How to photograph the northern lights

Sarek 201009Northern lights above Padjelanta NP, Northern Sweden.

The very first time I saw the northern lights, I was astonished. I remained watching the lights in the freezing cold for hours, even though there was only a rather uninteresting faint and static aurora above the horizon. A few nights later during the same trip the northern lights appeared again, but now in beautiful moving curtains. Since that time I’ve become fascinated of this fantastic natural phenomenon and I’ve been lucky to observe it again on each later trip to Lapland. Consequently I’ve learned a lot how to photograph this nightly light. Here I want to share my experiences with you.

Sarek 2008This is a picture of the very first aurora display I saw in my life. The lights remained dim and static.

Required equipment

Camera

You need a camera that can manually set the focus of the lens, the shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity. Until now I’ve been using a DSLR and my story will only cover this type. Other cameras such as micro four thirds and bridge cameras should work as well.

Batteries

A digital camera needs batteries. Since the northern lights usually can be seen during autumn and winter at high latitudes, photographing will often take place in a cold environment. Temperatures lower than -20°C are very common in Lapland during winter. At such temperatures, batteries tend to perform less than usual. Good practice is to have at least one spare battery at hand, keeping it warm in the pocket of your jacket, trousers or even better: under your down clothes. When the camera turns off because the battery dies of the cold, exchange the cold battery with the warm one. Photographing this way works but can become annoying. It will even become problematic if you want to shoot continuously for a time lapse movie (see later in this article).

If your camera can be powered by an external power supply, this might be a better option. If you’re a DIY type of guy, you can build an external battery pack for your camera. Keep this battery pack warm under your clothes and connect it to the camera by an appropriate wire.

A battery grip under the camera might also help to extend battery life. However, this option further increases the total weight which is undesirable on a hiking or backcountry ski trip.

A few DSLRs can be powered directly from AA-batteries. This is a real advantage since it is now possible to use lithium AA-batteries directly in the camera. These batteries have a very good performance in a cold environment. Their capacity only starts to diminish at temperatures under -20°C compared to most other types of batteries which already show a decrease in performance once temperature drops below freezing. Lithium AA-batteries is what I use and up till now I’ve never encountered my camera shutting itself off in the cold with these batteries.

Sarek 200809Northern lights above the Tjuoldavagge in Northern Sweden.

Lens

To use a DSLR there needs to be a lens attached. Photographing northern lights can be done by using an extreme wide-angle lens up to a short telezoom lens (about 8 mm to 70 mm in APSC format). A wide-angle up to extreme wide-angle will be the easiest to use. Using a standard lens or short tele needs more luck with active aurora displays to photograph details in the lights. It’s also possible to shoot beautiful pictures with a fish-eye lens. The pictures will cover almost the entire sky, capturing the northern lights in its full extention. I’ve not been able to photograph with a fish-eye yet.

All filters, for instance UV-filters and polarizing filters, must be detached from the lens. A polarizing filter blocks too much light and thus will make it harder to photograph the northern lights. UV-filters might introduce concentric rings on the pictures.

The faster the lens, the more details of the aurora can be catched on the photograph since it becomes possible to use shorter shutter speeds. An aperture of f2.8 or more (smaller f-number) is needed to photograph details. If your lens cannot achieve this aperture, don’t worry. You’ll still be able to photograph the northern lights, but the light will be blurred more often. This is caused by the longer shutter speed, eventually in combination with higher ISO-values. Image stabilization in lens or camera is of no importance. It’s even better to switch it off. So, notice that a standard kit-lens is already sufficient to photograph the northern lights, though the finest details in the light might be missed more often.

Tripod

It is very important to use a tripod. Since pictures will be taken with shutter speeds of several seconds to half a minute, it is impossible to take these pictures by hand. During a hiking trip, most of us don’t want to carry a heavy tripod. Fortunately there are lightweight mini tripods which are a perfect alternative. I use an Ultrapod II mini tripod that I use either by itself or attached to an ice axe. For me this combination works very good. A gorillapod also looks as a perfect option.

For those that want to take a real tripod, best use a low tripod made from carbon. This tripod including a lightweight ball head and a quick release plate, usually weighs about one kilogram. Sometimes I prefer this bigger tripod over a mini tripod on backcountry ski trips with a pulk.

If no tripod is at hand whatsoever, a makeshift tripod could be made from your backpack. Fill it with some material and put the camera on it, the lens pointing at the northern lights.

Sarek 201009The aurora from the summit of Gisuris in Sarek NP.

