I’ve seen the Northern Lights so many times, I can’t even count it. But they always seem to blow me away, especially when they’re really strong and the lights are moving across the sky so fast it’s hard to know where to look. Because they’re everywhere! But it’s not like that all the time. The lights can also be really faint and hard to see with the eye, even though a camera can capture them with long exposure times. Of course, everybody prefers it when they’re amazing and strong but I think they’re beautiful at all times.
I’ve put together a list of things to think about when you try to photograph them. It’s not as hard as it may seem, but it’s always good to be reminded of some things.
Find a good location
I would say that the location is the most important thing you need to consider when you go out on a hunt for the Northern Lights. It’s important to be somewhere without light pollution which means you have to get out of the cities with the bright lights! If they are really strong, you might be able to see them even though you’re not at a place where there’s complete darkness but that’s usually not the case.
But finding a good location also means finding a great spot so you can compose a great picture. That usually means you need to get out in nature instead of just standing beside the road at a parking space.
One of the best places on earth to watch the Northern Lights is Abisko in northern Sweden. There’s just something about that place! But northern Sweden in general is a good place to go on a hunt for the Northern Lights. Northern Finland and Norway is also very good places. And Iceland too, but since it’s a small island – it’s harder to drive away from bad weather than it is in the other places mentioned.
Dress for the cold
Which brings me to another important thing. You need to dress appropriately for the current weather. If it’s -30, you don’t want to get cold while you are outside! There’s a myth that says it has to be cold for the Northern Lights to be visible. But that’s not really the entire truth. Usually when the skies are clear, it is also cold which makes it easier to see them than if the skies are filled with clouds. But it’s more about having a clear sky, than the need for a cold winter’s day.
Keep your equipment warm
Since it’s usually cold when you are photographing the Northern Lights, you need to think about keeping both yourself and your equipment warm. Charge all your batteries and put them inside your pockets or in a sock in your bag. Any way you can keep them warm is good. It’s also good to bring an extra memory card, in case it gets full or breaks down. I use plastic bags as well to protect my camera if it’s snowing outside and always bring a flashlight/headlamp so you can see the settings on your camera in the darkness. I prefer a headlamp since I get both hands free with it.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The lights are strongest between November and March, but can be visible before/after that as well. But if you are planning a trip and hope to see them, between November and March is what I would recommend. I would also recommend that you stay at least 3 days in a place to maximize your chances to see them. Because after all, they are a nature phenomena and nobody can predict when they are visible. There’s different websites that offers Aurora Forecasts, but even they cannot promise that you will see the lights. You just have to wait, hope and see.
My best camera tips
Another thing to think about when you want to capture the Northern Lights on camera is to shoot manual. If you don’t know how to do that, I suggest you try to learn because you will find that it’s easier to capture them if you use manual settings. You want to have full control over your camera.
So what settings to use? I don’t have any set settings that I use. It depends on how strong the Northern Lights are. But I usually set my ISO to be between 200-1600. Your pictures will get more grainy when you use a higher ISO and all cameras handle that differently. But sometimes I think it’s more important to get a good picture, then to worry about the picture being too grainy. Of course, that’s individual and if you hate grainy pictures – use the lowest ISO possible!
As for aperture, I set it between 1.4 and 4. You want as much light as possible to enter the camera. And I usually use a shutter speed between 2-30 seconds. Again, it depends on how strong the lights are and how you want your image to turn out. My best tip is to try different shutter speeds and you’ll soon find out what works best for you and your camera.
When you use a long shutter speed, you also need to use a tripod to keep the camera still while it processes the picture. I also use a remote shutter release so I don’t need to touch the camera when I take my pictures as it can shake the camera. If you don’t have a remote shutter release you can set it on timer instead which gives you 2-10 seconds before the camera takes the actual picture. I’ve used that a couple of times when I’ve forgotten my shutter release at home and it works just as well, but it’s much easier with a shutter release.
I use a 24mm wide-angle lense for most of my Northern Lights pictures as I want to get as much of the scenery and the sky in the picture. It makes the pictures more interesting rather than if you just photograph the sky.
I also use manual focus, because using automatic focus never works since you don’t have anything to focus on. If you use manual focus you can set it to “infinity” (if you don’t know what that is, check your camera’s manual) and then it will focus on a very distant landscape which means it will focus on the sky and the Northern Lights. On most lenses, there is a mark where you set it to “infinity”.
So, that’s my best tips on how to get good pictures of the Northern Lights!