The more I talk to people about my experience chasing the Northern Lights in Canada, the more often I hear wistful comments about how “Oh that's on my bucket list!”
Seeing the aurora borealis dance in the northern skies is apparently high on many people's “things-to-do-before-I-die” lists. And rightly so – the phenomenon is incredible to witness.
But, chances are, if you want to see the Northern Lights, you also want some sort of proof that you've seen them.
The good news is that, with the advancement of camera technology, photographing the Northern Lights is becoming increasingly easier these days. But that doesn't mean there aren't tricks to taking great photos of the aurora.
Here are some tips to help ensure that you, too, come home with Northern Lights shots that will make all your friends jealous:
What you'll need to photograph the Northern Lights:
Obviously you will need a camera to capture the Northern Lights. While fancy DSLR cameras will undoubtedly have the ability to capture great images, you don't necessarily need expensive equipment to get decent shots. I was shooting with an Olympus E-P2 (a mirrorless model in Olympus' PEN line) with a 14-45mm and a 17mm lens and got great shots. Others were photographing with point-and-shoot cameras and also got decent images. These days, I would recommend the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with a 12-40mm Pro lens, which is my current setup.
The key is that you ideally need to be able to adjust things like shutter speed and focus on your camera – meaning having a “manual mode” on your camera is vital.
You will be taking long exposures when photographing the Northern Lights – usually anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. You don't want to be holding your camera during these shots, as even the slightest movement can cause blurring. A tripod, therefore, is pretty much essential. I recommend the VEO 235AB by Vanguard, as it's very sturdy, yet travel-friendly.
(Though, if you don't have one, setting your camera down on a solid surface can also work in some cases.)
A shutter release/timer
As mentioned above, any contact with your camera during a shot can cause the image to blur and appear out of focus. Even just pressing the shutter to initiate a shot can cause unwanted motion. A remote shutter release, therefore, is probably worth investing in so that you can release the shutter without any contact with your camera (I have an Olympus cable release that worked wonderfully).
If you don't want to buy a shutter release just for a few photos, however, make use of any timer setting your camera may have. Most cameras have the ability to be set on a timer (mine has a 2-second and 12-second timer option). Set your shots on a 2-second delay, which should give your camera enough time to stop moving after you press the shutter button before the shot is actually taken.
Camera settings for photographing the Northern Lights
Assuming your camera allows you to manually set all options, here are settings suggestions that worked for me:
If your camera gives you the ability to manually set your focus, do so and set your focus to infinity. Why? Because the Lights will be far away and sometimes not especially distinct. If you have auto-focus on, your camera won't know what to focus on and may just not take a photo at all.
Most camera lenses these days can focus on “infinity,” and many even have a little mark or notch denoting where infinity is. My Olympus and Zukio lenses, unfortunately, do not have these markings. For me, therefore, it was a bit trickier to get my focus right. I tried a few different options: the first night, I played around with my focus ring, attempting to focus on stars or far-away trees once I was out on the tundra. Not ideal, though, to be fumbling around with buttons in the dark. The second night, I took my camera out before nightfall. With my camera set to auto-focus, I focused on a lamp post at the very end of the street. I then got a piece of masking tape, and noted where my focus was set. I then switched my camera on to manual focus, and voila! my focus was automatically set on infinity (or at least “very-far-away”).
Getting the focus right can be the trickiest part of photographing the Northern Lights. As you take shots, be sure to zoom in on your photos in your camera's review mode to see if your shots are coming out clear. There's no worse feeling than taking photos in the cold for 3 hours, only to realize the next morning that they are all out of focus!
In order to capture faint lights in the dark, you need to take a long exposure. The length of exposure will depend on a lot of things – how bright the aurora is, how open your aperture is, how high your ISO is, and of course the effect you want in your photos.
Anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds can work for Northern Lights exposures. My best shots were taken at about 25-30 seconds.
In general, you want your aperture to be as open as possible (meaning the lowest number possible) for Northern Lights photos. I used my 17mm lens because it allows for a 2.8 f-stop – which lets in a lot of light. (My 14-45mm lens, in contrast, only goes down to an f-stop of 3.5.)
A photographer in our group suggested using one f-stop up from the widest setting on your camera. My best shots were at an F2.8 and F4.0.
ISO relates to how sensitive your film (or, in this case, your digital sensor) is to light. A higher ISO will pick up on more light. One would assume that you would want to set your ISO to the highest setting possible to capture the aurora. This makes sense, but is not always ideal in practice. Because, the higher your ISO, the more “digital noise” is likely to show up in your photo.
