I have been interested in photographing the night scenes over the last couple of years, and photographing the northern lights has been my longtime dream. Photographing the stars and the Milky Way in the night sky has taken me into the dark and mysterious places several times lately. A few times I have also been able to shoot the northern lights, and that has been an unforgettable experience. I will tell you some thoughts and things that I have learned about photographing the Aurora Borealis.
Here in southern Finland, where the northern lights are relatively rare, it is critical to plan your photo trip properly in advance. However, when the conditions are good, and the northern lights are visible in the sky, it is relatively easy to shoot them. In principle, photographing the northern lights can be done with a basic DSLR camera or even with a good quality point-and-shoot camera. However, your phone may not be ideal for this kind of shooting.
In this article, I will show you the equipment you need to take pictures of the northern lights as well as the things to take into consideration when planning your trip. The biggest challenge is finding the right time and choosing the best place for night shots. Profound planning is a crucial part of successful photos.
A good tripod and a wide-angle lens are the cornerstones in photographing the northern lights
With a fisheye lens, it is possible to include all stars across the whole sky in the same picture. Often, the northern lights appear only as a greenish arch on the horizon far away, and then you should use a slightly longer focal length. Otherwise, the effect of the northern lights will remain rather modest in the image.
A tripod is a mandatory accessory because it is impossible to take pictures handheld at night. It depends, however, on what kind of style you are looking for. For artistic style, you can even try to create light paintings with the northern lights by moving the camera during the exposure. On the other hand, on those rare occasions when the northern lights are visible in the sky, don’t waste your time with overly bizarre experiments.
Basic technique for the northern lights photography
It is quite easy to take a picture of northern lights. You only need to be in the right place at the right time. Here’s a brief overview of the guidelines for the:
- Watch the space weather forecasts and choose the appropriate date for the shooting. Try to avoid the full moon, because moonlight reduces the effect of the northern lights. You can monitor the space forecasts through the Aurora service.
- Select a location. It’s a good idea to go to an as dark place as possible, where the colors appear brighter in the sky. It may be difficult to observe northers lights near cities, because of the light pollution that covers the sky. On the other hand, when the northern lights are strong, you can take great pictures in the city environment. It’s also a good idea to choose a place with an open view to the north sky, where the northern lights are most often visible. The shores of lakes and fields are among the best ones.
- Use a tripod and manual focus. it’s hard to hit the northern Lights with autofocus. Set the aperture as large as possible and use high ISO values to keep the shutter times short. The appropriate shutter speed is about 5-15 seconds. With longer shutter speeds, the shape of the northern Lights begins to spread. Try different settings and find the appropriate combination of shutter speed and ISO value for your situation.
- Try different lenses and focal lengths. You can shoot the colors and shapes in a different way varying the focal length and shutter speed. I prefer using two cameras and tripods at the same time. The second camera can hold a super-wide angle ready for whole-sky images. It can get quite busy at times this way, however.
- Watch the histogram of your images to be sure that the exposure is correct. When viewing pictures on the camera in the dark, the pictures may look bright enough on the screen, but, in fact, the pictures may be surprisingly dark.
You should reserve plenty of time for shooting. The intensity of the northern Lights may drop quite down after a while, but you should stay calm and wait for the next peak. A camping stool is a good accessory for the northern lights photography. You should also wear warm clothes and take some hot coffee or tea with you. If you can share this experience with your friends, that’s even better.
The colors of the northern lights are pronounced in the camera
The colors of the northern lights often fall flat viewed with the naked eye, at least compared to the way the camera sees it. That’s why the northern lights photography may be a gratifying experience. Although it seems that there are an only small amount of colors in the sky, the images may still turn out very satisfying.
I frequently hear comments that the colors of the northern lights are over exaggerated. Of course, you can enhance the colors by image post-processing. But in general, that way the image quality only suffers because the camera is already being used beyond its limits when shooting at night. The noise increases in the image and the colors start easily look mushy. Perceiving colors in the sky is always a personal sensation. It’s up to you, what kind of mood you want to convey with your image.
Oftentimes the most critical commentators have not bothered to go into the darkness to see the colors in the sky themselves. The experience may be somewhat different on the parking lot of some convenience store, compared to the fact that if you drive tens or hundreds of kilometers into a truly dark place. And you should also know where to drive. You can find suitable places on blue-marble.de or darksitefinder.com.
