10 Tips to Photograph the Northern Lights

Northern lights over the Thickwood HIlls, Saskatchewan. 15 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 400


Learn how to photograph the stunning, colourful aurora borealis this season with tips from seasoned photographers.


We are in the midst of a prime northern lights season. While northern latitudes provide the best opportunities, we have an excellent chance of seeing the aurora borealis throughout most of Canada this winter. The best news is that capturing these dazzling light displays with our cameras is one of the easier forms of night photography. Here are 10 tips to get you started.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Use Tripods

Capturing the northern lights requires exposures of anywhere from one to 30 seconds so a tripod is essential. In a pinch without a tripod, set your camera on something solid and point it at the sky. Then use the self-timer so that you don’t touch the camera during the exposure period and begin camera shake.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Bring Your Best Camera Equipment

It’s possible to take the northern lights images with practically any camera—even a cell phone provided that you keep it steady. However, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, especially full-frame models, will provide superior results because of the larger sensors and better low-light capabilities.

Use the widest lens you have and set it to the widest aperture (the smallest number such as f/2.8). Our go-to lens for most night photography is a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. With slower lenses (those that don’t open as wide) you need a higher ISO setting which introduces more noise to the image, or you need a longer exposure. A cable release or remote trigger is useful to eliminate camera shake. Otherwise, use the camera’s self-timer.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Set Exposure Settings

Exposure settings vary depending on the strength of the aurora and the amount of ambient light. The aperture setting is easiest—open it as wide as it will go. With a lens set at f/2.8, for example, a shutter speed of around 15 seconds and an IS0 of 800 or 1,600 is often a reasonable starting point. Check the result on your camera screen and adjust the shutter speed or ISO up or down as needed.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Turn Off Autofocus

Autofocus doesn’t work well in the dark, if at all. Rather than fiddling around trying to focus manually at night, our preference is to use autofocus to focus on a distant object during the daytime, which will establish infinity focus. Then turn autofocus off and tape the focus ring down so that it doesn’t move (gaffer tape is best since it doesn’t leave a sticky residue). That way we don’t have to worry about finding focus in the dark or accidentally moving the focus ring. Wide-angle lenses have a lot of depth of field, so unless we are extremely close, foreground subjects such as trees or buildings will still be sharp when focused on infinity. Robin and Arlene Karpan


Remove Filters from Your Lens

Filters should be removed because they often cause weird concentric circles in the centre of your aurora images. This simple precaution is easy to overlook as we found out the hard way one night.


Shoot in RAW

Most cameras now allow you to choose between two different shooting formats—RAW or JPG, or to capture one of each in the same exposure. A JPG looks better straight out of the camera while a RAW file retains a lot more detail but usually needs some processing work. It’s like baking a cake using raw ingredients which you can adjust to your taste or opening a ready-made cake mix. While RAW files are preferable in any type of photography, they are especially useful for night images by providing more flexibility in recovering highlights, bringing out details in dark areas and adjusting the white balance.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Include Foreground Interest

While the sky is the star attraction, the ground below can play a strong supporting role by providing context and a sense of place. Features in the landscape such as trees, an interesting building or even people (provided that they can stand still long enough) can be an important part of the composition. With water in the foreground, you might also get a reflection from the lights.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Get Outta Town

The darker the sky, the better the lights show up. City lights tend to wash out the colours (except when the aurora is exceptionally strong). Similarly, a full moon will compete with the aurora for attention. But the silver lining is that moonlight is great for illuminating foreground features.Robin and Arlene Karpan


Monitor Aurora Forecasts

Aurora forecasts help us prepare. Among the most popular is the Space Weather Prediction Center. Our go-to site is Aurora Watch. Operated by the University of Alberta, it monitors geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area, making it especially useful in the prairie provinces and parts of the Rocky Mountains. You can sign up for email alerts which usually come on short notice, sometimes in the middle of the night.


Experiment and Have Fun

Since the aurora moves, it’s fun to experiment with shorter exposures to freeze the action and longer exposures to portray a sense of movement. There is no right or wrong. Keep in mind that if stars are visible, they will start looking elongated rather than points of light if the exposure is too long. Aurora photography is quite forgiving, making it suitable for those new to night photography. You can be a bit off on your settings and still get a compelling image. Above all, it’s a great way to enjoy being out in nature under the glorious night sky.


More Tips and Tricks on Explore Magazine: