Shoot Recipe | Photographing Northern Lights
Photographing northern lights is a pursuit of contradictions.
It’s easy and difficult, exciting and tedious, disappointing and wildly rewarding. Preparation for successful winter shoots is covered in Part I of this series, 4 Tips for Great Winter Photography in Alaska. This installment covers a special kind of photography skill; how to photograph northern lights.
You will need
- to be at a high latitude (60º or more)
- a clear night with active auroras and a location away from light pollution (see SpaceWeather.com or Geophysical Institute)
- land features, such as mountains, rocks or treetops
- camera with manual settings and ability to shoot at least at 3000 ISO with minimal noise
- wide angle lens (16-35mm range with aperture opening to at least f/4 or wider)
- remote or shutter cable release
- sturdy tripod
- several fully charged batteries
Focusing is the most difficult part of night sky photography. Autofocus is designed to work on well-lit scenes with high contrast, neither of which is abundantly available in the evening sky. You can try setting the lens to infinity, but this doesn’t always guarantee a sharp image. Here are several methods used to get the sharpest focus:
- Set focus to manual and turn the lens to the infinity mark. Then, use either live view or viewfinder and the focus ring to sharpen the image by targeting either the furthest object on the horizon, the moon or a bright star.
- Show up to the location during daytime and set focus. Use tape on the lens to mark the sharpest focus point close to infinity.
- Use a flashlight to sharpen focus on a foreground subject, such as a rock or tree. With the help of a depth-of-field calculator, choose focal length and distance-to-subject ratios to yield sharp focus from the near subject to infinity. I prefer this method because I usually like to show foreground objects in the scene.
Once focus is set, put the camera in manual mode and open the aperture as wide as the lens will allow. Start with ISO 1600. Set shutter speed to “bulb” and use the shutter release cable or remote. If the northern lights are active, try exposures at 4-10 seconds. When they’re lazy, hold the shutter open 12-30 seconds. If the results are too dark, dial your ISO up in increments, along with longer exposures times until you get good results. Alternately, if you don’t have a remote release, you can set the timer so the camera is stabilized when the shutter releases, and set the shutter speeds manually. Remember to turn off any lens stabilization systems since you will be shooting from a tripod.
Since these exposure settings will also pick up even the dimmest ambient light coming from terrestrial sources, there will likely be unnatural colors in the image. Sometimes these contribute to the scene, sometimes they don’t. To offset this in camera, try setting the white balance at 2,800-5,000 kelvin. If shooting in RAW (which you should be) you can also just leave the white balance on auto and adjust color temperature and tint in post processing.
Photographing a quality image of the northern lights is only half the story. RAW, out-of-camera images often look drab, but there’s plenty of information available in the file to bring them to life. 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 release their magic.
Photographing Auroras in 11 Easy Steps
- Manual shoot mode
- Manual focus
- Turn lens to infinity mark
- Turn off lens stabilizer if your lens has it.
- ISO 1600
- Aperture f/2.8 – f/4
- Shutter Speed 6″ – 10″ (seconds)
- Set camera to timer if you don’t have a shutter release cable.
- Put camera on tripod.
- Take a few shots of the night sky and magnify the image to see how sharp the stars are. Make adjustments to focus accordingly.
- Make adjustments to Shutter Speed and ISO according to results.
Anchorage Aurora Quest is a fun way to learn how to photograph northern lights with the help of an Alaskan, professional photographer guide. The tour runs only when conditions are prime, and includes Anchorage area pickup and shuttle in a warm and comfortable tour van to a scenic aurora viewing location.