The aurora borealis is one of Mother Nature’s greatest displays: a dazzling curtain of greens and pinks that dances across the night sky. But how easy is it to photograph the northern lights?
How to photograph the aurora borealis
Time needed: One evening (with luck...)
Skill level: Intermediate
Kit needed: Camera, tripod, phone or laptop
Well, in terms of technique, it’s not difficult at all. You simply need a tripod and a DSLR that performs well at high ISOs. (For more detail, read our guide to the best astrophotography tools for beginners.)
It’s sighting the aurora that proves more tricky. On our five-day trip to Norway, we saw the aurora twice; while others we spoke to had seen just one faint display in two weeks. The elusiveness is part of the appeal, and makes a sighting even more special. But there are ways to increase your chances of success.
The aurora may occasionally be spotted in Scotland or even further south, but the best chance of seeing the northern lights is within what’s known as the auroral oval: a crown atop the planet that encompasses destinations like Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Alaska.
Not only are you more likely to catch a glimpse of the aurora, you’re also spoilt for choice in terms of beautiful landscapes and mountains to include in the frame.
With improving air links and infrastructure, it’s easier than ever to organise a trip to photograph the aurora borealis. You can quickly find the cheapest flights possible using services like Skyscanner, while car rental companies like Europcar offer competitive daily car hire rates worldwide – just don't rent a car at the airport if you want to keep costs down.
When to photograph the aurora borealis
The aurora borealis is most active between September and April. The long nights of December and January offer the most hours of darkness, while early spring may appeal if you want longer daylight for other activities.
For intrepid travellers there’s also the aurora australis – the southern lights. But there are fewer destinations, unless you feel like camping on Antarctica...
SHOOTING SKILLS: Capture the Aurora
01 STURDY TRIPOD
A tripod lets you lengthen your shutter speed so your sensor can gather enough light to capture the display. The aurora can be fast-moving or slow, weak or bold. Control over shutter speed enables you to tailor your exposure to varying conditions.
02 AURORA BOREALIS
The Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are geomagnetic phenomena that flare up high in the atmosphere at the poles. Solar particles collide with the earth’s gases and the aurora swirls across the sky – mostly in green but occasionally pink and red too.
03 FOREGROUND DETAILS
While the display is beautiful, it’s an interesting foreground that will set your photo apart. It could be a simple building, a row of trees, or a mirror-like lake. Forward planning can give you the edge, so seek out compositions that face northwards.
04 LIVE VIEW
Live View can be helpful for framing and focusing in low light. Set your screen brightness to low so that it doesn’t dazzle you – you’ll need your night vision intact when moving around. A weak red torch can also be helpful for night-time shooting.
05 SENSOR SENSITIVITY
Shooting at night sometimes means you need a higher ISO than you’d normally use during the day, perhaps 800 or more. So it helps if your camera’s sensor performs well at higher ISOs as this means less noise and better-quality photos.
06 PREVENT SHAKE
Typically your shutter speed will be around 5-20 secs. For any exposure longer than 1/20 sec, the act of pressing the shutter button can lead to camera shake. So either use a cable release or engage your camera’s self-timer and set it to 2 secs.
ESSENTIAL SKILLS: Planning an Aurora chase
Improve your chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis with these top tips and tricks
FOCUSING IN THE DARK
Focusing can be a problem when shooting in any low-light situation, especially when you need to use a wide aperture, as is often the case when shooting the Northern Lights. If there’s a bright light or definable object in the distance then try focusing on it manually, by using Live View to zoom in close to that part of the frame. If not, try focusing on the stars or moon. Alternatively, make a guess by setting your focus ring near to infinity. Whatever method you use, be sure to zoom into the image to check the focus after taking a shot.
01 CHECK THE KP INDEX
Geomagnetic activity can be predicted – to an extent – by a site like www.spaceweatherlive.com. The KP index defines aurora activity on a scale of 0 to 9, with anything above KP5 being classified as a geomagnetic storm. You won’t see anything when it’s under KP2.
02 FOLLOW THE FORECAST
The skies need to be at least partially clear. If there’s cloud, rain or snow then there’s little chance of seeing anything, so check local cloud maps. Keep in mind that, in the far north, weather can be unpredictable, with storms one moment, clear skies the next.
03 LOOK TO THE NORTH
You need to think carefully about your position. You’re unlikely to see the aurora directly overhead unless you’re at a very high latitude. It’s more likely you’ll see it in the northern portion of the sky, often along the horizon. So scout out a clear view in that direction.
04 SNAP AND CHECK
If the aurora is weak it can look deceptively similar to clouds, especially to the naked eye. Luckily your camera is more sensitive. If unsure, take a quick snap using a very high ISO then check your screen for green – here we were fooled by light pollution!
STEP BY STEP: Camera settings for Northern Lights
Long shutter speeds, wide apertures and high ISOs are key to capturing the northern lights…
Using a tripod, set the camera to Manual mode and use a wide aperture, such as f/4 or f/2.8, and a reasonably high ISO, like 800. Set a shutter speed of 10 secs to begin with, then simply vary the shutter speed until the exposure looks correct.
For fast-moving aurora an exposure length more than 10 secs may blur out detail like this. If so, speed up the shutter and increase the ISO to 1600 or more. If it’s moving slowly you’re free to lengthen your shutter speed and lower ISO for better image quality.
STEP BY STEP: Editing tips for Aurora
Learn how to enhance your aurora photos with a few simple Photoshop skills
01 REDUCE LONG EXPOSURE NOISE
Make sure you shoot Raw as this gives you greater headroom for editing your aurora photos. Begin by reducing image noise, which is often prominent in long-exposure night photos, in Camera Raw’s Detail panel. Increase Luminance Amount until the noise lessens.
02 BOOST THE GREENS
If the aurora looks weak, try increasing Vibrance in the Basic panel. To take it further, grab the Targeted Adjustment tool, right-click and choose Saturation, then drag upwards over the greens to increase saturation. If other colours are looking too intense, drag down over them.
03 SELECTIVE ENHANCEMENTS
Areas of night photos may need selective tweaks to bring out detail, like the reflection in the lake. Grab the Adjustment Brush, click the plus next to Exposure to load the brush with a brightening effect, then paint over areas to lift them. You can add selective saturation in the same way.
ESSENTIAL SKILLS: Framing choices
Composition is one of the few parts about photographing the aurora that is in your hands…
As we’ve seen, you can head to a high latitude, and check the solar and cloud forecasts, but essentially, an aurora sighting is still largely down to chance. One thing you can control, however, is composition. On our trip we earmarked likely locations that had a clear view northwards, like beaches and lakes, then we drove around these spots after dark (on a shooting trip like this, a car becomes your home from home). The display is beautiful, but, like a glorious sunset, it needs context. Framing mountains, trees or buildings in the foreground provides this. We were also lucky that the moonlight lit up the land for our trip.