Photographing the Northern Lights

By Mark Cunich

I've done a bit of research online to gather information on the best equipment and settings required to photograph the Northern Lights. I've "accidentally" photographed the southern lights from Antarctica (see below), but I've never seen the Northern Lights, so this has been an interesting little project for me. 

This is a photo that I took down in Antarctica a couple of years ago. You can see the milky way and a hint of the southern lights. This was taken at f2.8, ISO1600, 30 seconds, with a 2sec self timer. 

This is a photo that I took down in Antarctica a couple of years ago. You can see the milky way and a hint of the southern lights. This was taken at f2.8, ISO1600, 30 seconds, with a 2sec self timer. 

Disclaimer: Do not try and blame me for any expensive equipment purchases you make - this is just a guide, not a shopping list. 

This is what i'm Hoping for

This is what i'm Hoping for

General Information

There is no way to anticipate (or even guarantee) the display of the northern lights, so my first suggesting is just enjoy the moment in person first, and then try to take a photo. When it comes to taking the photo, be ready and know what you are going to do. 

The Gear

This is a list of the equipment a professional would want to take. It isn't necessary for you to have this to take a snap, but it is worth knowing, incase you want to add one or two things to your bag. 

  • Large Digital SLR
  • Wide angle lens with low f-stop (14mm f2.8 would be ideal, albeit expensive)
  • Tripod & camera remote. (If you don't have a remote, you can use a 2 second self-timer to minimise camera shaking)
  • Spare batteries. PLEASE NOTE: the cold weather will drain all camera batteries very quickly. 

The settings

The northern lights can fill the sky and light up the countryside, or be a small hint of colour. The light can move slowly through the sky like clouds, or swirl quickly like waves. So, there is no quick answer to what the exact settings should be, but there are some hints. 

Mode

You should have your camera in Manual mode (M). This is not to be confused with the M on the lens, which is for Manual Focus. 

150xNxmode-dial-nikon.jpg.pagespeed.ic.EwnlrUYfjw.jpg

for compact cameras, you will want to choose one of the scene modes with the moon. 

Manual Mode

Manual Mode will allow you to adjust 3 main settings, which can be seen across the top of the display image below. The combination of the 3 settings impact the exposure (brightness vs darkness) of the photo.

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO

PLEASE NOTE: If you are taking long exposures, you will need to turn off the back display, because the light being emitted might interfere with the image. In the above example, the "DISP." button (Display) will turn off the screen. 

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is how fast the photo is taken. In the above display, the shutter will be open for 1/125th of a second. For nighttime shots we would want something slower like 5-20 seconds, which would obviously require a tripod. This setting will depend on the speed the lights are moving. 

Aperture (aka "f-stop")

Aperture changes the amount of light that is let through the lens into the camera. The lower the number, the more bigger the opening, and therefore the more light that is let in. Because it will be mostly dark, we will want to use the lowest possible aperture, eg f2.8.

PLEASE NOTE: Using a low f-stop decreases the number of things that can be in focus, however if you set your focus to infinity, then most things in a landscape shot should be in focus. 

ISO

ISO changes the sensitivity of the sensor. At night time you'd want to set your ISO somewhere from 800-1000. Unfortunately, the larger the number, the grainier the image, but this will allow you to capture more details at night. 

Focus

Your camera will have trouble focusing on the dark sky. The best option is to put the camera in manual focus mode and set it to infinity. 

Flash

The range on a flash is probably only 5m. So in most situations you should keep your flash off. 

What does all this mean?

It is going to be a bit tricky getting a good photo of the northern lights. I'll be starting off with the following settings, and then making adjustments in increments to make my images lighter or darker: 

  • Aperture: f2.8 (this is the lowest number my camera goes to). I wont be changing this setting. 
  • ISO: 400. I'll adjust this upwards to make my images brighter.  I will go up to about 3200 if i need to, but this will make my images look grainier. 
  • Shutter Speed: 5-seconds (I want a little bit of blur, but not too much) I will adjust this up to 15 or 20 seconds if needed. If we can see stars, then I might increase the shutter speed to 30 seconds to get the stars in the background (any longer would cause the stars to blur).

(If there are no northern lights, then i will take a photo of the stars, with my go to settings: f2.8, ISO1600, 30 seconds.)

iPhones & iPads

Using an iPhone or iPad isn't ideal for this sort of thing. You aren't going to get into NatGeo with any shots, but you should still be able to capture a nice snap. I'd suggest a mini tripod and the use of an app that will allow you to take slow shutter speed images. Try an app called Slow Shutter. There is also an app called " Northern Lights Photo Taker", which is essentially the same thing.