Warm clothes

Don’t forget these warm clothes! Unlike during daytime, you’ll be standing still for hours when photographing the northern lights at night. Your body will cool down very easily if you’re not wearing sufficient clothing. A thick down jacket is a must have in winter and even down mitts might be handy. Each time I have to readjust the settings of my camera, I need to touch the small buttons of my camera with my bare hands or with thin gloves on. As soon as I’m finished readjusting, I put my hands back in the down mitts or in the pockets of my jacket. As soon as there is a bit of wind and it’s colder than about -15°C, I definitely need my down mitts. Down trousers are certainly useful too with freezing temperatures. Even in autumn at temperatures around zero, I find a light down jacket or insulating synthetic jacket very useful for not getting too cold.

Photo editing software

Once back at home you need to further edit your photos to get the best results. I only take photos in RAW-format. Shooting directly in JPG-format will lead to disappointing results most of time. Basically any program that can edit RAW-format is suited. Also, a specific noise-reduction program might be handy in case there is a lot of noise in the pictures. I use Photoshop Lightroom and find it very convenient and quick editing.

Optional

A remote cable release or infrared release might be handy to prevent camera shake during recording, but is not a necessity. I use the 2 seconds self timer option on my camera for this purpose.

Sarek 201009Another one from Gisuris.

Where and when photographing?

The northern lights are the result of eruptions at the sun in which charged particles are thrown into space. Once in the neighborhood of the earth, the magnetic field ensures the particles are directed to the magnetic poles. When the particles enter the atmosphere, they react with the atoms in the atmosphere. From this interaction the northern lights appear. The chance to see the northern lights is bigger in periods of elevated activity of the sun and the lights even grow bigger and become more vibrant if the earth magnetic field is stronger. The sun’s activity has a cycle of 11 years, in which a period of low activity is followed by a period of high activity. The next maximum activity of the sun will be in 2011-2012. So, get ready to plan your trip!

The power of the earth magnetic field changes a lot and cannot be predicted easily. More information of the chance to see the northern lights can be found on this site and at the Geophysical institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Sarek 201009Chaotic sky above Padjelanta NP in Northern Sweden, September 2010. The expected maximum in 2011 is approaching. During the three trips over the last three years I’ve seen the number of nights with northern lights and its activity increase steadily. Coincidence or not?

Northern lights appear most often in the dark nights around the arctic circle. The further north in Scandinavia, the bigger the chance to see the northern lights. Other places to choose are Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the extreme north of Siberia. It might sound odd, but if you travel more to the north than the above mentioned places the chance to see the northern lights diminishes again. For instance at Svalbard, the northern lights are less easy to be seen than for example in the area of Tromsø in Northern Norway. If the northern lights are extremely active, it is possible they can be seen in Scotland and even as south as The Netherlands. However, at these mid latitudes the lights will most often appear just above the horizon showing little detail.

Northern lights cannot be seen all year around in the places around the arctic circle. One needs a dark night. During late spring and the first part of the summer you’ll have no chance because of the midnight sun. More to the south it can be observed very occasionally during extremely high activities, as long as the night is dark enough. In Lapland it might be seen from around August 20th to April 20th. Even though the period from November to January might look very well suited to see the northern lights, making a hiking or skiing trip in this period is not easy because of the polar nights or the very short daylight period. Sufficient daylight hours are required to make a hiking or skiing trip so the most appealing time of the year actually falls apart into two periods: from the end of August to the beginning of November and from early February to half of April.

Some people think that a full moon makes the northern lights less visible. In my experience this is not true at all! Moonlight is very welcome when photographing the aurora as it brightens the foreground and the landscape in the picture. On the other hand, if moonlight and snow cover are absent, the landscape appears pitch black on the picture and the contours of the horizon might contrast heavily with the enlightened night sky. So, checking the moon phase beforehand will already give you an idea how your resulting aurora pictures will look like.

Sarek 201009Northern lights seen from Låvdaktjåhkkå (1445m) in Sarek NP during a night with absence of moonlight. The darker mountains now contrast heavily with the night sky.

Method

Preparations

When it looks like it is going to be a sky clear night, I try to bivouac on a site with good sight on to the northern half of the sky. Search for a place that has an appealing landscape to photograph with the northern lights above it. In a deep valley where the mountains block the view over the northern sky, only a small part of the northern lights will be seen. An open view in the direction WNW and ENE is desirable too, since the most beautiful light curtains seems to appear in these directions during high activities.

Sarek 201009Northern lights at the Dielmajavrasj in Sarek NP. The mountains block the lower part of the aurora above the horizon.