I took photos using an ISO anywhere between 400 and 1600 just to see how the shots would come out. The ISO 400 shots are less grainy but darker, while the ISO 1600 shots are brighter but “noisier.” I finally settled around ISO 1250 for some of my favorite shots.
If you have a really great DSLR with noise reduction and other fancy settings, chances are you can use a higher ISO and still get nice photos.
The DOs for photographing the Northern Lights
Do put something in the foreground of your photos to give a better sense of place.
Do take a TON of photos – the Lights are constantly making new shapes, and you never know what you might capture. Plus, you may need a lot of tries before you get the settings right.
The DON'Ts for photographing the Northern Lights
Do NOT use your flash. Ever.
Do not use any filters you might have on your lens, as they can often leave weird striations on your aurora images.
Taking care of your gear
The Northern Lights are best seen on crisp, clear winter nights far up in the northern reaches of the world. This means that your photography conditions are going to be quite harsh (read: VERY COLD). Extreme temperatures of any sort can affect electronics, and this includes your camera.
Keep your batteries warm
The biggest challenge to photographing the Northern Lights in -40-degree temperatures is keeping your batteries warm. Make sure to BRING BACK-UPS! At least one, but ideally 2 back-up batteries are great if you're planning to be out for a few hours photographing the Lights.
Cold temperatures zap the life out of batteries. This compounds with the strain already being put on the batteries by taking long-exposure shots, and often leads to batteries “dying” prematurely. In most cases, your battery probably isn't actually drained – it's probably just too cold to function. In this case, you need to remove it from your camera and warm it up. The best place to store back-up batteries is as close to your skin as possible in order to ensure they stay warm.
Cold temperatures alone will not hurt your camera; most camera bodies these days are pretty sturdy, and can withstand anything Winter can throw your way. The concern comes when you are taking your camera from the frigid tundra into a warm vehicle or building. When this happens, you have to worry about condensation, which can seep into weak spots and really wreak havoc on your camera's insides.
To avoid this happening, there are a few easy things you can do. The first option is to put your camera into a sealed plastic bag before taking it indoors. The other option is to take your camera bag outside with you, allowing it to get acclimatized to the cold. Simply put your camera back in the bag and zip it up before you take it inside. Both of these options slow down the process of warm air coming in contact with your freezing camera, thereby reducing the amount of condensation.
This process can get annoying if you're in and out a lot, however. I eventually resorted to just leaving my camera sitting on my tripod outside when I went in to warm up – though I always took my battery inside with me to make sure it didn't freeze up.
Be careful with plastic and rubber
Lastly, if you've got a tripod with lots of plastic bits on it, or a shutter release with a rubber cable, be careful with them in below-freezing temperatures. Things can break and snap rather easily when it's that cold, so you need to be gentle.
Taking care of yourself
In such extreme temperatures, you'll also need to make sure to be taking care of yourself as well as your gear.
Go to an outdoors store and stock up on those little heat packets that you can stuff into your shoes and gloves. When it's -45 with windchill, you will more than appreciate still being able to feel your toes.
A pair of glove liners are also worth purchasing. Chances are you'll be adjusting your camera settings quite frequently while outside – especially if it's your first time trying to photograph the Northern Lights – but taking a glove off even just for 30 seconds in such extreme temperatures can be dangerous. If you're wearing glove liners, however, you can take your bulky gloves off without exposing your skin directly to the cold and still be able to fiddle with your camera's buttons.
Having a headlamp with you isn't essential, but it can certainly come in handy when you're trying to adjust your camera, set up a tripod, or even just make your way through snowdrifts in the dark. Just be sure not to shine it directly at other photographers, as a 30-second exposure would definitely pick up on the extra light!
If your headlamp has a red light option (or if you can simply put some red tape over it), that's ideal, as red light does not force your pupils to adjust in the dark.
Lastly, just be smart about the cold. Frostbite can be a real danger in many cases of Northern Lights photography, so make sure you are properly covered up. And, if you start feeling too cold (or if you just stop feeling certain extremities altogether), GO INSIDE. No photo is worth getting frostbitten for.
I have to give a big shout-out to Sean Workman from the Manitoba Museum, as well as Dan Harper of DanHarperPhoto.com for helping to teach me how to capture the Northern Lights. Sean gave us a photography tutorial in the museum's Planetarium that allowed me to figure out some settings on my camera and feel more confident about capturing the Lights. Dan was traveling with us in Churchill, and was great about giving us aurora tips and helping us out with settings on our individual cameras. Many of these tips are Dan's, augmented to work for my camera and preferences.
Check out this gear for your own Northern Lights shoot:
Do you have any other questions about photographing the Northern Lights?