Beginners Guide to the Northern Lights
Dancing displays of green, pink, purple and blue move across the sky as you watch in awe. The Aurora Borealis (or commonly known as the Northern Lights) is caused between electronically charged particles from the sun that collide with each other as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.
The northern lights is bucket list experience for most people.
You have the option to gaze at the night sky or capture these memories on camera. Either way, your first time can be daunting, but it isn’t as hard as it seems…
Would you like to know how to hunt and photograph the northern lights? This beginners guide will give you everything you need to know for viewing and photographing them.
In theory, the main points for viewing the northern lights are:
- Timing: September – April
- Northern parts of Europe, Russia, Canada or Alaska
- You need dark skies
- Avoid light pollution
- It is better without a full moon
- No cloud cover
- You need enough solar activity
You can increase your chances of seeing the lights by staying for a longer duration. Just because you have perfect conditions (clear skies, no light pollution, no full moon and winter) doesn’t mean you will see them – you also need enough solar activity.
I spent 1 week in Saariselkä in Finnish Lapland in November 2016 and saw no stars due to cloud, 2 visits to Iceland in December 2012 & 2013 (5 nights and 3 nights) and had perfect conditions, but no solar activity. Then 2 x 10 nights in Norway in 2017 & 2018 and boom… we had over half of that time with perfect conditions and solar activity.
A general rule I use is: if it is cold, you can see the stars and there is solar activity forecasted, then you have a good chance to see them. Here are some considerations in more detail.
There are several options that enable you to experience dark skies:
- Book accommodation in an area with no light pollution
- Rent a car to drive to an area with no light pollution
- Book a tour with a local guide
Booking accommodation in a remote location will probably mean that you need a rental car. This is a great opportunity to photograph the northern lights in different locations and chase the lights if the conditions around your accommodation aren’t ideal.
If you’d like to check in advance where your accomodation is located in relation to dark skies, then you can use Darksitefinder. A lot of the photographs that I took, were taken in the regions where it is dark blue on the dark site map. Although it was not 100% dark, it was still dark enough to get a great light display – so don’t limit yourself to the grey or black areas of the map. If you book into an area with a lot of light pollution, then it’s vital to be within driving distance of the blue areas (as a minimum – the darker the better).
Monitoring the Aurora
Each country has their own site for monitoring the Aurora forecast. A local guide I spoke to in Iceland recommended to use this general one from Geological Institute in Fairbanks. This will give you both short term and longer term forecasts (a couple of days in advance).
This, in combination with cloud cover forecasts provides vital information for seeing the lights. This is the combination that I used for viewing them in Norway and deciding not to “hunt” them in Iceland and Finland.
The meteorological sites will give you hourly cloud forecasts for each location. You can use this to determine where will be best to view the aurora borealis.
There are general sites such as the meteorological institute in Norway, or you can check the individual sites for each country
You can research the conditions a day in advance, but due to unpredictable conditions (especially on the Norwegian Coast and Iceland) it is impossible to know the forecast more than a few days in advance (and sometimes it changes on the same day).
Part of the adventure is monitoring if you’re going to be able to see the northern lights 😀
Camera equipment could potentially be the most expensive part of a trip to photograph the northern lights, but I have some budget tips here!
DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
It is vital that you have a camera where you can use a detachable lens and manually adjust the settings. During night photography, you must as a minimum be able to adjust the shutter speed, ISO and focus.
Wide angle | Wide Aperture
Ideally when shooting the night sky, you need a wide angle lens. Anything below 25mm should be ok.
Without going into loads of detail, the lower the f number, the wider the aperture and the wider apertures let in more light – this is what you need for night photography. Anything with a wider aperture (lower number) than f4 should do the job.
I invested in the Fuji XF 10-24mm F4. It was triple the cost of the camera, but it has been a well worth investment.
A very steady long-legged tripod is vital for night photography. Yes, you could try to balance it on a wall or where ever you can, but this isn’t always possible… and it might be icy, which isn’t what you want to place a nice camera and lens on!
A tripod will give you flexibility in the angle of your shots and the ability to quickly move the camera for that dream shot.
If you plan on photographing the north lights in an area which has unpredictable wind, then it is worth investing in a more sturdy tripod.
Neck or wrist strap
Maybe you’re thinking, why would I need a neck or wrist strap if my camera is attached to a tripod?
Picture this: you’ve spent all that money on your beloved new camera, tripod and lens. You’re all set, stood on a rocky outcrop on the coast of northern Norway with the waves crashing beneath your feet. The sky conditions are perfect and there is loads of solar activity. You excitedly set up your equipment on the rocks and press the shutter release. As your camera counts down the allocated seconds on the shutter speed, there is a gust of wind and your camera is blown over into the crashing waves below. It is -20 outside, the rocks are icy and your camera is probably smashed up. Even if your SD card could be salvaged, you couldn’t get to the camera without a harness, rope and someone to belay you down to your camera.
Having your camera attached to you via a strap will avoid this happening. Luckily I’m not speaking from experience, but I did experience very strong winds that did almost blow over me and my camera.
This depends on how long you plan on photographing the northern lights in one evening and how long the battery life is on your camera. There would be nothing worse than your battery dying after a couple of hours and then the intensity of the northern lights increases! If budget is not an issue, then it is always worth investing in a replacement battery.
You guessed it! You will require some sort of light for getting to and from your location and it should be in the dark. If it is icy, a headtorch is more ideal than using a handheld torch.
Also setting up your camera in the dark isn’t ideal, so a headtorch can help. If budget is no issue, then you could invest in a redlight; this will enable your eyes to stay adjusted to the dark. I only used a normal headtorch and never had any problems.
