How To Photograph The Northern Lights

The snowmobile whizzed through the dark Arctic night, pulling the sled where we sat bundled behind deep into the wilderness of Swedish Lapland. The buzzing feeling of excitement between the group was palpable as we kept our gaze turned up toward the sky. Our small group had traveled from around the world in the hopes that we would witness the elusive Aurora Borealis. Tonight, we were finally setting out on our first adventure in an effort to glimpse the famed natural wonder.

Finally the snowmobile arrived at a giant clearing—a place where no artificial lights or towering trees would block the magical show that was about to begin. We huddled together with our hot chocolate in hand and waited. And waited. And waited.

Then, out of nowhere, the Northern Lights made her first glorious appearance. Purples and greens began to slowly dance across the night sky, leaving us awestruck below. After a few minutes, the colors became more vibrant, twisting and spiraling above us. And then, just as suddenly as the show had started, the Northern Lights began to fade away, leaving behind nothing more than a vague purplish tint in the sky.

Banner Image Credit: Pandev

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Image Credit: A Cruising Couple

We had been warned that the Northern Lights are a completely unpredictable experience. Sometimes they make a dramatic appearance, other times they are nearly imperceptible to the human eye. Over the course of the next few days we would see the Northern Lights again, in different strengths and different locations; we can easily say that we were lucky our first sighting was as memorable and mesmerizing as it was.

But unfortunately, not all of our travel companions were able to document the beauty of their encounter with the Northern Lights. Back at the lodge, we whipped out our cameras to review the images captured. As some ‘oohed and ahhed,’ others were left disappointed that their photos looked nothing like the spectacular show they had just witnessed.

You don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture the beauty of the Northern Lights. However, to ensure you aren’t disappointed after your trip, it is important to follow a few guidelines. Use these tips below and you’ll return home with photos of the Northern Lights that do justice to the phenomena you witnessed on your travels:

1. Use A DSLR Camera

While not impossible, it will be difficult to capture the Northern Lights with a point and shoot camera alone. A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is like the simple point-and-shoot camera with which most people are acquainted. However, a DSLR camera provides better quality and response. When trying to photograph something as difficult as the Northern Lights, a DSLR camera is highly recommended in order to capture colours with clarity. If you don’t own a DSLR, then reach out to friends and family to see if you can borrow one for the trip. Some camera stores in your area might also rent beginner DSLRs for a reasonable price.

The beauty of photographing the Northern Lights with a DSLR camera is that it allows you to shoot in manual mode. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry—it basically means that you have full control over the way the camera functions. We’re going to break down the settings so you can set up your camera for optimal success without having to fidget with it while also taking in the mesmerizing Northern Lights experience.

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Image Credit: chansarekorn

2. Set Your Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is what controls how long your camera needs to take the photo. Set up your shutter speed to be between 10 and 30 seconds. You’ll want the shutter speed to be longer if it is darker outside. If you’re near other buildings or a campfire, then you might try a shutter speed that is closer to ten seconds.

3. Set Your Aperture

Aperture is essentially how big the eye of your camera is. In order to take in as much light from the Northern Lights as possible—and capture the most vivid photographs—you will want the largest ‘eye’ possible. To control the aperture, you need to change your camera’s f-stop. Anywhere from 3.5 to 1.8 will work nicely.

4. Set Your ISO

Finally, the last setting we need to worry about is our ISO. This is what controls the camera’s sensitivity to light. Set your ISO to either 3200 or 6400 so your camera can pick up the beauty of the Northern Lights no matter how dark it is outside.

5. Use A Tripod

Unless you want your photos of the Northern Lights to look like a giant smear, you’ll want to use a sturdy tripod. This will ensure you do not shake the camera while it is capturing the image.

6. Use A Remote

If you choose to use your finger to push down on the shutter on the camera, you might cause the camera to shake slightly. This can also cause your image to blur. It happened to me, and it made it very difficult to remain completely still and capture the crisp image I wanted to take home. To avoid any shaking of the camera, use a remote to snap the photo.

7. Flash or No Flash?

If you choose to use your camera in Auto mode, then it is likely the camera will sense the scene is too dark and try to use a flash. But unfortunately, the flash will not illuminate the Northern Lights, leaving you with photos of a black sky and likely frustrated travel companions.

That said, if you want a photo of you standing in front of the Northern Lights, then you will likely need to use the flash so that you can see your face. Leave your camera settings as we set them up above but in combination with the flash. Then, be sure to stand super still for the entire 20 seconds it takes your camera to take the photo!

8. Can I Use My iPhone?

If you still don’t like the idea of toting a DSLR camera with you on your big Arctic adventure, you can try to use your iPhone to document the experience. And of course, there’s an app for that. The Northern Lights Photo Taker enhances your iPhone camera for the sole purpose of helping you take better photos of the Northern Lights. There are three presets to the app based on how strong the Aurora appears—all you have to do is tap the button that corresponds. While it might not be a substitute for a DSLR camera, it is certainly worth a try.

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Image Credit: A Cruising Couple

Additional Tips:

– It might sound self-explanatory, but be sure to bundle up! You don’t want the cold temperatures to ruin this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I recommend wearing tight-fitted gloves underneath a large, insulated mitten. The mittens will keep your hands warm and dry, but the gloves will allow you to take photos without fumbling around.

– Pack extra battery packs and memory cards. Again, you would be surprised how many stories we’ve heard where a traveler’s iPhone dies, quickly putting an end to their Northern Lights photography.

Above all else, remember to enjoy the memorable and unique experience of witnessing the Aurora Borealis. Whether or not you capture that National Geographic worthy photo isn’t as important as taking home memories to last a lifetime.

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Image Credit: A Cruising Couple

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