When I go to sleep, I activate the alarm of my mobile phone, chosing the end of civil twilight as the time to wake up again. This is about the time the northern lights will become visible when active. I keep a table with me with the daily times of sunrise, sunset and civil twilight for my location. If nothing becomes visible just after the time of civil twilight, I activate the alarm again for half an hour to one hour later and try to sleep during the time in between. This will continue throughout the night until it will become improbable for the northern lights to appear.

Sarek 201003Night on Vuojnestjåhkkå (1952m) in Sarek NP. The moonlit mountains of Stora Sjöfallets NP can be seen at the horizon. Even if the night is not perfectly clear it can be interesting to photograph the northern lights because moving clouds introduce a special effect.

While inspecting the sky, watch attentively. I’ve often noticed the first signs of the aurora appear as very faint white spots of light that are not very notable. If you happen to see them, start preparing. In a few minutes of time a lightshow might be triggered. Sometimes however, it took longer before moving curtains appeared.

Photographing

When the aurora appears, take your camera attached to the tripod and install yourself on the desired spot. Then I do the following:

I point the camera on the tripod to the northern lights that I want in my photograph by looking through the viewfinder, zooming to the desired frame. Liveview can be handy too but might struggle in low light conditions and be carefull using it since it demands more power from the batteries. I always make sure I have a bit of the landscape in the photograph. This will reveal the dimensions of the aurora. A photograph that contains only northern lights and some stars is not that appealing unless special shapes are visible.

In manual mode, I set the largest aperture (lowest f-number) for the lens. We need to catch as much light as possible. Next I set the shutter speed and ISO sensitivity as function of aperture and focal length to the value in the table below. For example: 15s and iso1600 for f2.8 is mostly a good starting point if no moonlight is present. At full moon there is about 1 or 2 stops advantage in light. If the landscape is covered with snow in combination with a full moon, there will be about 2 to 4 stops advantage. The brightness and the amount of auroras in the frame will further define the best exposure.

Table with starting values for shutter speed and ISO value in function of maximum aperture of the lens to photograph the northern lights in absence of moonlight (full moon and/or snow will give 1 to 4 stops advantage).
Maximum aperture Shutter speed Sensitivity
f4.0 30s iso1600
f3.5 20s iso1600
f2.8 15s iso1600
f2.4 10s iso1600
f2.0 8s iso1600
f1.7 10s iso800
f1.4 8s iso800
f1.2 6s iso800

Subsequently I take a few test shots and further adjust the shutter speed/ISO values until I’ve obtained the correct exposure. To estimate the correct exposure I look at the histogram. A curve in which everything is concentrated in the most left 10-40% means the picture is too dark. You need to increase the ISO value and/or set a longer shutter speed. If the histogram shows a wide curve in which a large part is concentrated in the right part of the histogram and the peak is close to the middle, your photograph is too bright. You need to decrease the ISO value and/or shorten the shutter speed. An ideally exposed photograph shows a curve with a peak at the left side in the histogram, but not pushed against the side and with a tail extending and fading out in the right half of the histogram. The peak in the left side represents all dark parts of the sky in the picture and possibly a dark foreground or landscape. The right part contains the pixels in the picture that represent the northern lights and the stars.

When I’ve found the correct exposure I can start taking photographs I like. From time to time I check the histogram again and adjust the settings if needed. It is also possible to change the shutter speed now for other effects. Then of course I need to adjust the ISO value accordingly with the corresponding stops to preserve the correct exposure.

Sarek 201003Aurora Borealis over the mountains in Sarek NP during winter. At full moon and a snowy landscape there is about 2 to 4 stops advantage compared to a moonless night. This photograph was taken at a shutter speed of only 4 seconds, iso400 f2.8. This is also a good example of higher shutter speeds showing more detail in the aurora with in this case vertical lines in the light curtains.

Slow moving and static northern lights can be photographed at shutter speeds of around 15-30s and thus relatively low ISO values. Active fast moving northern lights will become more beautiful at higher shutter speeds (1-10s). Furthermore, the focal length used (angle of the image) plays an important role here too. If there is a short tele lens being used, a faster shutter speed needs to be set to get a comparable result compared to a wide angle lens. Shutter speeds in excess of 30s will become less interesting (unless there is a very static aurora) as the northern lights will become a blurry light stain without detail in the photograph.

Sarek 201009Aurora Borealis reflecting in mountain lake Allohaure in Padjelanta NP. This cropped picture is taken with a lens with focal length of 50mm. At focal lengths in the short tele range, relatively fast shutter speeds are necessary to capture details in the northern lights. In spite of a shutter speed of 5s used in this picture, the northern lights look nevertheless somewhat blurred.

