aurora 2

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis (Made Easy!)

aurora 2The Aurora Borealis (commonly known as the Northern Lights) are streaks of light dancing across the sky. They are breathtaking and look so hard to photograph! Looking at photos of the Aurora Borealis, you might think: “The photographer must have a really awesome camera to take those photos, and must live in a northern cold climate, and stand outside in knee deep snow freezing their fingers… I wish I could do that.” But that simply isn’t true, and you can do that. The Aurora is not as easy to photograph as a landscape, but anyone can do it. Here’s how, in a simple, easy to follow, non-technical article.

The truth is almost any DSLR can capture the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora is also visible year round, and you don’t have to live in Alaska to see the beautiful Northern Lights. True, you probably won’t see them if you live in Arizona or Texas, but you will see them in some of the northern United States, all of Canada, and of course Alaska.

What equipment do you need?

    • A DSLR camera, with a lens capable of a wide aperture (it does not have to be an expensive one). The trusty old nifty fifty 1.8 will do the job for around $150.00, and most photographers already have this lens on hand. I used my 50mm f/1.8 for the photos in this article. A wider angle lens will always be the better choice if you have one.

 

    • A fully charged battery

 

    • A tripod

 

    • A shutter release cable or wireless trigger. If you don’t have one, the timer built into the camera will work. Remember: a shutter release cable will give you more control than a timer and enable you to keep the shutter open as long as you want to. It is essential to use some sort of device to control the shutter to reduce vibration.

 

    • Don’t forget a flashlight, since you will be walking and working in the dark.

 

aurora 4The photos in this article were shot in central Alberta, Canada, in July. No snow or freezing fingers involved! There are lots of sites that tell you when the Aurora Borealis will be out. (I use Aurora Watch – this site sends an email telling me how strong the Aurora will be and what time it will be the strongest.) Then I get out of town! You will get a much better photo if you are a few miles away from the city lights; ambient light is not an asset here. Now that you have your tools and before you go out in the dark, you will want to set your camera, attach it to the tripod, and attach the cable or wireless trigger. The less fumbling you do in the dark the better.

aurora 5Now turn that dial to M! Sorry – you have to shoot manual for this. Go ahead – it’s not that scary! First set your shutter speed… to infinity and beyond! Or bulb… (That’s just not as exciting to say is it?) Bulb, infinity or that squiggly little ∞ symbol is what you are looking for. The first few times I tried to capture the Aurora I was severely disappointed. Why? Yes, I had caught them and I was excited about that, but they were out of focus! I was out in a field, in complete darkness… The question I asked myself was “How am I supposed to focus on what I can’t see?”

I looked online and found a lot of really technical articles that I didn’t totally understand and that just didn’t work for me. So instead, I came up with this idea and it works! If the moon is out, focus on that. If that’s not working, find a far-away house or a light off in the distance (communication towers work great) and focus on that. (This works for all night photography and it’s simple and easy.) I also use back button focus, but any method will work and I recommend you use the method you are comfortable with.

This is where things get a little more complicated and this is where the trial and error happens. Each camera will react to low light photography in a different way. I used a Nikon D7100 for these photos. It does well with high ISO and I could have gone higher, but didn’t. Why? You want to keep the ISO as low as possible. This will give you a photo with less of that “grainy look” (better known as a noisy photo). However, there is one other thing to consider: the Earth is a moving object. Those twinkling stars you see? Your camera sees them differently. Leave the shutter open for too long and you will have star trails. Our focus is the Aurora, so try and avoid star trails here. This means you’ll need a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed.

A shot of the Aurora with no star trails.

A shot of the Aurora with no star trails.

Next set your aperture. Again you will have to experiment. The moon is a factor here: is it a full moon or a quarter moon? This will determine what your aperture should be. If it’s a full moon, close your aperture a bit. If it’s a quarter moon you may want to open it a bit. I normally start at about f/3 and adjust according to the available light in the environment. Below is a simple chart to help you get started.

