If landscape photography is demanding, then northern lights photography is the ultimate test for any photographer that feels seriously attracted to the outdoors. Overall, this elder genre requires not only a sharp understanding of focusing and exposure but will also make you a deeply patient photographer after mastering it quite decently.
There are several reasons why people go for shooting landscapes and skies rather than people or animals, and for these fellows, photographing northern lights are a must, at least one in their lives. Today we’ll try to make your next northern light hunting a more enjoyable experience by sharing some very valuable insights about this particular subject in the skies.
Table of Contents
What Are Northern Lights or Auroras?
First thing’s first, you won’t find auroras easily, and there are some things that you need to understand about them. Don’t worry, we won’t get nerdy about how auroras happen, but there is something important about them that you need to know.
This is a phenomenon caused by the disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the solar wind that is constantly bathing our planet. The short answer to how the aurora happens is that energetic electrically charged particles (mostly electrons) accelerate along the Earth’s magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere, where they collide with gas atoms, causing the atoms to give off light. The learn more about how auroras form and what defines their color, check out this post
Therefore, this phenomena happens literally all the time, but is only visible with certain sky conditions, in limited places around the globe and during specific times of the year due to Earth’s orbit.
The best places to catch them are near to the poles during long winter nights. So any place far to the north or the south works just fine. There have been rare cases in which auroras have been reported a little bit lower to the traditional spots, but we encourage you to go all the way up in order to catch them at their fullest potential. Although auroras do can be seen in the south as well, (and they are called, well you guessed it, southern lights) they are a quite more timid than their counterpart to the north, so keep that in mind if you are looking to the south.
Nerdy Fact: Northern lights are usually referred to as aurora borealis, and southern lights are formally known as aurora australis.
Since the Sun is quite violent, there are places dedicated to predicting auroras based on solar cycles. In other words, even though we are bathed constantly by the Sun, we aren’t always receiving the same amount of energy from it.
Camera Equipment for Northern Lights Photography
Gearwise there are three major tools that you’ll need to have with you if you are willing to capture auroras in mouthwatering ways. First, of course, is a camera that allows you to shoot in manual mode. Therefore, even a smartphone will work for you if you are able to shoot in manual exposure with it. DSLRs are long-time favorites, but nowadays mirrorless cameras are performing stunningly even under harsh conditions. Here are some options:
- Canon EOS 6D Mark II Digital SLR
- Nikon D750 FX-format Digital SLR
- Sony a7 Full-Frame Mirrorless Digital Camera
- Panasonic LUMIX S1 Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
The other piece of gear that you must have is a sturdy tripod. Auroras are a very specific theme not only of landscape photography but of night photography as well. Long exposures will be necessary to have, hence the tripod presence. Invest in the best tripod your budget allows, and even though lightweight tripods are very comfy, sturdiness should be tilting your decision.
Last but not least is a luminous lens. This type of lenses will make your work easier thanks to their ability to allowing more light to get through your lens. We’ll talk about desired aperture values in a bit. Choosing the right lens could be a very tricky thing to do, especially with so many options out there. Lenses have two major features, focal length, and maximum aperture value. Autofocus and image stabilization are usually much appreciated but they aren’t required for actually making a photograph.
Using a fast wide angle lens with a max aperture of around f1.4 means you’ll be making the very best of all the light you can. A good wide angle lens can range anywhere from $500 to $2000 or more. Some good options are
- Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
- Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens
Focal lengths may vary from wide to narrow, and you should pick one that covers the major type of frames that you wish to compose. Regularly speaking, wide angle lenses to even normal lenses (from 14mm to 50mm for example) is a great range of focal lengths when it comes to aurora photography. More narrow options will limit you into capturing just portions of big auroras. Now, how to pick the right aperture? The wider the aperture value the best for you, so let your budget decide for you.
Planning Your Shoot
As said before, even though we are literally covered with the sun beams causing this magnetic phenomena, it can only be seen when closer to the North or South Pole. For this you need to do some research travelling of course, but you can still be pretty independent when finding them.
How to find the Aurora Activity
What you need to know is not only where you can see them but when. We have limited technology for predicting northern or southern light activity, and there are several places that make this easier for us. We recommend easy to understand resources like Aurora Forecast when hunting them in Europe or this other one from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They all rely on KP values which indicate not the level of “auroraness” on the skies but the solar activity. Weak activity (from 0 to 4) produce decent amounts of auroras, and strong (5 to 9) produce more easily to spot auroras.
Preparing for the shoot and finding dark skies without light pollution
After deciding a good place for hunting auroras try to go as further from the cities if you want to reduce light pollution. Some small cities have little impact when measuring their light pollution but stronger solar activity is needed in order to watch rich saturated auroras in the sky. Camping and outdoorsy skills are highly appreciated but they aren’t a must as long as you have experienced guidance. If you have little or even cero experience when it comes to nature we highly encourage you to look for local assistance, please.