The iso sensitivity in aurora photography is almost always between iso200 and iso3200. Do not be afraid to use these higher ISO values. Noise in the photograph can still be reduced with software afterwards. It is better not to use an ISO value that is too low, enabling you to use high shutter speeds and thus to capture more details of the lights.

Sarek 200809Northern lights over Tjuoldavagge at full moon. This picture is taken at iso200 with a shutter speed of 30s and an aperture of f4.0. By using a higher ISO value I could have used a higher shutter speed and even would have obtained sharper and more detailed northern lights in the image.

Photo editing

At home I edit the images on my computer for a better result. Things that I do regularly are: correcting the white balance, adjusting the exposure a little bit if necessary and possibly adjusting the histogram to improve the light of the aurora even more and/or darken the landscape. I also usually correct the vignetting of the lens and add some noise reduction. When I’m finished I save the photograph as JPG.

Time lapse movies

Photos of the northern lights are nice, but you can even go further than this and try to make a time lapse movie. These movies will enable you to record the movements and evolution of the northern lights. How to achieve this? Time lapse movies will work best with a wide angle lens or a fish-eye, though with a bit of luck I’ve also obtained nice results with a 50mm prime lens. I start as stated above. Once the correct exposure is defined, I set the camera to take pictures at a regular interval. I try to keep the time between two consecutive shots as short as possible. Most advanced cameras have a function to shoot continuously in a row with a certain interval between the shots. This is called interval shooting or time lapse recording. Most entry level cameras don’t have such a function. In that case you can search for an external time lapse remote for your camera or you can press the trigger yourself after each shot. If you try the latest, take care not to move the setup, as the framing of the picture may be changed and that will become visible and annoying in the movie.

Time lapse movies tend to be most fluent if the shutter speed is relatively fast. 15s seems to be the maximum in my experience. Also try to increase the ISO value to a very high setting, iso3200 or even higher. You will get more noise in your stills, but for a time lapse movie this will be less of a problem since you will decrease the resolution of the photographs anyway to something like 1920×1080 or 1280×720 to be useful in a movie. Decreasing the resolution will reduce the noise already by itself.

To obtain a movie with a reasonable duration, you need to make a large number of photographs in sequence. For a nice result, make a movie at 6-30fps. This means 6 to 30 stills are needed for each second in the movie. The higher the value, the more fluent and natural the aurora will move. To make a movie that lasts 10 seconds at 6fps, you need 60 stills. If the shutter speed is 10 seconds with a time between two exposures of 2 seconds, this means you need 60 x 12s = 720s or 12 minutes of picture taking. 12 minutes of photographing for a movie of only 10 seconds! In the mean time, you can have a drink. Unfortunately, no pub in the neighborhood!

For a movie of 1 minute at 20 fps with the same settings, you’ll need 1200 stills or 4 hours of picture taking! Many batteries will have died by that time. So, you’ll notice making good time lapse movies of the aurora is not that easy. I didn’t yet succeed myself in shooting a nice and fluent time lapse movie. Every time I see something beautiful outside the frame, I stop the sequence and try to catch that beautiful moment. Maybe I should start thinking to carry two cameras together?

At home I process the sequence of stills in Lightroom. The white-balance and exposure need to remain the same for each photograph. I crop and reduce the resolution to an appropriate one for a movie, further add some noise reduction if needed and save the batch of stills as JPGs. Then I convert all pictures to one movie with PhotoLapse. Set the frames per second to a value of around 6-30fps as mentioned before. You can keep playing with those values and choose what looks best.

Good luck!

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15 thoughts on “How to photograph the northern lights

  1. AWESOME!
    Seeing the Northern Lights is still very high on my list – and reading this, looking at these terrific pictures on a sunny day with announced 30° makes that I nearly want the winter coming – but only nearly 😉
    Very good and comprehensive article – answered a lot of my unasked questions.
    Thanks your sharing your experience!

  2. Pingback: Read this blog « Bedrock & Paradox

  3. Pingback: Camping, the Klondike, and cold | Write. Sketch. Repeat. — Katya Czaja

  4. Pingback: Photographing the Aurora Borealis | Angela Travels

  5. May I simply just say what a comfort to uncover a person that genuinely understands what they’re discussing on the internet. You actually know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people have to check this out and understand this side of your story. It’s surprising you aren’t more popular given that you definitely possess the gift.

  6. Seeing the northern lights has been on my bucket list for a very long time and, being a keen photographer, your pictures and techniques have inspired me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

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