How to Take the Perfect Northern Lights Photograph

The world is packed of great places to visit, sights to see and unique experiences to share with loved ones and fellow travelers.

From the sunny beaches of Australia to boreal birch forests and alpine tundra of Iceland, there is something for every taste. Travelers can enjoy stunning sights, sounds and atmosphere that will stay with them forever. That might be in their mind’s eye, or on digital camera, the preferred method of saving memories for a lifetime in the modern age.


Travel photography is a skill that differs between locations. Pointing and clicking on a bright day in a busy city might bring positive results, but if you try the same for something such as the Northern Lights, you will be severely disappointed. Whilst you can see the naturally occurring light show in parts of Canada, one area of Europe is famed for the experience: Iceland.


They are one of Scandinavia’s most beautiful naturally occurring sights, which are tricky to capture digitally, or even on film, and will require a degree of photography skill to do so effectively. Luckily, if you are planning on a trip to see Aurora Borealis then the following tips will ensure you can take them home to show family and friends, to remember forever.


You will certainly need a DSLR to take good photos of the Northern Lights, one in which you can adjust aperture, metering mode, exposure and the like. This is really important; you cannot just go there with a pocket digital camera and expect to get good shots.

It is not just the camera that needs to be in your bag either – do not forget a tripod.


Taking a steady shot is critical to many types of photographs, which is clearly demonstrated by the wide range of tripods listed in the photography section on Adorama. This is especially pertinent with any type of nighttime photography, which requires a steady camera for several seconds at a time.


Prepping for the perfect photograph is important too because once you are at the location you may need to react quickly. Make sure you have your camera set to infinite focus, meaning the far horizon is sharp on your lens. This is best done before you go out in the dark, so perhaps at your hotel room, or somewhere during the day. Try to mark your lens at the right point, a silver sharpie will do, or a little tape. This means you can quickly find the setting if you do find you have problems when you are in the field. If your lens has autofocus, switch this off, as it will try to adjust when you are out.


The three most important settings to use on your camera when taking shots of the Northern Lights are aperture width, exposure time and ISO. Even if you are a complete amateur, these are relatively simple changes to make to your camera’s setting. The aperture, which is marked as AV (aperture value) on a Canon, or just A on a Nikon, should be as low as possible. This will be dictated by your lens, but usually, it will be around f2.8 or f4.


Exposure will vary depending on the quality of the lights and how quickly they move. If they are slow-moving, try a 15-20 second shot. Remember, this is when you will need a good tripod to keep the shot steady. If the aurora is quick-moving, 5-10 seconds might be enough, whilst if it is vague you may need longer. Much depends on how quickly they move.


ISO is the setting which will brighten and darken your photo automatically. The higher the ISO, the more ‘noise’ you will get in the picture, which is the grainy effect you often see on darker shots. With a long exposure, you will not need a high ISO setting, somewhere around 800 will suffice.


That is a basic guide in terms of equipment, preparation and settings, but the real test is something that cannot be explained in-depth- reaction. The Northern Lights are a rapidly moving phenomenon, acting naturally and without thought for you or your camera. Be prepared to react quickly to changing circumstance, and be prepared to fail, too. Most of all, do not miss out on the experience because you are stuck behind a camera lens – make the most of seeing this wonderful occurrence and enjoy it for what it is, as well as trying to capture it on camera.

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