Aurora look better, with a greater amount of details. Apart from that, if the exposure is longer than 20-25 s, stars aren’t points any longer, as they get tails. It’s a matter of taste, but I personally prefer if they don’t have tails. And what about the wide-angle? Northern Lights move all over in the sky, so if we want to catch them, we won’t get good results with a telephoto or a standard lens. Wide-angle lens will do the job here – it will register the Aurora in its whole beauty and allow you to capture something in the foreground to show the scale of the phenomenon.

  • Sturdy tripod. Don’t even think about photographing Northern Lights without a tripod. You’ll never take even a decent photo of the Aurora if you are planning to hold the camera in your hands. The exposure time is far too long to get any result. If you have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, then you need a really reliable tripod, which means it will be rather heavy. You’ve probably heard that Iceland is famous for its strong winds. If you decide to use a poor quality tripod, not only do you risk having blurred pictures, but also damaging your camera. It’s best if the tripod has a hook, which allows you to hang something heavy like a backpack or a stone – this makes it even more sturdy. If you have a compact camera, then, of course, you won’t buy an expensive, heavy tripod, which price can be higher than the camera itself. Just be careful then – such a light kit is very easy for the wind to destroy.

  • Remote release. It guarantees that your picture won’t be blurry. If you don’t have one, you can also use the timer.

How to photograph Northern Lights – step by step guide

To understand the process, it would be good to have some knowledge about the basics of photography. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO – without understanding these terms you might have some problems with following the guide, but I’ll try to get everything across as simply as possible. There is no single effective recipe to photograph the Northern Lights. It’s not like with baking a cake – 500 g flour, 3 eggs, 200 g butter, etc. There are too many unknown factors – above all intensity of the phenomenon, camera and lens you use. That’s why I can’t give you exact parameters which will result in a technically good photograph. But don’t worry – I can give you a general formula, which after a few trials and errors will allow you to catch the Aurora. I’ve met many people who point their camera to the sky, take a picture in auto mode and wonder why there is no Aurora in their shot. The most important thing – turn the manual mode on your camera and put it on a tripod, then you are on your way to succeeding.

  1. Focus. You have to get focus in point firstly. It’s not so easy like with photographing during the day. Auto-focus doesn’t work most of the time when it’s dark and focusing manually is tricky at night. If you have an interchangeable lens, then you focus manually. Choose something bright in the sky (one of the stars or the moon) and adjust the focus ring until the object is in focus. It’s easier and more precise to do it in the Live View mode. If there is no moon, and the stars aren’t that bright, then you have to do it by trial and error. Turn the focus ring to infinity and then turn it backwards really slightly. If you leave it at infinity, the picture might be out of focus. That’s because you are using a fast lens, which has a shallow depth of field. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – you have to be really precise. Otherwise, the picture will be out of focus. With a point-and-shoot it’s different. Because you can’t focus manually, just keep your fingers crossed that the auto-focus will do the right job. Choose the moon or one of the stars, like above. And in contrast to a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you focus at the end, when all the parameters are already chosen.

  2. Aperture. Choose the widest possible aperture, f. ex. f1.4 or f1.8. That’s because you have to allow as much light as possible to get inside the camera. It will shorten the exposure time.

  3. ISO. Choose the highest ISO which still gives great images. It’s helpful if you know how your sensor behaves at different ISO, at what highest ISO it still produces good images with an acceptable amount of noise. In some cameras, ISO 800 already gives terrible results, and other cameras even at 2000 or 3200 produce excellent images.

  4. Shutter speed. To choose the right shutter speed, trial and error is the best method. First, try with 15 s. If the picture is too dark, then use 20 s. If it happens to be overexposed, then try 10 s. As a general rule, don’t use shutter speeds longer than 25 s. The Aurora becomes too blurry then, and the stars get tails. If the shutter speed is 25 s and the image is still underexposed, you have to increase ISO. You have to find the best compromise between digital noise and capturing the shape of the Northern Lights. Just play with the shutter speed and ISO until you get satisfying results.

