How to Photograph the Northern Lights

TravelAge West offers 10 tips on how to photograph the northern lights By: Monica Poling
Professional equipment is certainly better when it comes to photographing the northern lights // © 2012 Hurtigruten
Professional equipment is certainly better when it comes to photographing the northern lights // © 2012 Hurtigruten

No trip to see the northern lights would be complete without the resulting photographs to prove that you have “been there, done that.” Still, capturing this nighttime light show is easier said than done, especially if you are using a basic point-and-shoot camera.

The following tips, and a little quality time with your owner’s manual will help you improve your photography of the northern lights.

Turn Off Automatic Settings
With automatic settings your camera will likely set itself to night mode, but the resulting settings are not conducive to capturing the lights in action.

Deactivate the Flash
Similarly, make sure the flash is deactivated. Many cameras will automatically set their night modes to include a flash. But all that extra light coming from your camera will wash out the effects of the northern lights.

Set Your ISO
Your “film speed” is very important when capturing the northern lights. Any setting lower than 100 will make it impossible to capture the lights, but anything higher than 400 will usually cause what is called “noise” and make your pictures look grainy. As camera technology advances, cameras with larger light sensors can be set to ISOs higher than 400, but if you’re in doubt as to your camera settings, keep it within 100-400.

Widen Your Aperture Setting
Try to let in as much light as possible by widening your aperture setting. Lower f/stops are  a must, and you usually want to keep your settings at an f/2.8 setting or lower.

Set a Long Shutter Speed
In order to let in enough light to capture the northern lights, it is best to program your camera with a long shutter speed. If this function is available on your camera, a setting of 30 seconds or longer is best.

Use a Tripod
This long shutter speed means that it will be impossible to take a decent photo without a tripod. Even though carefully balancing an object on a stationary setting will help stabilize the picture, the long shutter speed will pick up even the slightest movement. Some photographers even recommend using an auto release button but, if that is not available, setting your camera on timer mode should help reduce the shake from pressing the shoot button.

Set Your Lens Distance
If your camera is advanced enough — usually this option is only available on a DLSR — set your lens to manual mode and set the focus mode to infinity. 

Practice Makes Perfect
Try playing with your camera settings before you leave home, by shooting the moon or other night sky objects. This way you won’t have to fiddle with your settings in the middle of a pitch-black, arctic evening. Similarly, be sure to have your camera settings in place before setting out on your hunting the lights excursion.

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