Everything You Need To Know To Photograph The Northern Lights
The northern lights are one of the greatest phenomena that I have seen. In this guide, I will go over how to photograph the northern lights with a DSLR camera, and of course, the important details of where to see the northern lights and how to ensure that you don’t miss them. My husband, who is the expert photographer for Travel For Bliss, will share his knowledge on how he photographs them and the equipment you will need. It’s always important to be prepared if you’re planning on photographing the aurora borealis, as it’s very elusive and needs specific conditions to be seen. Have a read of my guide below to start planning your experience of photographing the northern lights.
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What Are The Northern Lights
Northern lights, or aurora borealis, is light. Solar flares (electrically charged particles) from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen. This then causes the lights and the flares. The more solar activity you have the bigger and brighter the Aurora will be. If the activity is low you will have a hazy, green cloud. If there is more solar activity then you will be lucky enough to see brighter colours and the dancing movement of the lights. The brighter the lights get the bigger the movement that you will see.
The colours of the northern lights are caused by the different gases that the solar particles are colliding with. The most common colour you will see is green, as this is caused by oxygen. Red is rarer and is caused by high altitude oxygen. Your other colours are blue or purple. These are less common and are caused by nitrogen gas in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky you’ll get a mix of colours. In Norway we only had green, but in Finland, we saw green with red at the bottom of it.
Realistic Expectations Of The Northern Lights
It’s always good to have realistic expectations with the northern lights. As it is caused by light in the sky, what you see in a camera will always be brighter and better than what you see in real life. So be prepared for the fact that the northern lights look different from the photos you see. They are still beautiful and well worth seeing. If you have high solar activity then the lights will be bright and easy to see, you will also be able to see the colours (although not as brightly as through the camera). If the activity is low, then the best you will see is a greenish, grey cloud. In the photo below I’ve tried to recreate what they’re like to the naked eye.
When To See The Northern Lights
Solar activity happens all year round, but there are certain periods when it is forecast to be greater than usual. This is called a solar maximum and they are predicting it to happen around 2023 – 2026. So it’s good news if you’re photographing the northern lights in these years as you have a higher chance of seeing them.
You should always plan to see the northern lights in winter. This is because there is much less sunlight, so the lights are more likely to be visible. In Finland, when we were there the sun only rose for ten minutes, so you can imagine all the darkness was exactly what we needed to photograph the northern lights. This is the same for a full moon. If you have lots of light in the sky, because of a full moon, then it will be difficult to see the northern lights.
The suggested months in Europe to see the aurora borealis are September to March. November to February are months that have a higher chance. If you want the darkest time of the year then December is when the winter equinox happens and when you will have the shortest days and the most darkness.
Where to See The Northern Lights In Europe
This is a pretty important question if you’re going to photograph the aurora borealis, so where can you see the northern lights? There are many places in Northern Europe where you can see the aurora borealis. Here are places that I recommend where you can see the northern lights in Europe.
Any country that has the Arctic Circle running through it will see the northern lights. The most popular town to see the northern lights in Norway is Tromsø. If you want to read more about Tromsø and my experiences there you can read my article on what to do in Tromsø. Known as the Paris of the North it’s a great destination for food, bars, and the northern lights.
To see the northern lights in Sweden you will have to head to Swedish Lapland. This is in the far north of Sweden. The most popular town to use as a base is Kiruna, which is the most northern town in Sweden. You can get here by train or plane from Stockholm.
The best area of Finland to see the Northern Lights in is Finnish Lapland. The gateway airport is Rovaniemi, but you can also fly into Kittilä. Finland is beautiful in winter, especially Northern Finland. There are many other activities to enjoy while you’re not chasing the Northern Lights. You can check out my recommendations in my winter activities guide for Lapland, Finland.
Iceland is such a beautiful country with so much to see and do. It’s a great destination to plan many different activities and also photograph the northern lights. As long as you leave the city centres you can see the northern lights all over Iceland. However if you’re super lucky they have even been seen over the capital, Reykjavík.