How to find the night with clear skies
Places closer to the poles have longer “nights” due to Earth’s tilt-ness. Some places even have 24 periods of time with different amounts of darkness. Clear skies are easier to find during winter seasons in some places or during fall in others. You should consider this when travelling to a distant place. A good research will translate in a very good investment. Time is money and you can’t be throwing bucks away when it comes to high quality northern lights photography.
How to Focus Your Lens at Night
There is a very high chance that at this point you’ve already noticed that your camera has some really serious trouble when focusing in the dark. This is because so far, lenses have been designed to meter distance by light plays upon the scene. Therefore, low light situations need some extra light in order to focus. The best way to focus your lenses at night is by doing it manually, and there is a catch with that. Focusing in the absolute darkness can be achieved by various ways, and these are some of them:
- Learn the nuts and bolts around the proper hyperfocal distance of your lens and then keep everything in range from the foreground to the infinite. This is a classic way of doing things, but is only doable with fixed focal lengths that actually have the hyperfocal distance scale.
- Use the live view mode and focus manually until you achieve a crisp frame of the auroras above you.
- If you want to include foreground elements that are hard to get lit at night, try focusing before the darkest moments of the night arrive and lock your focusing ring with gaffer tape. This may feel like a very un-elegant solution, but it really works out.
Camera settings to use for Northern Lights photography
There isn’t a magic recipe for exposure settings when shooting pretty much any situation, so northern light photography isn’t the exception. What you need to know is that “feeding” your camera with the best light available will be your best solution, so we’ll talk a bit about the mind-set around each exposure value when hunting auroras in absolute darkness.
- Aperture: Use your lens at almost the widest it can get, this will allow a generous amount of light to pass through it and your sensor will have a better time recollecting all that light. Even though you can shoot decent photographs with the kit lens, you’ll want to have at least one really fast aperture lens. We are talking about an f/1.4 or f/2.8 lens for shooting the sky at night. You won’t be shooting at the widest aperture but perhaps 2/3 or 1 stop down. So if you have an f/1.4 lens you might want to use it at f/2 or f/2.8.
- Shutter Speed: This will depend on the results that you want to achieve of course. If you want a crisp aurora in the sky, then you’ll want to have a rather fast shutter speed, and if you want to have a plume of light, a slow shutter speed will be the best way to go.
- ISO: Now this might be a little bit tricky. ISO has a huge impact in how a sensor perceives light and some sensors give you noisy results when cranking it up way too much. The best way for getting around ISO is to know your camera beforehand. Shoot under several lighting conditions and with several exposure combinations in order to determine the sweet spots or the boundaries that you shouldn’t be surpassing when it comes to ISO.
About the 500 Rule
If you want a magic recipe, then you might consider the “500” rule (some other cameras will need a 600 or 300 rule, depending on the size of the sensor). This rule is quite simple even though it involves some mathematics. This rules is used in order to avoid star trails when shooting the sky. Our planet spins, and all that motion can be perceived in a photograph, so if you want to avoid that shaky feeling, then the “500” rule is here for you. For a full frame camera, this rule tells us that you should define your shutter speed by following this formula:
500/X focal length = Y seconds (shutter speed)
- If you are shooting with a 28mm lens, your shutter speed should be ~18 seconds (500/28 = almost 18).
- If you are shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be 10 seconds (500/50 = 10).
Why 500? Well, we aren’t that sure and we do know that some people use a 600 rule and some others a 300 rule depending on the size of their sensor. The best way for knowing the best value is by taking some test shots around these values in order to know the best setup for your camera. Have fun while finding all the sweet spots of your camera so you can have a great time while shooting all those beautiful auroras above the sky.
Important tips and ideas to enhance your Northern Lights photography
Nowadays we have the great fortune of being able to see what is going on in real time, and these high aurora activity places have very long nights. Therefore, don’t feel bad if you don’t nail it at the first shot, try several frames with exposure considerations like the ones discussed in this brief guide into hunting auroras with your camera.
Always take in mind weather and light pollution levels when doing northern light photography. As we grow larger and larger, this second factor is a more frequent “aurora ruiner” than you might think. So, we highly encourage you to use lighting pollution maps in order to enhance your aurora hunting experience.
Wrapping it Up!
Both, Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis are gorgeous astronomical phenomena that can virtually always be seen in our skies. Even though this might be true, they are only clearly visible at the poles during specific times of the year. Clear and crisp skies enhance the viewing experience, and they can always be predicted.
Remember that hunting these beautiful northern lights is highly related to outdoorsy activities, so keep that in mind when traveling far away from home while on the pursuit of these magnificent happenings. And remember this, any camera will work fine for you as long as you can keep it extremely still and steady for long periods of time. Always plan your shot, and don’t expect to make just one shot of them. Remember to always have fun, after all, these travels are quite expensive and it would be a shame if you forget to enjoy!
Also, if you liked this article on photographing northern lights, you may find the post on photographing the milky way and taking captivating Silhouette Photos interesting as well. In the milky way post, we have covered details on how to find the Milky Way, the equipment required, and finally camera settings to get amazing shots of the Milky Way. In the silhouette photography post, we have covered details on how to take silhouettes during sunsets and also in the nighttime with northern lights in the background. Do check it out!