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Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

Mysterious and elusive, the Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular natural shows on earth. With senior NASA scientists predicting the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, will be the best in a decade as the sun reaches its solar maximum in its 11-year cycle, more and more people are booking trips to the Arctic in hopes of seeing the lights dance across the sky like oil in lava lamp. But seeing the Northern Lights isn’t enough; witnesses to this amazing phenomenon hope to capture it forever on their cameras to show friends back home. We get it! We’ve spent countless nights waiting for the Aurora to dance and have been lucky enough to capture it several times in Iceland, Norway, and Finland over the last two years. We’ve already shared 5 Things No One Ever Tells You About the Northern Lights, and now we’re sharing these tips for photographing the Northern Lights:

Northern Lights over Myvatn, Iceland

Northern Lights over Myvatn, Iceland

1. You need a tripod, and preferably a sturdy one as when you’re shooting the Northern Lights it will be dark and probably cold and windy. Plus to get that perfect foreground you are looking for, you may not be on flat and level terrain. Since we are always on the go, we needed a travel friendly tripod. We use the Slik Sprint 150 tripod, it only weighs about 2lbs and folds down to 20″ so it fits inside or strapped to my backpack. A nice feature is the bubble level on the ball head so you can see if your horizon is level. An alternate is the Slik Sprint Mini tripod which folds down to just over one foot so you have no excuse for not being able to bring the tripod.

Northern Lights Lapland

Northern Lights low on the horizon in Lapland, Finland

2. Keep your hands from being exposed to the elements. Weather in the Arctic during Northern Lights season, which is basically September – March, is not only cold, but often windy. You’ll likely be outside for long periods of time and you want to keep yourself from being exposed to the elements as much as possible. This includes your hands. Have you ever tried to work your camera while wearing thick gloves? It’s not easy and constantly taking your gloves off isn’t ideal. A pair of fleece gloves with removable fingertips like Freehands Photographers Gloves, only expose your index fingers while keeping the rest of your hands toasty.

Northern Lights Iceland

Northern Lights in Keflavik, Iceland

3. Invest in a remote shutter release. Even just pressing the shutter button on your camera can jostle it, so invest in a remote shutter release that allows you to trigger your camera without touching it. A remote shutter release is also great for taking photos of yourself, so you’ll use it for more than just your trip to the Arctic. These are affordable at around $10 and we use the Amazon Basics Wireless Remote Control for Canon models. So you forgot to buy this before your trip, don’t worry just use the cameras self-timer.  The 2-second self time does just fine and gives the camera enough time after you hit the shutter button.

Northern Lights Iceland

Northern Lights in Keflavik, Iceland

4. You don’t need an expensive camera, but you do need one with manual settings. Set your camera on manual focus with an ISO of 800 or higher. Set the aperture to the widest setting (smallest f-number, i.e. 2.8 or whater your lens can handle). The smaller the f-number the more light the lens lets in, this is key for capturing the northern lights. Investing in a quality wide angle lens like the Tokina 11-16mm will enable you to capture some great shots. Plus the wide angle is great for other landscape shots or in big cities to capture large buildings. Your camera probably won’t be able to focus at night, so pick out the furthest thing your camera will focus on (maybe that barn or house in the distance, then set the lens to manual focus and be sure not to bump the focus ring. Last, set your shutter speed to somewhere between 5-30 seconds. I usually start with 20 seconds and work up or down from there.  If the lights are bright and moving fast, you may need a shorter time, if they are dim and slow then longer.

We used two cameras to capture Northern Lights photography: our Canon EOS 7D Digital SLR and our Canon PowerShot S90. For those not wanting a heavy camera, try the new Sony NEX-6L/B, compact and small but yet DSLR quality pictures.

Northern Lights Norway

Northern Lights with a full moon and clouds in Tromso, Norway

5. Keep light pollution to a minimum. Keep in mind that, especially if you are on a Northern Lights tour, that light sources such as your LCD screen, accidental flash, and even iPhone or other smartphone screens can not only damage your Northern Lights exposure, but also the photographs of others on your tour. Set your camera on the proper settings before heading out on your tour.

Icelandic horses under the Northern Lights

Icelandic horses under the Northern Lights

6. When possible, include a foreground. Try to capture the Northern Lights reflecting on a lake, frame them with trees, or find an interesting subject to photograph them with. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a lot of different compositions! Scout the area around you during the daytime, so when you finish dinner and run outside and see the lights dancing around you know the location you want to set-up in.

Have you captured the Northern Lights? What would you add for tips for photographing the Northern Lights?

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. When you purchase anything on Amazon through our affiliate site, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. It just helps us keep things running here at Jdomb’s Travels!

