How to photograph the Northern Lights. Best Setting and Tips to Capture Northern Lights Photos

The Northern Lights are complex and magnificent phenomena that shows up in the Polar Regions and attract people from all over the world, ready to face the dark and freezing polar nights to live this dream. Seeing and photographing the Northern Lights is surely one of life’s greatest experiences, the desire of many landscape photographers.

There are a few things that you need to know to capture these magical Northern Lights at their best…

There is a lot of misinformation about photography of the Northern Lights, especially when and where you can see them.

In addition to this, keep in mind that when you see them it is not as easy to photograph them as it may seem, this is caused by the low light conditions we find during the night and the difficulty in setting the camera according to the intensity of the Northern Lights.

Photographing the Northern Lights can be challenging even if you’re a night photographer master. It’s hard to be focused when the Aurora Borealis dances colorful and fast above you, the show is incredible and doesn’t give you time to think like you do with the Milky Way, because its dance doesn’t stop, it could end in a few seconds or continue for hours.

Northern Lights photo tour

Living inside the Arctic Circle, in the Lofoten Islands, I am lucky enough to live many nights under the dance of the Northern Lights. I have seen the rarest colors, such as red and blue, I have seen it create incredible shapes and I photographed it in many places where nature offers the best of itself.

In these years of experience I have learned a few tricks on how to best photograph the Northern Lights, and it is exactly this that I will share with you in this article.

I’m sure these tricks will help you capture the best Northern Lights photos.

Photography Tips: How and where to See the Northern Lights 

It is possible to see the Northern Lights (also called Aurora Borealis) in the Polar regions. In the Northern hemisphere and more precisely within the Arctic Circle, it is certainly easier to spot them than in the Southern hemisphere, where tourists and photographers will have difficulties due to the wild and hostile environment.

So you can consider a trip to the Far North, in all the lands that are under the Auroral oval.

Generally, when solar activity is weak, you need to go to higher latitudes to see the Northern Lights, for example: Lapland, Lofoten Islands, Iceland, northern Canada, Alaska. 

On the other hand, when solar activity is strong, the Northern Lights can reach lower latitudes, such as Southern Norway, Scotland, Ireland.

If you are planning a trip dreaming of photographing the Northern Lights, I recommend that you go to places where it is easier to see them, such as the Lofoten Islands, Iceland and Lapland.

The Northern Lights can manifest themselves at any time of day but are only visible during the hours of darkness. You must therefore consider that the Polar Regions are dominated by the midnight sun during the summer months. This means it never gets dark and therefore you are not able to see the Northern Lights.

You must plan your trip between the end of September and the end of March.

The Lofoten Islands, where I live, are located at 68 degrees north latitude and from the end of August until the end of April you will be able to see the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights photo tour: best tips

The more hours of darkness there are, the more chances you have of photographing the Northern Lights. So my advice is to plan your trip during the autumn or winter months as they are considerably darker and your chances will increase.

Once you have decided the destination of your trip, all you have to do is plan your hunt for the Northern Lights.

How to best plan your Northern Lights Photos

1. You need clear skies

First you need to check the sky because you need a clear sky

This is not a factor that should not be underestimated because in the Polar Regions it is easy to find hostile weather and with cloudy skies, snowstorms, rain and ice storms. 

You can do this by checking websites and apps based on where you are. 

One advice I want to give you is to never give up. You’ve traveled to the Far North, you’re making your dream come true, so get in the car and driving carefully, try to reach the best possible place under the sky. 

Remember that in these lands the weather can change very quickly, even every five minutes and, even when everything seems impossible, something special can happen.

2. Avoid cities and light sources

Go away from cities and light sources. 

In areas where light pollution is high, it is difficult to see and photograph the Northern Lights. 

You need to get away from big cities to darker places to get a better view of the night sky and enjoy the Northern Lights at their best.

3. You need solar activity

Don’t think that if the sky is clear, you will see the Aurora Borealis dancing. This is a huge misconception. 

I have received hundreds of questions over the years from disappointed people writing to me saying: the sky was clear but we didn’t see the Northern Lights! Maybe we were in the wrong place?

The answer is no, you were probably in the right place, but there was no solar activity.

The best way to know if there will be the Northern Lights, is to pay attention to the Aurora Forecast.

There are many important factors that affect the Northern Lights, including solar wind direction (Bz), Bt, solar wind speed and density, but more simply you can control the KP index.

