How to Photograph the Northern lights

How to Photograph the Northern lights

By: Kevin Allen Pepper

The spectacle known as the northern lights is something I promise you will never forget, and if you are prepared to photograph them, you will be able come home and share photos you are proud of with friends and family.

The Aurora Borealis occurs in the Northern hemisphere.  It can be experienced in locations further from the Arctic circles, but to improve your chances of seeing them you need to spend some time on or near the activity zones. Canada, Iceland, Norway and Alaska are just some of the places famous for the Aurora Borealis in the Northern hemisphere.

How to Photograph the northern lights


  • A good sturdy tripod.
  • A remote trigger so you don’t have to touch the camera.
  • The camera should be an interchangeable lens camera with manual focus (set to just shy of “infinity”), which works well for Northern Lights photography.
  • You should also consider a camera that has BULB mode so you can manually control exposure times.
  • Digital cameras will need to have manually adjustable focus with ISO ranges up to 1600


  • Beyond the basic photography equipment, you should bring the following gear for great results:
  • A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights.
  • If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it.


You generally will not be able to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with short exposure times unless it is a bright aurora. Good exposure times for this are anywhere between 5 seconds at higher ISO and wide open apertures for sharper images, all the way to 20-40 seconds per picture (the tripod will help you eliminate shaking of the camera – you can’t hold the camera by hand.)

A sample exposure time for ISO 800 with an aperture of f/2.8 would be 10 to 20 seconds depending on the brightness of the lights.


It can be hard to predict the Northern Lights so you may be in for a few hours of waiting during a cold night. The best times generally are after midnight and range from the end of August to the end of April each year. You should head out of the city and get away from light pollution to obtain maximum quality of photos.


  1. Batteries don’t last as long in cold weather. Bring spare batteries.
  2. Try lots of different exposure settings; night photography is challenging. Test your setup first.
  3. Include a part of the landscape to make the photos more attractive and as a visual reference for size.
  4. Do not use any filters, as they tend to distort the beauty of the Northern Lights and degrade the image.
  5. Turn on “noise reduction” and the white balance can be set to anywhere from 3200K to 5000K or set to auto on digital cameras.


To increase your chance of a successful aurora hunt, you need to be aware of the weather.  If it is cloudy, your chances of seeing the aurora grow weaker.  If you have a clear sky you have a much better chance.

You also need to check the space weather for the northern lights forecast. Please note, even if the space weather forecast is weak, it may still be worth venturing out if you are up north in the areas that I previously mentioned… Iceland, Norway, Alaska and the Yukon.

So even if you are in an active zone and you have a clear sky and the space weather is a bit uncertain,  you can increase your chances by eliminating light pollution.

The moon can also work against you.  If you are planning a trip to an Aurora zone, try to book it as I do when there is a new moon.

Get your camera set up so that it is easy to handle. Using a flash light make sure your cable is connected, your lens is set just short of infinity and the camera is level to the ground. Then turn off the flash light and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

You can use the waiting time constructively.  You can practice with your bulb and find a good composition.  Set your camera to f/2.8 (or as wide as possible) iso 800 and take some test shots for 30 seconds.  Do this in all directions but mainly due north (Aurora Borealis).  You may start to see a green hue on your pictures near the horizon. This is a good sign and this is the part of the sky you need to watch.


As the aurora starts to get brighter you need to start adjusting your settings accordingly.  Start by bringing down your iso.

Important note… Always check the brightness of your image on the histogram and never rely on the camera preview screen.  Your eyes have adjusted to the dark so an underexposed image will look fine – until you get it home! Speaking from experience… the back lit LCD screen in the dark makes photos look brighter than they actually are.

If the whole sky explodes and the Aurora casts a shadow, you need to be quick to adjust your exposure times.  The best Aurora shots occur during these brief moments.  A faster shutter of 8-20 seconds will preserve some of the details of the display.

Star trails

The added bonus… Sometimes you cannot avoid star trails.   Generally it is preferred to expose for less than 30 seconds to prevent noticeable star trails.  Stars begin to move over 20 seconds… so if you want fixed stars you will have to increase ISO to keep exposure times under 20 seconds… but, sometimes star movement adds an element to the images you take.