How To Photograph The Northern Lights

How To Photograph The Northern Lights For Beginners

This article will teach you some basic camera settings for shooting the northern lights, as well as give you some tips and more extensive techniques and ideas to deliver a fantastic photograph.

Chris Attrell will be hosting night photography classes across Sask, Alberta & Manitoba this fall.

Basic Camera Settings (with a kit lens)

  • ISO: 1,600
  • Exposure Time: 6 -10 Seconds Exposure
  • Aperture f/3.5

* If photo is still too dark, increase exposure time or increase ISO to 3200

Camera Basic Settings With A Wide Angle Lens

  • ISO: 1600
  • Exposure Time: 2-6 Seconds Exposure
  • Aperture f2.8
  • Try to keep exposure time as short as possible to keep the detail of the aurora.

Recommended Equipment

  • Almost any digital camera that allows M (manual) or Bulb shooting.
  • Tripod (ball-head is really nice)
  • A wide angle lens with at least 2.8 f/stop (Tokina 11mm-16mm is popular)
  • A bright flashlight so you can see what you are doing.

Focusing

This can be tricky at night. If you know how to set your lens to infinity, go ahead and do that.

If you do not know how, put your lens on manual focus and find any star, moon, light etc. to focus on. My camera has ‘Live View’ (Nikon) so I watch on my viewfinder and zoom in 3 steps.

Once focused, gently move your camera into position to capture northern lights.

Always shoot with manual focus! It may seem difficult at first, but soon you will be a pro!

Location

It is a good idea to know where you are going before you head out at night. A location with an interesting foreground adds a lot of value to your photos. A lone tree, a lake, mountains, a cool building etc. add interest to the photo.

Further, it is recommended that you choose a spot without a lot of light pollution around you.

Scout locations in advance and you will be very glad you didn’t have to search in the dark!

More Tips:

  • Remove filters from your lens.
  • Try using a release cable instead of using shutter button.
  • Cold temps and long exposures drain batteries fast. Bring an extra one.
  • Try not to go above 1,600 ISO to reduce digital noise. 3,200 if your camera is newer.
  • Shoot in .RAW so you can make more adjustments in Lightroom or other image editing software later.
  • Bring a flashlight.  Trust me, it is not fun if you forget it. Cell phone flashlights just aren’t good enough.
  • There are numerous apps to notify you when auroras are out. Aurorawatch.ca is a website that has live graph as well.
  • Northern lights are mostly in the north. I thought I would mention that; I have been asked twice where to look.

Aurora shows vary in color and intensity. It is worth adjusting and experimenting to adopt to the display you are experiencing. The more intense the show, the less ISO or exposure time.

Resources

By Chris Attrell

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