The KP Index is the global geomagnetic activity index that is based on 3-hour measurements from ground-based magnetometers around the world. The KP index is determined with an algorithm that brings together the values reported by each station. The Kp-index ranges from 0 to 9 where a value of 0 means that there is very little geomagnetic activity and a value of 9 means extreme geomagnetic storming.

From the KP index you can get an idea of what you will be able to see.

At high latitudes you can see the Northern Lights even with a low KP index (KP 1 – 2).

The higher the KP index, the stronger and lower the Northern Lights will be in latitude, visible even from lands outside the Arctic Circle.

You can check solar activity and aurora forecasts in what I consider the best site for this https://spaceweather.com/ or in many apps, one of the best being AuroraAlerts.

So as you have read, it is not an easy thing to see the Northern Lights even if you are in the right place. There are many factors that must coincide with each other.

4. How to choose an excellent photographic spot

For good landscape photography it is not enough to photograph the Northern Lights but, you need to find a beautiful scene that complements your photographic composition.

In this case, if you don’t know the place, you can plan the shot with Google Earth and using the fantastic PhotoPills app.

When you are in the field, look for an interesting and strong first subject, such as ice, a lake, rocks, a beach where the Aurora is reflected and a snowy mountain in the background. This could be a perfect scene to make your Northern Lights shot captivating.

Keep in mind that your subject needs to face North where the lady in green will probably start dancing.

Northern Lights photo tour: tips and tricks

What to do once you are on the photographic spot?

You are in total or almost total darkness, in the middle of nature, in front of a dream scene and that moment comes, so you have to prepare your photographic equipment.

The camera equipment to photograph the Northern lights 

Quality photographic equipment makes all the difference in photographing the Northern Lights.

Here I will help you choose the right photography equipment to get the most out of your night photography.

1. Tripod

Don’t think about shooting handheld, to capture the Northern Lights it is essential to use a tripod and, when you are taking photographs in the Arctic, you absolutely must think of a stable and robust tripod because the wind often disturbs the scene.

So a stable tripod is essential for taking long exposures in these places.

I recommend a carbon tripod to have less vibrations caused by the wind and I recommend having steel spikes (stainless steel spikes) to have an excellent grip on icy, muddy and slippery terrain.

2. Remote shutter release

In the latest mirrorless cameras, you can exceed 30 seconds of exposure by changing settings directly from the camera but, in older cameras, you need a remote shutter release to do so. This allows you to exceed 30 seconds of exposure if you need it.

3. Wide angle and bright lens

To best photograph the Northern Lights you need a wide angle lens, for example 14 to 24 mm and with an aperture of at least f/2.8.

With the wide angle lens you can include both the landscape and a large part of the Northern Lights in one shot, creating a captivating scene.

The more the aperture is opened, the more light will reach your sensor, this means that the results will be better.

My main lens, which I call my faithful companion in all my adventures, is the Nikkor Z 14 – 24 f2.8, a jewel for night photography.

Always remember that the focus must be manual when shooting at night, so set the manual focus mode on both the lens and the camera.

4. Camera 

To photograph the Northern Lights a good sensor makes the difference and now I’ll explain why:

The Northern lights can move very fast in the black sky and you, to capture them at their best, you will need an exposure of 1 or 2 seconds and this means increasing the ISO and consequently the digital noise.

By lengthening the exposure time, you will get a completely green sky, the Northern Lights will lose their shapes and have burnt areas.

In this case a good sensor that can go to higher ISOs without major digital noise problems makes a big difference. The better the camera handles high ISOs, the better the result will be.

Don’t worry, you will be able to capture good shots of the Northern Lights even with entry level cameras, the result will be lower quality and higher digital noise, but you will still get your shot.

Always remember that when we talk about night photography you must always use your camera in manual mode. This means that you can manually manage the 3 parameters that affect exposure: ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

Setting and camera techniques

In the link below you will find the most technical part: how to set the camera when we are under the Northern Lights.

This simple manual will help you to capture some crazy photos in the Northern Lights.

Keep yourself warm and I wish you a good light!

The author

Giulio Cobianchi

Hello, I am Giulio Cobianchi, a full-time landscape photographer and co-founder of Gotophototour. Passionate about travel and photography, especially nightscapes photography, I enjoy combining these two elements by exploring and capturing landscapes where wild nature shines at its best. Through Gotophototour, I can pursue my passion, share it with others, and guide them to discover and immortalize the most fascinating places in the world.
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