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:
1. You need a tripod, and preferably one with a pan-tilt head or ball head because you’ll most often be pointing your camera straight up. To capture the Northern Lights, it’s necessary to take a long exposure (which we’ll get to in a minute), so it is absolutely necessary that your camera is perfectly still.
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 wool gloves with removable fingertips like Garlands Wool and Thinsulate Photographers Gloves, only expose your index fingers while keeping the rest of your hands toasty.
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 $20 and we use the RC-6 Wireless Remote Control for Canon 7D 60D 300D 350D 450D 500D 600D.
If you don’t want to invest in a remote shutter release, then we highly recommend that you use the timer function on your camera. This allows you to press the shutter button and for any jostling to settle before the shutter actually releases.
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 lowest setting (smallest f-number, i.e. 2.8 or lower). Exposure times should be between 20-40 seconds per picture. Make sure your flash is turned off and I highly recommend you use the view finder and not the LCD screen. Don’t use any filters because they will distort the natural beauty of the Northern Lights.
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.
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!
Have you captured the Northern Lights? What would you add for tips for photographing the Northern Lights?