How to photograph Northern Lights? After reading our guide, you’ll never end up with a blank or blurry picture, and you’ll be on a good path to create something outstanding. The first Northern Lights photograph, Martin Brendel, Alta (Norway) 1892

The first Northern Lights picture. Martin Brendel, 1892, Alta, Norway.

Taking your Northern Lights photographs to the next level

When you start to feel comfortable with photographing the Aurora, it’s time for the next level. To register the phenomenon in an image is one thing, and to take an interesting photograph of the Northern Lights is something completely different. Just one short trip and one meeting with the Aurora is not enough even to master only the technique. But if you are patient and practice, you can get great results. Remember that you don’t need the Northern Lights to practice. Simply photograph at night, and when the moment comes, you’ll have the skills, and you can concentrate just on the art of photographing this incredible show.

You’ve probably seen such pictures many times – some dim green light and tips of the trees in the foreground. There are lots of such images on the Internet. Just close your eyes and recall the night spectacle which you have seen. Do these photos resemble even slightly what you have seen? Not really? What should you do then to hypnotise someone watching your trophies?

  • First of all, you need some luck. Not every Aurora is incredibly intense and has an interesting shape from a photographic point of view. That’s the only thing which is completely beyond your power.

  • All right – let’s say you are lucky, the sky is cloudless, and the most fantastic Northern Lights are dancing in front of your eyes. What’s next? The most important advice which will take you to the next level – think about the foreground. The foreground can make your photo or destroy it. An interesting foreground can introduce a lot of life to your picture and make that it’s no longer just a simple registration of the phenomenon. So don’t aim your camera straight into the sky. Find something interesting, something which will build the composition. Many things can work here – a tent with a torch inside, a tiny Icelandic church, an abandoned farmhouse, a turf house, some rock formations or other landscape elements.

  • If you are really serious about photographing Northern Lights, it’s good to find an interesting motif in advance. Come when it’s not dark and plan the composition. It’s not so easy to work in the dark, and when it comes to the Aurora, you usually have to work quickly. It can appear in the part of the sky which suits your composition just for a while and then move on somewhere else. Don’t let it outsmart you!

  • Aperure f1.4 or f1.8 has a really shallow depth of field. It can happen that no matter what you do, the sky will be in focus, but the foreground completely out of focus. Especially if there is an object really close to the lens. The only thing you can do then is to take two exposures. One for the sky, and the other for the foreground. When you come back home, you just have to combine them in Photoshop.

What can come in handy?

  • Headlamp. You can’t overrate it when you are looking for a great spot or putting up your tripod. It should be in a bag of every Northern Lights hunter.

  • Powerful torch. Sometimes it can be useful when lighting a part of your composition. I used it to light the turf house which you can see at the top of the article. When you open the shutter, you just start to move the light around the object. This technique is called light painting.

  • Photo gloves or hunter’s gloves. They rescued my fingers against frostbite many times. You can uncover just the thumb and the forefinger, and these are the only fingers which you need to operate the camera buttons. When you aren’t photographing you can cover all the fingers. It was only when I came across them, that I started to love to photograph in the winter.

  • Thermos with hot tea.

  • Thick woolen socks. You can buy really warm socks in Iceland, made of icelandic wool. Of course you have to put on really warm clothes. Even when it’s around zero, you have to take clothes which are suitable for -10 °C (14 °F) or -15 °C (5 °F). Icelandic 0 °C (32 °F) is something completely different than you are used to.

Don’t give up if the results aren’t as jaw-dropping as you thought they would be. Great pictures of the Northern Lights are rarely taken on short trips when the opportunity arises. Often many days or even months pass between the idea and its realisation. But sometimes you can have a lot of luck – be in the right place at the right time. You come to the hotel, which is situated somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in the afternoon and it turns out that right next to it is a beautiful church or a turf house. The forecast says that at night you can expect a great show. And here it is! Once I came across an incredible spectacle when I went out from my tent at night just to pee 😉 Miracles happen.

We keep our fingers crossed for you. Don’t forget to share your trophies with all of us when you come back. Post your Aurora pictures on our Facebook page.

