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How to Take Pictures of the Northern Lights

    Updated: 29th January 2024

    Northern lights, Iceland
    Credit: Tony Armstrong-Sly

    Capturing the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a dream for many photographers. These mesmerising natural light displays paint the polar skies with vibrant hues, from vivid greens to purples and pinks. To successfully photograph this celestial spectacle, you’ll need to understand the interplay of location, timing, and camera settings. With patience and preparation, you can take home stunning images of this natural wonder.

    Understanding the right camera setup is crucial for Northern Lights photography. Settings such as aperture, ISO, and shutter speed must be carefully balanced to capture the lights effectively. Venturing into areas with little to no light pollution will greatly enhance the vibrancy of the auroras in your photos. It’s also important to dress appropriately for the cold, as you might find yourself waiting for the perfect moment in chilly environments.

    Familiarising yourself with weather patterns and geomagnetic activity will give you a better shot at predicting when the Northern Lights will appear. Several websites provide forecasts and advice on the best places to capture the Northern Lights, which are generally closer to the Arctic Circle. Being at the right place at the right time, combined with the correct camera setup, will vastly improve your chances of taking mesmerising photos.

    Preparing for Your Photography Trip

    Embarking on a journey to capture the ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights requires careful preparation. The right equipment and a well-thought-out plan are crucial to a successful photography experience.

    Choosing the Right Camera Equipment

    Your camera is your most critical tool for Northern Lights photography. Opt for a DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of manual mode to give you full control over the exposure settings. A fast, wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider will allow more light onto your camera sensor, which is vital in low-light conditions.

    • Camera Body: DSLR or mirrorless with manual mode
    • Lens: Wide-angle, fast lens (f/2.8 or wider)

    Essential Accessories for Night Photography

    A sturdy tripod is non-negotiable; it will prevent camera shake during long exposures. Also, a remote shutter release may be handy to further reduce the likelihood of blurring your shots.

    • Tripod: Sturdy, with a smooth head
    • Remote Shutter Release: Wired or wireless

    Planning Your Destination

    Your destination impacts the quality of your Northern Lights photographs. Look for areas with minimal light pollution and a clear view of the sky. Places within the Northern Lights belt, such as Iceland or Norway, offer more frequent sightings of the aurora.

    • Light Pollution: Minimal
    • Geographical Location: Within the Northern Lights belt (Iceland, Norway, etc.)

    Understanding Weather Conditions

    Clear, dark skies are essential for photographing the Northern Lights. Check local weather and aurora forecasts frequently as they can change rapidly.

    • Sky Clarity: Clear, no clouds
    • Aurora Forecast: Check local predictions

    By selecting suitable equipment, ensuring you have the right accessories, carefully picking a destination, and staying vigilant about weather conditions, you’re setting yourself up for a potentially rewarding night of photography under the Aurora Borealis.

    Camera Settings for Aurora Photography

    Capturing the Northern Lights requires specific camera settings due to its low light and moving nature. Mastering manual mode and adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture accordingly will give you the best results.

    Manual Mode Basics

    In manual mode, you control the camera’s shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This gives you the ability to fine-tune exposure based on the aurora’s intensity, which can vary significantly. Start by setting your camera to manual mode to have complete control over the capture process.

    ISO Settings

    For Northern Lights photography, you‘ll need to increase your ISO to capture the faint glow. A setting between ISO 3200 and ISO 8000 is often recommended, but be wary of going too high as this can introduce noise to your photos. Experiment with your camera’s ISO capabilities to find the sweet spot that provides ample light sensitivity without compromising image quality.

    Shutter Speed

    When it comes to shutter speed, aim for the range of 5 to 10 seconds. This allows you to capture enough movement of the lights without blurring. Keep in mind that if the aurora is very active, you may need to opt for a faster shutter speed to capture the details.


    Use a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible – f/2.8 is ideal, but if your lens doesn’t go that low, use the widest aperture available to you. This setting is critical as it influences the sharpness and depth of the resulting photograph.

    Composition and Technique

    To capture the ethereal dance of the Northern Lights, both composition and technique are absolutely essential. It’s about framing the lights, mastering low light focus, creatively using the foreground, and handling long exposures.

    Framing the Aurora

    When photographing the Aurora Borealis, locating the lights in the context of the landscape is crucial. Start by identifying a strong, engaging vantage point. Your shot could be improved dramatically by where to photograph the Northern Lights, such as from the northern latitude regions known for clearer skies and darker nights, providing a spectacular backdrop for the aurora.

    Focusing in Low Light

    Focusing can be tricky in low light conditions, so manually set your focus to infinity to ensure sharpness in the stars and aurora. It may be helpful to find a distant light or the most luminous star to set your focus before the aurora appears.

    Using Foreground Elements

    Incorporate elements in the foreground to add depth to your images. An interesting silhouette, a reflection off a frozen lake, or snowy undulations can all serve as composition is key. These elements help to create a sense of place and scale, making the lights even more majestic.

    Long Exposure Tips

    Utilising a long exposure is paramount to capturing the Northern Lights. Set your shutter speed between 5 to 30 seconds to allow enough light in, but be wary of exposures that are too long, as they can lead to blurry lights if the aurora is moving quickly. For clearer shots, use a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release or your camera’s timer to avoid any shake.


    After capturing the celestial dance of the Northern Lights with your camera, post-processing is an essential step to bring out the vibrancy and drama of the aurora. This phase allows you to refine exposure, enhance colours, and reduce noise for a stunning final image.

    Editing Software Options

    There are several software options for editing your Northern Lights photos. You might consider Adobe Lightroom for its user-friendly interface and powerful adjustment tools. For more advanced editing, Adobe Photoshop offers detailed manipulation capabilities. Editing Auroras: How to Post-Process Your Northern Lights Photos provides insights into using these tools effectively.

    Adjusting Exposure and Colours

    Begin by adjusting the exposure to ensure your photo isn’t too dark or overexposed. Playing with the contrast can help make the lights pop against the night sky. Adjusting the colour balance is crucial; you’ll often need to increase the vibrance and saturation to accurately depict the aurora’s colours. For a detailed guide, consider the tips provided in The Ultimate Northern Lights Guide to Forecasting, Shooting, and Post Processing.

    Noise Reduction Techniques

    Reducing noise is imperative, especially when dealing with higher ISO settings that are often used during night photography. Most editing software includes noise reduction tools. It’s essential to find a balance—too much noise reduction can lead to a loss of detail. For more in-depth techniques, visit How to Edit Northern Lights Photos which offers specific advice on achieving the best results.

    Take a look at our handy guide on the best places to see the Northern Lights!

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