How To Photograph The Northern Lights

With a pulse, ribbons of swirling light appears and vanishes across the northern night sky creating one of the most epic natural displays to be photographed. The aurora borealis offers the intrepid photographer one of the most awe inspiring photo opportunities imaginable if you know what you’re doing.

How To Take Awesome Pictures of The Aurora Borealis

Northern lights are triggered when high energy electrons and protons smash into nitrogen and oxygen atoms over fifty miles above the surface of the earth.

These tiny impacts create lights through the release of energy. The process is very similar to how neon lights are created.

Aurora borealis happen most often neat the north and south poles. These are referred to as auroral zones so to get the best images of the Northern Lights you will want to get as close to these zones as possible.

Where To Photograph The Northern Lights

aurora borealis over mountains

The most accessable locations for photographers to take pictures of the aurora borealis are in Canada’s Yellowknife and Dawson City. In the US, Fairbanks Alaska is an incredible spot to capture this awesome light display. And for international photographers, Iceland provides and incredible display.

When To Photograph an Aurora Borealis

The most active times of year for the Northern Lights are during the equinoxes. Because Western Canada and Alaska are cloudy near the fall equinox, spring is the time to shoot the Northern Lights. The skies are much clearer but it is also very cold.

Northern Lights Photography Tips

man standing with northern lights above him

1) Prepare For The Cold

Most photographers looking to capture the aurora borealis travel to Alaska or Western Canada around March. But the temps are going to be very cold so you need to prepare for those freezing temperatures. Temperatures often drop to -30 degrees.

You will need an arctic parka, pants and boots to withstand these temps. Unfortunately there are no gloves out there that provide both the warmth and dexterity necessary for the job.

The solution to this problem is to nudge dials and push button on your camera with the eraser end of a pencil. You will also want to use an electronic cable release trigger for your shutter.

Tip: Take a short piece of wood dowel and glue it to your shutter release for easy use with heavy gloves

2) Prepare Your Lens

Don’t use any filters. Lens filters will create interference patterns in your images. You can use daylight but you are better suited for focusing on infinity and taping it in place to prevent accidentally bumping it out of position.

While shooting, you should check your focus periodically by using your LCD screen to enlarge your image. Look at the sky or a bright star and ensure your focus is on point.

Keep an eye out for accumulated condensation on your glass. Do your best to not breath on your lens or viewfinder to prevent accumulating condensation.

3) Focus On Composition

The Northern Lights are constantly moving and this means you need to compose each image you shoot. Keep any external lights off and keep your eyes adjusted to the dark. This will allow you to better compose your images when looking at the dim light of your viewfinder.

When you do need to use external light, use a small LED headlamp and turn it back off as soon as possible.

4) Don’t Forget Your Exposure

You will get the best image results by using manual exposure and opening up a stop from your camera’s estimated exposure. A general rule of thumb is to use an exposure of around ten seconds at f/2.8 and an ISO of 3200.

Your brightness will change constantly so keep an eye on your histogram and enable highlight warnings. You should also be shooting in RAW.

5) Edit For Great Final Results

Reduce any noise in Lightroom or Photoshop in the detail panel. Then enable Profile Corrections in your Lens Correction Panel. You can boost the contrast of your Northern Light sky by using your Adjustment Brush.

You also will find your sky looks a bit too green in which case you can increase your global contrast to add black to your sky. This will really make the aurora borealis pop.

Conclusion

I’ve traveled to Alaska to capture the Northern Lights and it was one of my best photography outings. After years of nature and night photography I was geared to go. I was well prepared for the cold and my gear worked perfectly thanks to following these simple tips. If you are planning to photograph the aurora borealis too, just take the time to properly prepare and you too can capture some truly awe inspiring images.