How to Photograph Northern Lights in 10 Easy Steps
To successfully photograph northern lights is an incredibly rewarding life experience. It can also be fraught with challenges, which are broken down into 10 manageable steps here. Be sure to read Winter Photography Tips additional photography advice.
You will need
- To be at a high latitude (60º or more)
- A clear night (Zone Area Forecast) with active auroras (NOAA Spaceweather Prediction Center for forecasts, SpaceWeather.com for real-time data) and dark location away from artificial light
- Land features, such as mountains, rocks or treetops
- Camera with manual settings and ability to shoot at least at 3200 ISO with minimal noise
- Wide angle lens (14-35mm range with aperture opening to at least f/2.8 or wider)
- Remote or shutter cable release
- Sturdy tripod
- Several fully charged batteries
- Formatted memory card(s) with plenty of space
- Headlamp with infrared red (the less white light you use in the field the better. Light will mess up your night vision and interfere with exposures – which surrounding photographers won’t appreciate).
- Hand and foot warmers (these can also be used to keep batteries warm to prevent them discharging quickly in the cold)
- Appropriate clothing for the conditions, of course!
- Plastic ziplock bag large enough to fit camera and lens (before bringing your camera into a warm place after shooting, put it in the ziplock bag, seal, and leave until it warms up to room temperature. this will prevent condensation from building up on the electronics.
Prepare your camera in advance – in a warm, well-lit place.
- Manual shooting mode
- Manual focus
- Zoom out the lens to the shortest focal length (24mm or less)
- Shutter speed 10 seconds (this is a starting point, you will adjust shutter speed while shooting depending on how bright and active auroras are)
- Aperture at widest setting (f/2.8 or less)
- ISO 1600
- Timer at 2 second delay, or use remote shutter release (if using a release, set camera to “bulb” mode and manually keep shutter open from 1 to 20 seconds depending on how bright and active auroras are).
- Set focus at location. This needs to be done on site. Try setting lens to the infinity mark (if it has one), take a test shot, magnify the image to check sharpness (stars are the best indicator), and make adjustments in increments until you get the sharpest focus possible. On some camera models, live view + magnifier can be used to help set focus. If neither of these options are available on your camera, pick a starting point on the manual focus ring, take a test shot, magnify and review, adjust in small increments, and repeat until the image is in focus. When focus is locked in, tape down the focus ring so it stays there.
- Adjust White Balance as needed. Exposure settings for auroras will pick up even the dimmest ambient light coming from terrestrial sources, so there may be strange color casts in the image. Sometimes these contribute to the scene, sometimes not. To offset this in camera, try setting white balance to 2,800-5,000 kelvin. If shooting in RAW (which you should) leave white balance on auto and adjust color temperature and tint in post processing.
- Optimize the image in post processing. Photographing a quality image of the northern lights is only half the story. RAW, out-of-camera images often look flat, but there’s plenty of digital information contained in the file to work with in post. Open the files in a RAW processor such as Adobe Lightroom and follow this great tutorial, Basic Post Processing of an Aurora Photo by David Shaw to learn how to bring out their best.
Photographing northern lights reflecting in still water. This image was taken with a higher ISO to reduce shutter speed, in order to make it easier to capture a sharp image of a living subject.
Sony A7SII | FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM
4 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 3200
Check out Winter Photography Tips for additional photography advice.
Travel to ideal locations with an experienced aurora photography guide on the Anchorage Aurora Quest – to see and photograph northern lights. The guide will help set up your camera and take memorable aurora portraits of you under the lights.
Twilight Photo Tour is a fun way to explore the winter landscape around Anchorage. An Alaska Photo Treks guide will drive you to a variety of scenic locations and provide photographic support along the way.