Have a look at the first part of our guide, where you can find everything you have to know to prepare for the Northern Lights hunting.

How to photograph Northern Lights? After reading our guide, you’ll never end up with a blank or blurry picture, and you’ll be on a good path to create something outstanding.

We saw these jaw-dropping Nothern Lights in the end of September in the Westfjords.

Book your Northern Lights Tour with our trusted partner – Iceland Premium Tours

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Comments (20)

Your photos are absolutely stunning! I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and being able to snap some nice photos of the experience would be amazing. Iceland is hopefully one of our next travel destinations, I have this post bookmarked for future reference!

Thank you Christie! 🙂

That’s a very helpful guide! It would be a pity to go hunting for northern lights and be unable to catch them on camera. I know that with guided tours, sometimes they guide you on how to take proper photos without ruining everything. That’s helpful as well, since not everyone is a good photographer!

I would love to be such a good photographer. But buying all the material is out of price… and I like to travel light enough. Therefore, I just have a FZ72 Panasonic Bridge and it does the job pretty well. But of course, it will never do so great pics in Iceland !

Thank you Lucile! You are right, the equipment is pretty heavy. But it’s still nothing when you compare it to 19th-century landscape photographers. They had to transport a tone of equipment 😉

Ok wow, now I feel woefully unprepared to ever shoot the Northern Lights. I need to learn more about aperture and ISO first. But great suggestion on bringing a headlamp to set up your tripod–I wouldn’t have thought of that (until I was there and needed it)!

Awesome post! I’ve never been much of a photographer and even running my blog, I always feel I as though have never really done any of my destinations justice. Certainly, I’ve always been amazed at how people catch these great snaps of the Northern Lights as any night sky shots I’ve ever attempted have just appeared as a dark smudge. This advice will really come in helpful when I finally make it to Norway in October

I think I would be so excited about catching these lights that I would have forgotten all the things that you have suggested. Am glad that I have a ready reckoner now to mindlessly pack it all before heading to catch these lights. I hope to do so sometime soon.

The photography tutorial is a next level thing. The whole article is the best read for even an amateaur who wants to capture the amazing phenomenon. I am definitely going to bookmark this.

Wow you really captured the northern lights so well!! Although I read long back about the concept of northern lights, I never thought it involves so much of technicalities to capture the same in your camera. I am glad you put it across for everyone’s benefit. I would have never thought of using my tripod and would have never known the right aperture settings

Thanks for the detailed guide on photographing the Northern lights. It’s on every travellers bucketlist and this really helps in planning well. I have bookmarked this guide for a later time 🙂

I usually don’t travel with a tripod but I would definitely need to get when I visit the Northern lights. I have found it hard to get any photos without noise in my previous camera but my current camera is definitely better. Still learning all the apertures and Iso ideal. But your tips will definitely come in handy.

I can’t thank enough for this fantastic guide. I have just come back from Finland and did not have the luck to spot Northern Lights. I am kind of jealous of you already , but thank you so much for this post. Its really helpful.

This will prove so helpful. Going all the way till there and not getting good pictures can be a disappointment. Unfortunately the only place one can practice northern light photography is only there.

Yes, this is what I was waitiing for. All those astro photographs includng nortehrn lights, start trails, and milky way are fascinating. But it takes some work to get them right. Thanks for ths guide.

Bookmarking and flipping this page as I know am gonna badly need this as we are planning a trip to Iceland in October this year. Hope to see Northern lights 🙂

Very useful article and some brilliant capture …

Thank you! Good luck in October then! 🙂

Seeing the Northern Lights would be a dream come true for me. But capturing them on camera to share with family and friends would be awesome as well, so thanks for these tips! I really need to invest in a sturdy tripod. Bookmarking this for the future 🙂

Okay, what about I just hire you to come with me and take the photos?! Ha, but seriously, this is a great guide and I’m bookmarking it for the future. I am not a professional photographer by any means but you break this down perfectly. Thank you for sharing!

Absolutely loved this post! Super useful for someone like me who is hoping to catch them sometime soon. However, to me the most interesting part was the first picture of the light from Norway!

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