Cameras & Lenses
Refurbished with a warranty: there are options to buy refurbished second hand cameras, lenses and equipment from reputable online or instore shops for a fraction of the new retail price and they usually come with a 6-12 month guarantee.
I bought my Fuji XE-2 for £280 (January 2018) with a 12 month guarantee from Park Cameras, which was about half the price of a new one. I then used the cost avoidance (used vs new) towards accessories such as the tripod and part of the lens.
There are cheaper lenses available than the Fuji 10-24 that I have, such as the Samyang 12mm f2.0. A lot of fellow night photographers have spoken very positively of this lens for night photography.
I opted for the 10-24mm as I had saved up and then I could decide on the width of the angle.
Batteries can be expensive. Before investing in a second or third battery, do a test evening at home. Check how long you can continually use your camera on the night setting and using the app’s that you plan to use (example: a shutter release app) . If your battery is empty quickly (within 3 hours) then it could be worth investing in a second battery.
If you already have a DSLR or mirrorless camera and only plan on night photography once in your life, then renting a wide angle, wide aperature lens could more cost effective than buying.
For example, at Wex Rental, a Fuji XF10-24mm f4 could cost you around £72 for a weekly rental, plus a 10% damage waiver (excl VAT), photo ID, 2 x proof of address and a deposit (usually between £250-£500).
If you’re planning on going on a group tour, the chances are that someone in your group will have a camera and lens that is capable of capturing the northern lights. You could ask if they can email you the photos, but remember to ask for permission before posting their photos to social media and always give full credit to the photographer 🙂
If you are viewing the northern lights in winter, the temperatures could be down to -20°c and windy. That said, if you are viewing and photographing the lights for extended periods outside, you will be stood still and should be dressed appropriately. Tromso tourism has some tips on what to wear.
So you have the equipment, know how to hunt the northern lights and know what to wear… what next
When you get to your destination, you’ll want to soak in nature, the culture and the northern lights with minimal effort – which means practice with your gear before you arrive by doing test shots at home.
There are 4 main things that you should focus on; shutter speed, aperture ISO and focus. So get outside and take some test shots with these steps:
Set your camera to Manual
Why? Cameras with automatic settings are designed for daylight and are therefore as much use as a chocolate fireguard in the dark. You’ll need to
- Set your camera to manual
- Set your lens to manual
- Turn off your flash – this is a light pollutant!
- Turn off image stabilization
Set it up on a tripod
If you don’t want to lose your camera in a gust of wind, don’t forget your wrist or neck strap.
If you don’t use a tripod, your images will be blurry as the camera needs to be completely still when you have longer shutter speeds required for northern lights photography.
10 Seconds is a good starting point.
The shutter speed is the exposure time (the amount of time that the camera shutter will be open to absorb light once you press the “take photo” button). Your shutter speed will usually be something between 10-20 seconds.
This will need to be adjusted depending on the strength of the lights. Play around with this in combination with the other variables until you get the desired mix of settings.
f2.0 or the lowest f number possible.
The lens aperture tells you how wide your lens is open and consequently, the size of the hole letting the light in through the lens. Here is the confusing part: the wider aperture (opening), the lower the f number. For northern lights photography, you will need it on the lowest f number (the biggest opening).
The bigger the opening, then the lower your shutter speed can be. I have a lens with an aperture of f4, but I increase my shutter speed to counteract that.
1600 is always a good starting point.
The ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor and it varies from camera to camera. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the less light required to develop a picture and thus the brighter but “noisier” the image will be. More noise means the photo will be more grainy and looking lower in quality.
So although some cameras can have an ISO of 200,000, the images will be mega grainy. A lot of people use an ISO between 800 and 1600. Again, this should be adjusted in combination with the other variables.
Focus & Zoom
Zoom out (lowest mm number)
For night photography you will need to locate the “infinity” ∞ symbol and focus your camera to infinity. Focusing to infinity means that your camera will focus on the farthest object or light source.
Press the shutter release button to take your photo or use a remote control, 2 second timer or an app.
By using a remote, self timer or an app you remove any potential blurring of the photo caused by moving the camera.
I never had a problem with pressing the release shutter by hand, but having another option is always a good idea in case of blurring.
Settings I used:
Shutter Speed: 13s (used 8s when the northern lights were strong)
In a nutshell, your aperture will always be set at its widest and focus will always be infinity. The only variables that you should change are the ISO and shutter speed; once you get outside at your location do a few test shots using your settings. If your image is too dark then increase your shutter speed to let more light into the lens before taking the photo or increase your ISO. If your photo is too bright then do the opposite. Beware of high ISO’s and noise – I always try to play around with the shutter speed first.
– Landscape –
Think of these photos like you would think of a landscape photo.
You want to capture the natural features of the landscapes with the northern lights dancing around it.
– Take a photo of you & Northern Lights –
If you have mastered shots of the lights, then this part is easy.
Stay as still as possible during the exposure time and someone should quickly flash you with a torch. This will highlight you while the lens is still open and you will be registered and highlighted in the image.
– Editing –
Usually a manual camera should be quite good at capturing the northern lights, but sometimes it isn’t always possible to capture the details of the surrounding landscapes.
If you’re a total novice, you might opt for very basic editing apps like the Lightroom CC app. This offers free basic editing, which will enable you to alter variables such as the highlights, exposure, shadows and blacks.
I used this when I started, but then found that I needed to upgrade to use some of the additional features such as the white balance, hue’s and split toning.
Without a doubt this is one of the most memorable and addictive experiences of a life time.
Where would you like to see the northern lights? Or where have you already seen them?
I’d love to hear from you 🙂