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter who is based in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and communications strategist and is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Jdomb's Travels was named one of the top travel blogs to watch by the Huffington Post and has been featured by top publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed , and The Telegraph. Her iPhoneograpy has also been featured on publications such as USA Today and Travel + Leisure. Google+

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42 comments

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  1. Jordan

    Awesome tips. It’s been on my list for years. Thanks for sharing.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    This is the year! They’ve already been spotted in Canada and Iceland just last week. Hope you get a chance to see the Northern Lights, Jordan!

    [Reply]

  2. Ellen Christian

    Love these tips. I have a Canon T2i and I am still working on learning how to use it properly!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Ellen! That is a nice camera. The best tip I have is to read the booklet for your camera. And then just experiment! If you don’t like a shot, just erase and try something else. You know what they say – practice makes perfect. :)

    [Reply]

  3. Amy | Club Narwhal

    These are great photo tips! Also, I am quite jealous that you got to experience the Northern Lights in person–what a fantastic thing! I like the idea to capture the foreground (and love that photo)!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Amy! I think we’re addicted to the Northern Lights. We’re always trying to sneak in one more trip to see them.

    [Reply]

  4. Joyce

    Beautiful photos, the Northern Lights have always been so incredibly fascinating! Thank you for these tips-
    Jemma

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks Jemma! They are fascinating. I never get tired of looking at Northern Lights photos.

    [Reply]

  5. Derek

    Thanks for all the tips! I definitely need a better camera before I check this one off my bucket list ;)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    You never know! We’ve had a couple Canon DSLRs now and they aren’t too fond of the cold.

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  6. This Way To Paradise

    Gorgeous pictures and thanks for the tips!

    [Reply]

  7. Abby

    Something I’ve always wanted to see — let alone learn how to photograph!!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Hope you get to see them, Abby! And now you’ll have some tips to help you out with photographing them.

    [Reply]

  8. Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans

    Seeing the Northern Lights is an experience that’s definitely at the top of my bucket list! These are great tips – I especially like the tip about the gloves and the remote shutter release. Thanks for sharing. And I love the pic with the horses in the foreground!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Dana! Those poor horses had strategically positioned themselves against a nasty wind, which just happened to be perfect for our photo.

    [Reply]

  9. noel

    All excellent tips, I especially like the one about using things in the foreground or framing the image with other things so you get and great DOF, depth of field to the exposure. Nice job!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Noel! There isn’t always an interesting foreground. And sometimes it is just neat to zoom in on an Aurora. If they dance long enough, it is fun to experiment with composition.

    [Reply]

  10. Ruth Kelly

    Thanks for all the tips.

    [Reply]

  11. Dexter

    Photography is a important passion to me. I’m being learning how to do photography professionally. This post shared tips are very effective for good photographing. I’m pleased to learn these tips. I’ve never visited Northern Lights Iceland because I live far away from that country but such amazing views at night and day of those places really made me convinced to visit there someday soon. Thanks.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Glad to hear you found the tips helpful, Dexter, and that we’ve inspired you to visit the Arctic.

    [Reply]

  12. Heather

    Great tips! Seeing the Northern Lights has been near the top of my bucket list for a while. I’m hoping we’ll get to see them once we’re settled in Latvia and exploring that part of the world. I’ll have to file this post away for reference :-)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Oh, when you move to Latvia, you’ll be close to be able to easily pop up north when the forecast is predicting strong activity. Lucky girl!

    [Reply]

  13. Ali

    I’ll see those lights someday! Great tips!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Maybe try the glass igloos in Finland! I would to be able to see Northern Lights minus the extreme cold.

    [Reply]

  14. Bethany

    Great tips Jen! Never thought about how cold it would be or the LCD screen lights! Although i think if I was shooting I’d try to drop my ISO and increase my decrease my aperture to like an f/8 (get more in focus) and then drag my shutter longer. But it just all depends on the scene. Love your shots!!!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    That’s the great thing about photography – you can experiment! The Northern Lights are easiest to capture when they are slow moving, though they aren’t as interesting to the naked eye then. Fast moving, which is typical, is a bit harder.

    [Reply]

  15. Jdomb's Travels

    Hope you find them helpful and you get a chance to see the Northern Lights, Ruth!

    [Reply]

  16. Jdomb's Travels

    They aren't warm, but the Arctic has some gorgeous beaches to visit too!

    [Reply]

  17. Elle-Rose Williams

    It’s always been one of my bucket list items to see the Northern Lights – this blog post has just made my feet even more itchy! Thanks so much for sharing! The photos are gorgeous x

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Elle-Rose! Hope you get a chance to see them. They really are amazing and totally entrancing to see in person.