The following table offers some very rough estimates to start out:

f/ratio 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO
2
15 sec
07 sec
04 sec
2.8
30 sec
15 sec
07 sec
4
60 sec
30 sec
15 sec

 

auroraLast but not least, how long do you keep the shutter open? Once again, each camera is going to react differently. Let me give you a very non-technical example. I shoot Nikon. When I used the D90 I opened the shutter, counted to 10, and released it. Not very technical… but it worked! That was the perfect amount of time for that camera. When I used the D7100 and counted to 10, the photo was over-exposed. Counting to 7 (approximately three seconds) was about right for the D7100. I used the same lens both times.

So now you have the tools and knowledge needed to go get some awesome shots of the beautiful Northern Lights. Plan to go out at least a few times so you can experiment with different settings on your camera as well as different lighting situations in the environment around you. You can capture some really incredible things with some patience and practice!


About the Author

Improve Photography

This post is a guest post by a reader of Improve Photography.

Comments

    1. To remember; These are approximate settings, and can vary from camera to camera. On my Canon EOS 450 D I had as a ground principle f/3.5(as far open as it gets with a standard kit objective), ISO 400 or 800 and and the shutter at 10-15 sec. Autofocus and stabilizer shut off. In strongly moonlit nights you get a lot of help from the moon, so you just have to vary your settings.
      https://youpic.com/image/7036292/photo-taken-by-stigm-with-canon-eos-450d-in-nordland-nature.
      My Panasonic FZ200 Lumix behaves in quite a different way – trial and error folks. Happy hunting 🙂

    2. Technically the aurora IS clouds, just not clouds of vapor like here on Earth. They are clouds of magnetic particles.

    3. I’m an amateur, so would like to ask a dumb question – read somewhere that shooting the Aurora one must remove any filter in front of the lens, is that correct?

  1. Can you explain “Bulb” a little more. I was told to use this once and don’t understand how to. Thanks

    1. Bulb means that the shutter stays open for as long as you can hold down the shutter button. I think some cameras, the bulb just stays open for 30 min but I could be completely wrong. Basically though you are in complete control how long the shutter stays open by how long you can keep your finger on the shutter release button. Hope this helps. If I am worn with any info, please someone feel free to correct. 🙂

      1. The term “bulb” comes from the days of glass plate cameras, when the shutter mechanism was activated by a pneumatic hose connected to the camera and activated by a rubber “bulb”, much like a blower lens cleaning brush.

        In later years, after the shutters were able to operate at predetermined speeds the “Bulb” option was used for the photographer to keep the shutter open as long as wanted.

        You simply had to keep the bulb squeezed.

        On modern DSLR cameras, you can manually set shutter speeds to 30 seconds. if you want longer, you have to use the “bulb” setting.

        The worst way to do this is use your finger on the shutter button. The right way is to connect a remote shutter release to the camera.

        Some of the electro mechanical cameras of the 70s and 80s had a screw thread in the shutter button. This was for a cable driven remote to be used.

        The DSLRs of today require an electronic connection…

  2. @Castroleo

    – it’s normal that it looks like light clouds or like that , for the naked eye .
    The beautiful and fantastic colors comes when you take a photo because ours eyes can’t catch the colors like the camera can

    1. @ Bianca

      I think you have it mixed up Bianca. Our eyes are very dynamic and we see way more than the camera can. Have you ever taken a photo of a sunrise/sunset and the colors just didn’t look like what you seen?

      1. @ William

        As a matter of fact, you are wrong. The reason a sunset looks better to the eye is due to light intensity more so than color. The human eye is able to focus on light without under exposing shadows and vice versa (much like an HDR image attempts to replicate). However, cameras are better at capturing colors than the human eye.

        1. Sorry, but the aurora is not like a sunset with waning sun light to help your eyes out. I have been amazed when with a aurora guide and he is shooting what looks like faded clouds and it is vivid green on film. Even when there is a strong aurora and the curtains are extremely visible , you’ll see more of the green tint, but the photos will be phonomenal with intense greens and often other colors. The difference is the total amount of light available for you eyes to process what you are seeing.

