Photographing the Northern Lights

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I’m no expert on photographing the northern lights, having only done so on three occasions (and all in the same location), but I often get asked for tips on how to photograph them effectively. Just yesterday, as I drove across the Canada/US border at Blaine, Washington, the border agent asked where I’d gone in Canada, and when I said “Yellowknife, to photograph the northern lights,” he proceeded to grill me for a few minutes on how it works, what equipment you need, and other details. Which was a much more pleasant conversation than some of the other grillings I’ve sat through at that border crossing!

So I thought I’d put together here a few tips on what I’ve learned so far about shooting the northern lights. First off, here are some examples of the northern lights photos I’ve been lucky enough to capture to date:

The rest of this post is about how to get photos like those. The good news: it’s really very simple to do. The bad news: you’ll probably have to travel a long distance to do it, and you may need to risk frostbite as well. Be careful out there!

Getting There

The northern lights are most often visible in the areas just below the Arctic Circle, and you’re more likely to see them during the long nights of winter than during the short nights of summer. There are a few places that are known for being good locations to photograph them, and in North America one of your best options is to go to Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Yellowknife

Yellowknife is in the right area for maximizing your chances of seeing the lights (hey, who wants to plan an expensive trip to see the lights and get shut out?), and it also offers several benefits compared to other similar destinations:

  • Yellowknife is a small city (about 20,000 population), and there are no other cities or towns nearby, so you only have to drive a few miles out of town to get away from the light pollution of the city.
  • Yellowknife is easily accessible by air: just a short flight from Edmonton International Airport, which has non-stop service from many cities. (Tokyo to Edmonton is a popular flight, for example.)
  • The northern lights are a huge tourist attraction in Yellowknife, so you can rent everything you need, including parkas and boots that will keep you warm at 50 below zero and tour guides who can take you to great spots for viewing and photographing the lights. (In my case, I cheated on this last item, having some great friends who happen to live in Yellowknife.)

If you’re not in North America, then you may have great options closer to home in places like Norway or Iceland. I only know about the Yellowknife option, which is great if you live in Seattle. Last Friday, I was photographing the northern lights less than 18 hours after leaving my home in Seattle, and that included time for a leisurely afternoon in Yellowknife with friends.

Camera Gear

Folks often ask if special equipment is needed for shooting the northern lights. Not any more: any modern DSLR camera will do a great job.

That said, here are a few considerations:

  • A fast wide-angle lens is a must, if you want to get high-quality shots. By “fast,” I mean a lens that goes to a low minimum F-stop number: F/2.8 or even lower is great, but you can get by with an F/4 lens if needed. Go much above that, and it’s going to be hard to get sharp photos because you’ll need a very long exposure or high ISO setting (more on that later).
  • Another must-have is a good sturdy tripod. You don’t need an expensive carbon-fiber model, and in fact those super lightweight tripods are more susceptible to vibration from the wind. A cheap, heavy metal tripod works wonders for this sort of photography. You just need something that will hold your camera still.
  • Some people feel a shutter remote or cable release is a necessity, but I’ve usually skipped that even though I always have them with me. If you’re careful and have a light touch when pressing the shutter button, I think those are optional.

The one other thing that will help is a camera that has good quality (i.e., low noise) in the high ISO settings. This is a subjective thing, but DSLR cameras vary quite a bit on this measure. I find that my $3000 Nikon D800 can capture reasonable shots at ISO 6400, and it looks great at ISO 1600. My $200 Nikon D40, on the other hand, is reasonable at ISO 800 but needs to go to ISO 200 to really look great. (To understand the tradeoffs involved in these settings, see Camera Settings below.)

Camera Settings

There are three recurring challenges you’ll face in any low-light photography situation, and they all apply when shooting the northern lights:

  • Exposure — you need to get the exposure correct, and in very low light your camera’s autoexposure capabilities may not be much help.
  • Motion — you need to minimize motion blur, and when you’re photographing the sky that means having a short enough exposure that the stars don’t turn into little oblongs instead of sharp points of light.
  • Grain — you’ll want to minimize the amount of grain in your photo, and that means using the lowest ISO setting possible, as well as post-processing steps to further reduce noise.

Here’s how I go about addressing these issues, as a series of steps to take every time you set up to photograph the northern lights:

  • Use manual settings on your camera — no autoexposure, no auto-ISO.
  • Before putting your camera on the tripod, set the focus to infinity. Most cameras can autofocus on a star, so just do that and then switch to manual focus mode so that it doesn’t change. IMPORTANT: on some lenses, turning the focus ring to the “infinity” end of its range doesn’t actually work, and the proper setting is just a little before that point. So it’s better to use your autofocus to be sure, or you can take several test shots until the stars are as sharp as possible.
  • For the aperture setting, you want it wide open: that is, the lowest F-stop number your lens supports. For example, if it’s an F/2.8 lens you’ll set the aperture to F/2.8.
  • For ISO sensitivity setting, use the highest number you can stand, in terms of grain. if you don’t have an opinion on that, start with ISO 1600 and experiment from there as described below.

There’s also the matter of composition, but that’s subjective and you can do whatever you want. I recommend pointing your camera at a pretty part of the sky. :) One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes you can get some great shots with your camera pointed straight up, so experiment with different compositions and remember that the lights are constantly morphing and shifting, so the best composition a minute ago may no longer be the one you want. Be flexible.

OK, so now we have everything set up per above, and there’s only one variable left to adjust: the shutter speed. And the fastest way to figure out the proper shutter speed for a good exposure is to experiment with it. Try something — say, 10 seconds. Was that too bright? Then cut it in half, to 5 seconds. If it’s too dark, double it and try 20 seconds. Play around until you get a shot where the colors look good.

Congratulations, you’ve taken a great-looking shot of the northern lights!

There’s just one more thing you may need to adjust. Look closely at the photo (zoom in as far as possible on your camera’s display), and check whether the stars are round points of light. If they’ve started to blur into oblongs or lines, you’re going to need a faster shutter speed. And to get a shorter shutter speed, you’re going to have to increase the ISO setting. This is the core issue you’ll face in photographing the northern lights: the tradeoff between a grainy high ISO and a star-blurring slow shutter speed.

For example, let’s say you’re using ISO 1600 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds, and that makes the aurora’s colors look great but the stars are blurring. Try doubling the ISO setting to 3200, and cutting the shutter speed in half to 15 seconds. That will make the colors look essentially the same, but the stars will move half as far while the earth is spinning during your shot. This may require some experimentation, but that’s the basic concept.

As a general rule of thumb, with a wide-angle lens you’ll see the stars start blurring with anything more than about a 20-second exposure. But don’t memorize these sorts of details, because conditions are constantly changing. Learn to look at your results and experiment until you’re getting the best possible compromise from your equipment. This is the single most important thing that digital photography has delivered, in my opinion: the instant feedback that enables you to learn about photography in real time. With a digital camera, you can learn things in a few seconds that used to require multiple round-trips to the film processing lab. Take advantage of this!

One final thought: post-processing. There are great noise reduction filters you can use to turn a grainy photo into a smooth work of art, but this post is already long enough so we’ll leave that topic for another day.

Have fun shoorting the northern lights! If all goes well, you might get lucky and have a shooting star race past during your long exposure, like I did here …

northern lights and shooting star

That’s all there is to it. You can spend a lifetime perfecting your technique, and I’m planning to do exactly that, but the basics are simple and straightforward. Hope that helps you take advantage of the opportunity to photograph the northern lights. Now start planning that trip!

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