How To See The Northern Lights
It’s important to pick your time frame carefully when planning your travel to photograph the northern lights. A full moon will very quickly make it almost impossible to see the northern lights. The light can be too bright and wash out any activity that might be going on, especially if it’s not very strong. The best time of the month is a new moon. In Tromsø we had a half-moon and that was still almost too bright for the faint northern lights that we were lucky enough to see. If you go at the right time of the year the moon may not even rise.
No Light Pollution
Light pollution from a town or a house can give you the same problems as the moon. If you’re trying to see lights in the sky you can’t have other types of lights competing with it. If you’re in a large town like Tromsø or Rovaniemi then your best option is to book a tour that will take you out of town. There are rare instances when you’ll see the northern lights from these towns, but the clarity won’t be as good, and you will struggle not to have your photos overexposed with different light sources.
Another option is to book accommodation that is outside of town. We did this in Finland and it made seeing the northern lights without a tour very easy. On the night we saw them we just stepped outside our door and walked down the road. You can also hire a car, but just be mindful that you will be driving in the dark surrounded by snow. If you’re not used to this it can be tricky and sometimes dangerous.
This is the hardest part about seeing the northern lights. You need good weather and winter is not known for its great weather in Northern Europe. When we went to Tromsø we gave ourselves three nights in Norway to see the aurora. The weather was absolutely shocking, with rain, sleet, and snow. We had one good night and unfortunately, there was only minimal activity. In Finland, we gave ourselves five nights. Every night was cloudy except for one night, and luckily for us, this also coincided with no moon and strong aurora activity. If you’re serious about seeing the northern lights and photographing them then you must watch the weather every day and take your chance when you have it.
Length Of Stay
If you’re serious about photographing the northern lights then you need to allow yourself as long as possible. This will ensure more of the possibility of having good weather and strong aurora activity at the same time. As I said above we only got lucky once in five days.
As we discovered in Tromsø you can have clear skies, but if there’s no solar activity in the atmosphere then there will be no northern lights to photograph. If it’s low you will have a green haze, and if it’s high you will have lights that dance and sway across the sky. There are several websites and apps that you can use to track the forecast. These can tell you the possible strength of the solar flares and the time and places that it may take place.
A website that I highly recommend is Aurora Forecast. This has really great data on the northern lights as well as a comprehensive forecast. Below is an explanation on how to read the forecast and see if the northern lights will appear where you’re located.
How To Read An Aurora Forecast
First, you need to locate where you are on the map and find which KP level you’re in. For example, when we were in Lapland in Finland we were between KP 2 and 3. If the Northern Lights were forecast for 3, for example, then there was a strong chance that we would see them. If the lights were forecast for KP 1, then the chance of seeing the aurora became much less being located in KP 3 or KP 2.
Once you know which KP line you’re located on you can then check the forecast for your day and time. The time is in UTC (Universal Time), so make sure you convert it to your time zone. UTC is the same time as the UK for reference.
In this example, I’m looking for northern lights on the 22nd of January. I’ve chosen the time after 2100, which ensures full darkness. On this day the lights are forecast to appear in KP 2. This means that zones KP 2, KP 1, and KP 0 should see the lights, weather permitting. If you were between KP 2 and KP3 as we were, then this night would not be your best chance to see them.
Photography Equipment For Photographing The Northern Lights
If you’ve decided to photograph the northern lights then having the right camera equipment is so important. Below is an essential list that my husband recommends to be able to photograph the northern lights. It’s not easy to capture them properly, and there are multiple tools that you need to make it possible to photograph the aurora. You can buy the equipment, as many of them can be used in other situations. You can also hire some items, which is lucky as we made the terrible mistake of forgetting our tripod when we went to Norway. The ski hire places hire out photography equipment for those who need it.
A camera is obviously important if you’re going to photograph the northern lights. You can not take a photo of the aurora using your phone. If you have an app, like Lightroom, you can try manual settings, but it will be very hazy and definitely won’t be very good. The best camera to use is one that gives you manual control settings, as auto won’t work in the dark. This is usually a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera.
A good lens is as important as a good camera. A wide-angle lens is recommended so you will be able to fit more in and get those really lovely shots of the sky and landscape. It’s even better to have a fast lens that will let more light in, something with f1.4 – f2.8 for example. You can find this information on the lens body. We use a prime wide-angle lens and it’s great for clear night photography.
