I consider myself pretty good at night photos but photographing the Northern Lights was
a little a lot harder than I anticipated. Being out in the woods meant that the scene was a lot darker than anything I had tried to photograph before and the dancing lights added a new dynamic to the whole process. It was a new challenge and one I appreciated because without challenges how are we meant to get to that next level right? Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a photographer by any means, and these aren’t the best photos of the Northern Lights that you will see, but I wanted to share a few of the most important tips I could think of to help other beginners out there get even better pics of the glorious light shows.
A Beginners Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights
For this experience I was visiting Northern Norway and staying in this charming cabin in a remote area about an hour away from Alta. It was perfect because I was able to see the Northern Lights almost every night from right there in my backyard giving me lots of opportunity to see this natural wonder and also practice taking photos.
You don’t need to have expensive equipment to take nice photos, I’m sure you could get some epic ones if you did but if you’re a beginner and just have the basics then you can still get some postcard like shots! I don’t have a lot of flashy equipment, here’s what I was using:
Camera: Sony Alpha A6000
Remote Control: IPhone 7
Understand the basic settings
There are three important basics to understand before you get started – ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. The easiest way I understand it is to imagine them as all effect the lighting of your photos but also each have other side effects.
There’s no way I could sit here and tell you which numbers you need to set your camera to because it depends on the environment at the time. For example, if you are out taking photos on a full moon night, with the moon brightening up the area with a lot of natural light then the settings would be far different to say a dark night with no moon.
Instead, all you need to do each time you go out to take photos is find the sweet spot between these three main elements. They all have a similar effect with light so you just need to balance your side effects if that makes sense. This balancing act gets easier with a little practice so just keep at it.
Use manual mode
This is the first and most basic tip for how to photograph the Northern Lights but you know what? I made the ultimate mistake and didn’t do it at first. I started on my first night by putting the camera in shutter priority mode because I thought that it would help adjust the other settings as the light changed so I could focus on getting the shutter speed perfect. I’ll be first to admit that I was so wrong! Instead of making my silly mistake, put your camera straight into manual mode and go from there. It seems intimidating at first but just go for it because you will learn so much and get better quality photos.
Use a tripod + shutter release
You are probably going to be needing long exposures for these photos which means you need to keep your camera steady. With the longer exposure, the camera is moving slowly to capture that moment and any movement to the camera or subjects will result in a blurry photo. Even the slight movement made by your finger as you press click to get the shot can be too much movement and ruin your photo. Using a tripod and remote control shutter release is essential. The tripod helps ensure stillness with the camera and a remote control shutter release means you don’t even have to touch the camera to take the photo.
If you are looking for a recommendation for a Tripod, I use this Manfrotto tripod for my camera and have had no problems with it. It’s aways remained sturdy even when I have used it in water or snow and when I lost a part while hiking it was really easy for me to order a replacement part instead of having to buy a whole new tripod. Check what is compatible with your camera and definitely invest in a sturdy one.
For the remote control shutter, as I said above, I use the Sony Alpha A6000 and one thing I like about it is that with this you can go to their PlayMemories website and download the smart remote control feature to your camera for free. This app helped me a lot, not only for night photography but also for times when I am traveling alone and want to get photos of myself, I can just connect it to my phone and click away.
The Less Basic
Use some light to help focus
For me, getting the camera to focus was the trickiest part of taking photos of the Northern Lights. I had the exposure the way I wanted, lined up the shots only to find that the camera couldn’t focus on anything in the frame. I ruined a lot of my shots as I was trying to figure out why it wouldn’t focus on anything and how to fix the problem – I am sure there are gadgets you can buy for this but all I had was my basic equipment. I had taken a lot of night shots before and never encountered this issue so at first I found this quite frustrating. Perhaps it is because of how dark the scene is that it was making it a little harder to focus? I don’t know, but the hack I figured out was to use a light to help the camera focus.
I used a headlamp to shine on the area I wanted to focus on then would turn the light off before taking the pic. When I was taking photos of myself, I would face the camera with the light on to focus then turn it off to take the shot, and in other shots where I was behind the camera I could simply shine it on something I wanted to focus on.
You could also work this idea into props. If you have a tent, you could place a flashlight inside facing the sky. It will help the camera focus and also give your tent a nice glow. I also let some sparks fly to help light up the scene in some shots which was fun.
Act fast and pay attention
Once you are under the Auroras you will notice that they wind and bend as if they are doing a dance on the dark sky. This phenomena is quite incredible to watch, especially if they are moving fast and showcasing multiple colors. But, if you are trying to photograph the Northern Lights it adds a little extra pressure for you to be on top of your game. Keep your gear handy and ready to go at short notice so you don’t have to fumble through your bag to get set up. If you are staying in a cabin under the lights like I did then it’s easy to keep your beanie, jacket and other warm clothing items by the door with your camera in the tripod ready for action. This way once you see that there is a light show outside, you can run out and get started pretty quickly.
There were a couple of moments, especially at the start when I was making a lot of mistakes, when I would be so focused on my camera and working on the settings only to get ready to click for the shot and look up to notice that the lights had moved on and I would need to readjust. This taught me how important it was to move fast and pay attention to my surroundings. At times when the lights were moving fast the moment to capture it could be gone as quick as it arrived.
Shoot in RAW mode
Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG is a helpful way to improve the quality of your pictures and it allows you a lot more freedom when you go to edit your pictures. To change this setting just google how to change it for your specific camera. It will only take a second, mine was a matter of pressing a few simple buttons and then voila it was done.
Keep track of the forecast
This one doesn’t really help you take a photo but it does help you to avoid missing a photo opportunity. I used this Aurora app to help keep track of the forecast for the Northern Lights. It would show the probability of seeing them based on my location and offer forecasts for planning ahead of time, one section for planning in the next hour and another which looked to the upcoming days. I found that it was really handy to have as a guide but I still found that it was important to look outside. There were a couple of times that the forecast said only 10% chance of seeing them and I would look outside to be pleasantly surprised to see that some of the clouds had moved and a a nice show was on display. It was always moving and changing so keep looking outside as well as checking your app.
Protect your camera
While I was reading up on how to protect a camera in cold weather I found this trick which I used while I was in Norway. Pack a couple of large ziplock bags and before you go from the cold outside to the toasty warm inside temperature, pop the camera in the ziplock bag and be sure to seal it well. This way the camera doesn’t have to go from extreme cold to warm so fast, it can adjust slowly inside the bag which can help prevent condensation inside the camera.
Woah, I feel like that was a long post but I hope it helps anyone out there who is wanting to learn more about taking photos of the Northern Lights or night photography in general. I’m certainly no expert but always love sharing the little things I learn along the way as I am learning myself and appreciate when you guys share your tips and thoughts too.
With that being said, do you have any other tips for photographing the northern lights?