As winter approaches, many of you might be planning a trip far up north to witness the magical spectacle that is the northern lights. These shimmering, dancing waves of light are surreal, and certainly a sight worth capturing! If you’re also planning on bringing your camera, check out these tips for the best shot at capturing the northern lights.
Look for dark skies: you will want to scout ahead of time to find a location that is suitably dark and isn’t polluted with atmospheric light. Look for a nice, dark field with a foreground that will complement your shot, such as a forest of pine trees or dramatic mountain ranges that will turn up as beautiful silhouettes.
We recommend using the Blue Marble Light Pollution Map to check if your chosen location is dark enough.
Look for clear skies: unlike astrophotography, you can still get decent shots of the northern lights even with a little cloud cover, at up to 30%. Check ahead on websites or apps to see what the cloud cover will be like for the night you plan to shoot, and adjust your shooting schedule accordingly.
You can use this website to check for cloud cover.
Check for aurora activity: all the planning in the world will be moot if there isn’t any activity! On the day of your shoot, check the northern light activity by looking at the Kp-Index, which ranges from 0-9, with 0 being low activity and 9 the highest.
We suggest using this website.
Once you’ve determined the best day to shoot, make sure you’re suitably geared up with the following must-haves.
Tripod: a sturdy tripod is a must, as you’ll be leaving your shutter open for longer exposures (at least 10-20 seconds). In the cold weather, you’ll want a tripod that is either made for low temperatures, or outfitted with leg warmers so that you can carry them around comfortably.
Not sure if your tripod is suitable? Read our guide on winter photography accessories.
Remote release: the best way to ensure zero camera shake is to use a remote shutter release.
Full frame DSLR camera: a full frame camera with high ISO capabilities will allow you to easily shoot the northern lights without too much noise, resulting in overall better photos/
A wide angle lens: your shots will look a lot more dramatic when you have more of the scene in your frame, with the northern lights providing a magnificent backdrop. Ensure that your chosen lens has a minimum f-stop value of f/2.8-f/4
Several fully charged batteries: batteries deplete significantly faster in colder temperatures, so ensure you have a few fully charged spares with you out in the field – you don’t want to miss a single moment of this grand spectacle! Keep the batteries warm by storing them in your jacket’s internal pockets, close to your body.
Time to shoot
Now that you are all ready, here’s how you’re going to perfectly capture the northern lights.
Focusing: it is notoriously hard to focus at night, but with a bit of practice, you’ll nail it easily. As the northern lights and stars are far away, you can focus at infinity and obtain sharp focus. Look for the ∞ symbol on your lens, then using Live View, zoom in and focus on the furthest horizon in your composition. Take a couple of practice shots to ensure your entire image is in focus.
RAW: always, always shoot in RAW, as this allows you a higher degree of manipulation in post-process, which is important for northern lights photography. Chances are, your white balance will be off, but shooting in RAW allows you to easily tweak this later on.
Aperture: open your aperture as wide as it can go, or to f/2.8, and you should be good to go! By allowing more light into your camera, you can keep your ISO at a lower value, which will reduce the amount of noise in your shot.
Shutter speed: you will need to adjust your shutter speed as the strength of the lights will change throughout the course of the night, but a good place to start would be 20 seconds. In general, 15-30 seconds work for soft lights, and 1-6 seconds for stronger lights.
ISO: try ISO 400-800 with a couple of practice shots, and gradually work your way up to 1200 and see which combination of settings work best.
Remember, experimentation is key, and don’t be disheartened if you don’t get the shots you want on the first try. Keep going, and happy shooting!