Seeing the Northern Lights is a unique and exhilarating experience that, sadly, too few get to experience. So, when most people get to see them, they’re overcome with a rushing desire to share the experience with those not fortunate enough to be there with them. And, there’s no better way than through the magic of photography. But, photographing the aurora is unfortunately not as easy as pointing your phone towards them and pressing the camera button.
The best way to capture some stunning pictures of the Northern Lights is with a DSLR camera. You’ll need your camera, a tripod, a remote (not necessary if your camera has a timer setting) and a good lens that’s wide and bright (around 20mm and f/2.8 and under is superb, higher f/ratios can work).
When we go out to look at the Northern Lights, our eyes adapt to the darkness and we can see the stars and the aurora fairly well. However, they are far dimmer than we perceive them. Thusly, when photographing them, it’s all about gathering as much light as you can per second. That is to say, you’ll want to adjust your lens’s f-stop to its lowest value, and then it’s practical to turn your camera’s ISO setting to the highest value that produces noise free (non-grainy) images. This allows you to have the shutter speed as fast as you’d like, without having your pictures grainy, but still capture the most light as it can for the shutter speed setting.
What difference does the shutter speed have when photographing the Northern Lights, you might ask. Well, the Northern Lights are a rapidly changing phenomenon, so a fast shutter speed allows you to capture the crispest images of the aurora. Much like when photographing a water stream or a waterfall. The slower the shutter speed, the less detail you get.
Shooting pictures in RAW is always a good choice, but especially so when you’re photographing the Northern Lights. White balance plays an integral part in pictures of the aurora, and shooting in RAW gives you the ability to adjust the white balance as you please in any image processing software, like Photoshop. You can, of course, adjust the white balance on your camera to a value that you find produces the boldest and most vivid colors, and just shoot in JPEG.
The most crucial part of photographing the Northern Lights is to get the focus on point. Having the focus perfect fills your pictures with pinpoint stars and crisp swathes of aurora. First of all, you’ll need to make sure that your lens (and in some cases your camera it self) has its focus setting set to manual focus (MF). If your camera has a live view feature, the process of getting the focus right is fairly straightforward and harmless. You simply turn on the live view, point your camera to any bright, distant object you see (a star, a planet, the moon, a mountain, a city skyline, whatever) and focus on that object. Using the moon or any bright star is always best (I find). If there’s nothing around that’s bright enough for your live view display, then you’ll have to rely on other methods. Using the viewfinder is seldom easy, or even possible. Not to fear, for the solution is easy. You begin by focusing to infinity. To do so, simply turn the focus ring on your lens to infinity (symbolized as ∞), which will be on either end of the focus range. That is, the infinity focus point will be achieved by either turning the focus ring all the way to the right, or all the way to the left, depending on lenses. Once you’ve focused to infinity, you take a test shot. For this test shot, you can turn the ISO up high, and the shutter speed to about a second (this should capture a bunch of stars). You then take another test shot, but this time you turn the focus ring a little bit away from infinity, and you compare the two. You perform this repetitive routine until you’ve found your spot on focus point.
To get started, I would suggest you set your camera up with the following settings:
- ISO 800-1600
- Aperture as open as possible (e.g. f/2.8-4.0)
- Shutter speed to about 10 seconds
- Experiment till you find the right white balance, usually around 3500-4300K.
If a 10 second exposure time results in a picture which is too dim, you’ll need to turn the ISO up a bit. If a 10 second exposure results in a picture which is too bright, you’re in a good position and you can go ahead and lower the shutter speed until the pictures turn out just right. But, after all, this is just a guide to go by. These settings and what works best varies from cameras and lenses, and once you’ve gotten yourself started in photographing the Northern Lights, you’ll find that much of this is up to the personal preferences of each photographer.
So, take your camera, your tripod, your remote, a flashlight, some hot chocolate and head out. Set up your gear, adjust your camera and lens to the aforementioned suggested settings and see what happens. You should experiment with fiddling with the settings, changing this value and that value, seeing how it affects the results. This will eventually give you a good feel and sense for photographing the aurora.