How to Photograph the Northern Lights

It was a question I only had the vaguest answer to – How to Photograph the Northern Lights? I read online that the camera settings were broadly similar to Astrophotography (see my astrophotography – shooting the night sky for more info on that.) But hey, how hard could it be?

At the bottom is a section on how to photograph the northern lights with a phone.

But the basic settings I would try were;

  1. Camera set to Manual
  2. Wide Angle Lens
  3. Maximum Aperture – F3.5 or as low as you can go
  4. Focus to Infinity – that ∞ symbol
  5. High ISO – Start at ISO 1600
  6. Set shutter speed to 20 seconds
  7. Use a Tripod
  8. Take photos with a remote release or self-timer to avoid camera shake

That’s the TL:DR version. (Too long, didn’t read, version). However, these are just a starting point. One of my best star photos last year in Tenerife came from a shot on ISO 100, F3.5 and 15 seconds. Would it be the same? Let’s find out together!

How to Photograph the Northern Lights 4

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Photography Equipment

Of course, I’m taking a few bits. Tripod in two sizes, large and small. DSLR Camera, a Nikon D7200, with lenses. I’ll take a 10-20mm Sigma, an 18-55mm Nikkor and a Tamron 70-300mm. That should cover all the focal lengths I need. I suspect for the northern lights it’ll be the 10-20mm mainly, that gets in as much of the sky as possible!

Camera Gear - In search of the Northern Lights

Camera Gear – How to photograph the Northern Lights

In the picture anti-clockwise from bottom left are;

  • 2 tripods – large and small
  • Adjustable tripod holder for my mobile phone
  • Battery Charger
  • Black tape 
  • Spare Batteries
  • Lenses
  • SD Cards in a fairly indestructible holder
  • Filters to protect my lenses
  • A body strap so the camera doesn’t get heavy while carrying it
I’ll address that list in order.

Phone Tripod holder. Never underestimate the humble mobile phone! It can take some cracking shots! See my mobile photography blog. I use a Samsung S9 which can do some pretty amazing things.

Black Tape. This is the normal electrical tape or LX tape. It covers the eyepiece to stop light getting in the back of the camera during long exposures. Also, I’ve used it for repairs and even used it to hold a tripod in a weird position.

The body strap is a better camera strap which distributes the weight of the camera across the entire body. While I wouldn’t be using this for the northern lights, I would be wearing it for all my daytime photography.

Take lots of spare batteries. I got through 3 on an evening’s shooting. The cold really kills the battery life and you’ll use more than normal.

So, that’s the gear. And to reiterate, how hard can it be?

Bracket wildly, in other words, take loads of shots at various settings! Below is a screenshot of only part of my photo collection that night! There is about triple the amount than this! Some are light, some are dark and some were hopeless. But you don’t know until you review them.

how to photograph the northern lights

All the photos on this page were taken on my Nikon D7200 and Sigma 10-20mm lens. Both functioned exceptionally well in -13°C!

Camera Settings

The lighting conditions change all the time, the aurora moves constantly. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It ripples across the sky like a snake on corrugated iron. I found it to be really challenging, the lighting and the extreme cold.

With a fast-moving aurora, if your shutter speed is to slow, they will blur and not look as nice. On this night the moon was unusually bright. In fact, the brightest moon of the year! So my settings were adjusted to suit the conditions. It’s what you’ll have to do too!

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

 F6.3, 6 Seconds, ISO1600, 10mm, 0.3+ Exposure Compensation

Be ready to adjust the ISO settings on your camera and to adapt to every change. Really knowing your camera settings and how to change them without thinking I really important. Knowing your camera so you can concentrate on the light show above is really key.

However, with the available light, it meant I could drop my ISO settings lower. Indeed, with all the reflective snow about and that moon, it made it tricky to get the exposure right. But, it is all experimentation! Vary your settings and bracket wildly! 

Use live preview on the back of the camera, which will help better than looking through the viewfinder and help make your horizon straighter.
Focus on Infinity

Focus on Infinity! One of the most important things to remember is to focus on infinity. It’s that little ∞ symbol on your lens. Not all cameras have it though. If yours doesn’t, you have two options. Ideally, during the day, focus on something very far away and then turn the autofocus off. Remember though, don’t knock the lens when transporting the camera, you may upset the focus.

When you have found the infinity point, a tiny bit of coloured tape on both sections of the lens will tell you where the infinity point is later.

Alternatively, find the thing in the landscape that’s the highest contrast, like the mountains in the photo below and focus on them. Although, this is an option of last resort as if there are no high contrast things visible you’ll be stuffed!

How to photograph the Northern Lights 1

F3.5, 5 Seconds, ISO-640, 10mm, No Exposure Compensation

As you can see in the photos in this section, the settings are different in each. Below, to get more depth of field I had to increase the exposure to 13 seconds. The Northern Lights have blurred more in comparison to the photo above, where they are more defined after only a 5-second exposure.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights 2

F7.1, 13 Seconds, ISO-1000, 10mm No Exposure Compensation

Ok, a recap on all that;

  • Maximum Aperture – F3.5 or as low as you can go
  • Focus to Infinity – that ∞ symbol
  • High ISO – Start at ISO 1600
  • Set shutter speed to 20 seconds
Never delete photos from your camera when you are out, wait until you can see them on your computer screen.

Composition

Ok, so that’s the settings sorted but don’t forget about the composition. Having some foreground interest is very important. Below is just a photo of the Northern Lights, nothing else.

How to photograph the Northern Lights Composition

How to photograph the Northern Lights Composition

Of course, the lights are very pretty but there is no sense of scale in the photo. Putting some other interest in the photo makes all the difference. As can be seen below.

How to photograph the Northern Lights - Composition

How to photograph the Northern Lights – Composition

The lights were just starting in the photo above. However, because of the other elements of the photograph, it doesn’t matter so much that they are not showing as much as I’d like.

Yes, ideally masses of lights across the sky would have been better, but it’s a natural phenomenon. Of course, you can only photograph what’s there!

Click for my Guide to Composition if you need a refresher.

How to take pictures of northern lights with phone

My other half, Tam, took this picture on her phone, a Samsung S9. She used pro mode to get it. the Settings were f1.5 1/10 second and ISO 800. In pro mode the ISO, Shutter speed and a choice of aperture are available. Use a little tripod, too. It’ll hold the camera steady enough.

how to take pictures of northern lights with a phone

How to take pictures of northern lights with a phone

As before, vary your settings and adjust your shutter speed. If you have some sort of pro mode on your phone it is possible to capture some good shots but you’ll get better results of course with a dedicated camera.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights – Conclusions

Vary your settings, keep the camera in manual focus infinity. Set a two-second or similar timer on your camera, so when you press the button it doesn’t blur the photo.

P.S Wrap up warm!

For more on our Tromso and Northern Lights Adventures

Camera Gear for the Northern Lights

For all my tips and tricks see my Photography Tutorials page.

Photography Tutorials

To see all my gear, check out What’s In My Camera Bag.

Definitive Guide to the Basic Essentials

Below is a list of my most popular tutorials on photography.

They form the Basis of  My Top 10 photography Tips

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How to Photograph the Northern Lights

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

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