This is essential as you will have to set a long shutter speed to capture the lights. You will not be able to hold the camera steady for the required time. Find a rock or something to rest it on if you don’t have a tripod. But a tripod definitely gives you more options for framing.
Remote Shutter Trigger
A remote shutter trigger can be a cord you attach to your camera or a wireless remote. It allows you to press the trigger button on the camera to take photos. Even the touch of your finger can affect the clarity of your photos with night photography.
The Northern Lights can only be photographed when it’s dark, so you’ll be doing a lot of your activity without any lights on. You will need a flashlight or a head torch to be able to set up all the settings on your camera.
The aurora is called the northern lights because it appears in the north. If the activity is not strong then knowing where north is will help you pinpoint where it might be occurring and where you should be setting your camera up.
This can help you warm your hands and feet, but it can also keep your phone alive. Our phones died because of the intense cold even though they were at thirty percent. Be careful of using this near your camera as changes in temperature can cause your lens to fog.
How to Photograph The Northern Lights
Settings On The Camera
This is a quick guide to the settings that worked for us while photographing the Northern Lights. We’re not experts on photography, just amateurs that love taking photos and are willing to freeze our fingers and toes in the pursuit of northern lights photography. The lights are always changing in brightness and speed so your settings will have to change with them. In Finland, we had to change our settings halfway through, as the lights became so bright the photos became overexposed.
Focus is so important at night and it’s almost impossible to do it. Here are a few techniques to hopefully make it easier for you. With northern lights photography, you want everything to be in focus. This means anything in the foreground as well as the stars in the sky. The setting on your lens is called Infinity and is usually marked by the infinity symbol. Just to make this trickier, the infinity focus is always slightly different from the mark. The easiest way to ensure clarity is to focus it during the day. You need to pick the horizon and make sure everything is clear. If you haven’t had time to do this you’ll want to try and light up the landscape in front of you with a torch so you can try and focus on this.
Always shoot in RAW when photographing the northern lights. This means that all the colours and lights will be captured without the camera processing or compressing them. It also gives you much more control in Lightroom or Photoshop when editing them. This might just be noise correction or colour enhancement.
The lower you can have the ISO the less grain and noise you will have in your photos. The ISO will affect your other settings. A recommended ISO for Northern Lights photography is from 400 – 800. Always take a test shot and check if you are capturing the lights okay. Increase the ISO up to 1600 if the photo is too dark.
The aperture setting on a camera is what can give you different depths of field. As you will need the longest depth of field possible you will want a higher aperture. An added bonus is it will reduce noise and increase clarity. F2.8 is the recommended aperture for great aurora photos.
The shutter speed is super important for photographing the northern lights. This controls how long the shutter on the camera remains open, and so how much light is allowed in. As the aurora is purely light this is how you can capture it properly. The intensity of the aurora will determine the length of your shutter speed. When we photographed the Northern Lights in Norway we had hardly any solar activity and it was just a green haze. We needed a much longer shutter speed of about 20 seconds. In Finland, when the Aurora activity went crazy with lights all across the sky, we had to lower the shutter speed down to 5 seconds as the longer one was washing it out. The stronger lights also usually come with the movement, so having a lower shutter speed will also help you capture this better.
Take Test Photos
After you’ve done all of these things and think you have your camera set up for perfect northern lights photos always take test photos. Take a shot and zoom in closely, this will tell you if it’s actually focused on everything. You will also need to make sure your photo is not over or underexposed. The worst thing that could possibly happen is to take hundreds of amazing looking pictures only to realise they’re not in focus when you get it on the computer. Always zoom in and check!
What To Wear
The Northern Lights always appear close to the north or south poles. This means that it is usually freezing when you see them. Always make sure you wear the right clothing when photographing the northern lights. The fastest way to ruin your experience is to not be warm enough. In Finland, it was minus ten degrees for the three hours that we were outside. My husband’s pants froze because he was leaping into snowdrifts for the perfect photos; the beer we were drinking was freezing in the cans.