    [Reply]

  18. Joyce

    Hi Jennifer

    I’m interested to go to Norway for the Northern Lights but I’m not sure if a 4/3 camera with wide range of ISO is good enough to capture the Northern Lights. Hope you can give me come advice.

    Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Hi Joyce! I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but the main disadvantage of a 4/3 camera is the reduction in incoming light hitting the light sensitive part of each pixel of the sensor. I think whether the pictures would turn out would be dependent on the strength of the aurora, but you’ll be left with really grainy photos.

    [Reply]

  19. Mandy

    What excellent advice Jennifer. I haven’t seen the Northern Lights yet and have to admit to being more than a little bit envious that you’ve seen them on several occasions. Your photos are gorgeous and I can see why you suggest including a foreground. I must use these tips next time I try to capture the moon – it never works!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Mandy! I definitely think these tips can also apply to photographing the moon. The best photos of the moon I usually see are very zoomed in or ones that include some sort of foreground. Give it a shot and we’d love for you to share the results with us!

    [Reply]

  20. Emily

    This is wonderful advice, thank you! My fiance and I will be going to Iceland for our honeymoon over New Years and we hope to see the Northern Lights.

    And, your photos are stunning!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    What a great time to visit Iceland. Congratulations Emily and enjoy your honeymoon there!

    [Reply]

  21. lovelei

    Hi, Your photos of the norhern lights are amazing. I am going this February & I was wondering what settings did you use for the S90? I currently have a canon s100 and if I can be able to use that camera instead of getting an SLR, it would be great. I know the s100 and the s90 are similar so maybe the settings you use for s90 would work for the s100? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Hi Lovelei! You’ll have a great trip!

    Check out our post on Photographing the Northern Lights. Not only do we discuss the settings and exposure time, but give you over tips for taking great Northern Lights photos too. Let us know if you have other questions after reading the post!

    http://jdombstravels.com/tips-for-photographing-northern-lights/

    [Reply]

  22. scott

    Good tips. But I would add that the aperture setting has to do with the lens, not the camera. You need a fast wide angle lens that will preferably allow you to set the aperture as low as 2.8. You want a wide angle so that you can capture as much of the sky as possible. Wide angles also allow you to have a lot of depth of field so that everything will be in focus at an f stop as low as 2.8. You’ll also need a decent enough SLR that can take pictures at high ISO speeds with minimal noise. And one of the most important tips is to prefocus your lens in the daytime and then switch to manual. You will have a hard time focusing at night while the lights are out.

    [Reply]

  23. Kj

    Hi, very informative post!! My husband and me are planning to travel to Reykjavik in November, 2014. Do you think we can get good pictures of Northern light with canon sx 510 in manual settings and mini tripod?

    [Reply]

    kj Reply:

    Awaiting your response.. Kindly help

    [Reply]

    Tim Davis Reply:

    It looks like Canon SX510 should be able to work for you. The fastest aperture at wide angle is F/3.4 for that camera, My current set-up is F/2.8 but I’ve used F/4.0 as well so it should work. Practice taking pictures at night now. Put it on manual and set the manual focus on infinity or focus in on the furthest away object you can see, set the shutter speed to the max which is 15 seconds from what I’ve read and bump up the ISO between 1600 and 3200. Now try that out at night, if the picture is too bright you can lower the ISO and shutter speed a bit. The biggest thing is learning the controls now, not when it’s freezing out with a 30mph wind in Iceland. Test the mini tripod out with these test night pictures. It’s not ideal but I’ve managed to make them work and the SX510 is much lighter than a DSLR.

    [Reply]

  24. Soumitra

    Hi… My wife and I are planning a trip to Tromso (Norway) in September 2014… Keeping my fingers crossed hoping for a sighting then (the new moon is on the 24th).. Loved your tips on taking pictures… Might have to buy some equipment to make my Canon 1000D usable to capture some memories… If at all I get lucky that is!

    [Reply]

  25. Jade

    Great tips! We spent a week in Iceland last year, but unfortunately we had no Northern Lights during that trip

    [Reply]

  26. Janet

    I have a Canon Rebel T3… Can you tell me step by step what I need to do with this camera to take night shots? Northern lights? I try so many things but I press the shutter button and it won’t ever click a pic!:( so confused

    [Reply]

    Tim Davis Reply:

    Janet the most likely culprit for not being able to take night photos is the lens not being on manual focus. When taking night pictures with an open landscape like the sky you need to set the focus to infiniti or focus to the furthest object you can, then switch the lens over to manual focus and try not to bump the focus ring. Give that a shot and let us know.

    [Reply]

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