    2. That is exactly how I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland. like lovely lace curtains but barely any colour until you took a digital image. I was told that some people see them in colour, especially children, but it is quite normal not to see the colours with the naked eye. If you do see the colours, I think that you are just lucky that your eyes ‘see’ in that way. I was very surprised that no programme I had even seen on TV hadn’t mentioned this.

      1. I lived in the interior of Alaska for 12 years and almost every time I saw the Aurora Borealis it started out slightly white like a cloud and then would start a swirling motion and become green and then the “curtain” would “dance” with greens and reds and move across the high horizon. February and March were the best times of display and very awesome. When the curtain danced it reminded me of the visual of someone playing the piano.

      2. Hi, I am going to Iceland in September 2016. Any suggestions of better sites to photo from????
        Thanks.

  3. First, I only have a film camera which allows me to experiment with the F stops etc. Should I get a digital?

    Second,when you speak “the bulb” can you do that with a digital camera?

    1. You can see them in many northern states and yes there’s a “bulb” setting on digital cameras, too

      I would get a digital so that you can experiment less expensively…I hardly ever use my film camera anymore…which probably isn’t good but I’m used to digital now. 🙂

      1. I just bought my wife a Nikon 1 AW 1, which comes with the W 11-27.5mm lens. I am really not into photography, but this camera is an important gift for her. We live in Alaska, and she loves taking pictures. I have 2 questions, and I would really appreciate an answer. I tried very hard to find an answer, but for some reason, nothing so far. How would I use this camera in darkness or not enough lighting outside? I was trying to find out whether this lens and camera would work for that, but I couldn’t locate any “bub” symbol or focus. Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Again, this is a Nikon 1 AW1 with the W11-27.5mm lens.

        1. If you are trying to shot in low light conditions, you can either lower the shutter speed (requires a tripod), increase the aperture (requires a lens with around f/2.8 or lower for good results), or increase the ISO (may cause noise on images). The only other option is flash which yields weak often unappealing results depending on the situation.

    2. The aurora can be seen all across Canada and some of the US states south of Canada as well. I’m in Central Alberta and spent my weekend shooting them. Got some great shots!

  4. Thank you so much for the great information on Youtube and your web site! I am a BEGINNER photographer armed with a Nikon D7100 (I know,overkill). But I am leaving on a trip to Alaska next week and I desperately want to shoot the AB. I am terrified! I may never get another chance like this and I don’t want to mess it up.
    I have been searching youtube for days looking for information that I could understand. You have the best site BY FAR!
    I am going to print your chart and take it with me. I am also going to buy your e-books on amazon today.
    Is there anything else I should do with my D7100. Any special filters? I have an 18-200 and a 55-300 lens. Which should I use?
    Please Help Me!

  5. “…the Earth is a moving object.”

    What’s the longest exposure for stationary stars? 10 seconds?

  6. I entered “photographing aurora borealis” into Google and this page came up as natural result #3 on page 1. Great SEO, Jim. Just a heads up.

    We are supposed to have a unique opportunity to see some northern lights tonight from way down here in Longview Washington due to that sun flare.

    Thx, Jim.

  7. Bianca is correct about the camera seeing more than the human eye when viewing the aurora borealis at night…here’s the reason why:

    “I’ve photographed fantastic Northern Lights displays, and I’ve been lucky enough to observe a wide range of colors, including greens, purples, yellows, oranges, reds, magentas and blues. But I never really know what the true color of the aurora is unless I’m looking at my camera’s LCD viewfinder screen, or more importantly, viewing the images on my computer. Why?
    The simple answer is because human eyes can’t see the relatively “faint” colors of the aurora at night. Human eyes have cones and rods — the cones work during the day and the rods work at night.
    On the website Astropix, Jerry Lodriguss describes it this way: “Humans use two different kinds of cells in their eyes to sense light. Cone cells, concentrated in the fovea in the central area of vision, are high resolution and detect color in bright light.
    These are the main cells we use for vision in the daytime. Rod cells, concentrated in the periphery around the outside of the fovea, can detect much fainter light at night, but only see in black and white and shades of gray. [Aurora] only appear to us in shades of gray because the light is too faint to be sensed by our color-detecting cone cells.”
    Thus, the human eye primarily views the Northern Lights in faint colors and shades of gray and white. DSLR camera sensors don’t have that limitation. Couple that fact with the long exposure times and high ISO settings of modern cameras and it becomes clear that the camera sensor has a much higher dynamic range of vision in the dark than people do.” (From an article by photographer Mike Taylor for space.com)
    How Cameras Reveal the Northern Lights’ True Colors (Op-Ed)
    Mike Taylor, Taylor Photography
    Date: 22 November 2013 Time: 05:20 PM ET