It is worthwhile to include also trees, lakes and other parts of the landscape to the picture. The surface of the lake reflects the northern lights in an astonishing way. It strengthens the colors and the atmosphere as well, and it takes advantage of the symmetry of the mirror image in the composition. The silhouettes of buildings in the picture give the scale to the image and work nicely as part of the vibrant image. Deserted buildings and ruins further accentuate the mystical atmosphere in the image.
Northern lights can be seen from far away
The sky is high, and so are the northern lights. The dimly greenish arch you see on the horizon can be up to one hundred kilometers high. At its best, the northern lights appear on the heights of many hundreds of kilometers, above the ozone layer, where satellites draw white stripes into the starry sky.
Since the northern lights are above the clouds, they are of course not visible at all on a cloudy night. Sometimes the colors are so vigorous that it shines through the clouds, and because of that, the whole landscape is colored to green. Then the atmosphere may be like on some other planet.
Since the northern lights are high in the sky, they are also visible from far away. Even when the aurora forecast map does not show northern lights here in southern Finland, they might appear from many hundreds of kilometers away on a clear night.
So even if the northern lights may appear somewhere far north, you may be able to shoot them if you just find a good dark place with a clear north view.
The KP values indicate the intensity of the northern lights
When you are looking at those space weather forecasts for the aurora borealis, you can’t avoid seeing some strange KP-numbers. The KP index is a value that varies between KP0 and KP9, and it simply measures the geomagnetic activity.
It is important to understand that the higher the KP value is the further south the northern lights can be observed. In southern Finland, it is easiest to capture the northern lights when the KP value of the is 5 or higher. However, even in smaller values, the green arch may be seen in the northern sky near the horizon.
The geomagnetic storms produce intense northern lights and are associated with the sunspots. The storms are named after their intensity between the G1-G5, the G1 is the most muted and the G5 strongest storm. The G values measured as KP values are as follows:
- G1 = KP5
- G2 = KP6
- G3 = KP7
- G4 = Kp8
- G5 = KP9
During geomagnetic storms, you should go to take some pictures or just to see the northern lights. The most intense geomagnetic storm that I’ve been photographing was G2. In the spring of 2016, the northern lights appeared just above my head and spread out on every side of the sky. That light show should never be forgotten.
The equipment for photographing the northern lights
As I mentioned earlier, you can shoot the northern lights with quite a modest camera gear. However, a wide aperture wide-angle lens is essential when shooting the night sky. I gathered a list of my most used gear below.
- My tripod is , that fits folded in my camera backpack. It could be even lighter, but it’s nice when it does not have to be sealed apart from other accessories. I think it is an excellent purchase. As a bonus, one of the legs and the mid-tube can be combined by screwing and used as a monopod, so I always have one with me.
- My cameras are Canon EOS 5d Mark II and . I am planning to buy or but they are still too expensive for me. On the other hand, the Sony’s previous models should be good enough, because you don’t need the image stabilizer for shooting with a tripod. is a nice inexpensive full-frame camera and you can shoot under the darkest conditions with it.
- The lenses that I mainly use in dark are the legendary and . These two are good enough to do everything in the night time. The Samyang is usually attached to the full-length 5d Mark II, and the Sigma is in the 7d Mark II. So there is no need for changing lenses in the darkness, which is also a matter of comfort. And both lenses are ideally suited for the landscape and also for star photography because of their extreme sharpness.
Successful northern lights photography depends on good planning. When you have scouted the suitable places beforehand, you will be able to go shooting on short notice. You may want to visit and see the places beforehand in bright daylight. Look for broad areas and have a compass pointing to the north.
You may have to wait for the success in northern lights photography
Most of the times, photographing the northern lights means just watching the forecasts and loading the batteries in advance, or calling your friends through and asking for their plans. And just before it’s time to leave, a moment after sunset, suddenly, the sky is filled with thick cloud mass. Or when you arrive at the right place with clear skies and the all geomagnetic activity meters are turned to red on your phone, but there is still no color in the sky. It happens!
Forecasts do not always know everything, and that is exactly what makes the northern lights photography so interesting. You may not get the pictures even when conditions are perfect, and you should always prepare for the empty sky. Fortunately, at least if you can read the weather reports, the starry sky always offers possibilities for successful night shots even if there is a lack of color in the night sky.