  8. Thank you, after reading many articles I had nearly decided not to try and capture the Northern
    Lights but having read your instructions I feel inspired to try ☺

  9. Thank you so much for this article! I have just taken my first ever photographs of the Aurora, despite living in communities where the lights are so bright for years.

    My photos are not great… but I am so happy with them as first attempts.

    Thank you.

  10. Thank you, great article. I’m just in the looking stage and getting ready to do some traveling.

    Blessings,
    Glenda

  11. Thank you, great article. I’m just in the looking stage and getting ready to do some traveling.
    Blessings,
    Glenda

  12. I have a Nikon Coolpix P610 bridge camera which offers a range of functions such as night landscape, fireworks and moon.
    Would any of these offer a reasonably reliable means of capturing the AB? Also, I would like to attempt video capture with the same camera. Would that be possible do you think?

    1. Hi Ian, just reading your article on the bridge camera taking AB photos. More of a question for you if you don’t mind !!!!!
      Did you get any tips on this ?
      I have a Nikon P900 with the same landscape, fireworks, moon settings with also the video capture, did you manage to capture any photos or videos with your P610 ???? If so what settings did you use.

      😊

      Thanks in anticipation
      John

  13. I just came back from Iceland. It is difficult to say where you will be able to see the lights. However, there are some very good apps that actually tell you where the will be stronger. There are several tour companies that take people out and all of them check online sights/NOA for the good spots. Having said that, you must be selective in your choice of tour company. Read reviews. You can also rent a car and chase the lights. If you choose tour companies, such as, Reykjavik Excursions or GeoIceland that take out large groups, they go out for about 3 hours avg. This includes the driving time and you must also factor in the amount of people (30-40) that will be walking around and definitely not paying attention to you and your tripod/camera, as well as the need for darkness as they often use flashlights to see where they are walking. It kind of ruins the moment if you are interested in photographing the experience. I used Artic Shots tour company. THEY ARE GOOD!! They are professional photographers, as well as, licensed tour guides. They stay away from the large buses, find beautiful sites for nice backdrop, very honest and work with their clients to help them take their best photos. They also spend more time with their clients than anyone else.. avg 4.5-5 hrs. You will have to put your camera on Manual to capture the lights as well as having a tripod. have fun!!

  14. @Ron. Download the app Arura Iceland and it will tell you what locations you can best see the Nortern Lights from. I just got back from Iceland and it was a great tool to use.
    Enjoy your trip, Iceland is a beautiful country!

  15. I will be in Iceland in Sept 2016 and wanted to stay at Hotel Berg in Keflavik but they are all booked. I was told this place was a great location to see the northern lights as they are right on the cliff and they gave Northern Lights wake up calls/Sirens.

    Any suggestions?

  16. Hi, I am going to Iceland in February to photograph the Northern Lights. I have a Nikon D5300 , a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 can you advice me on what setting I should put it on since I’ve never done manual shooting. Also, I was told that I can use my sigma 70-300mm is this true. Hope to hear from you.
    Thank you

  17. The northern lights are not visible in all of Canada. Much of Canada is way less than ideal for viewing the northern lights. That’s just an assumption

  18. Hi. This may be a little late. I went in March 2016 and went with a group called Artic Shots. They are professional photographers that take people out to shoot the Northern Lights. They are very good and VERY helpful and do their best to make it memorable. We went for several hours with them. They monitor the kp strength and only go when there is a good possibility.

  19. I wish I’d read this a week ago. I was in the north of Scotland when the Aurora made an appearance two nights running and I didn’t know how to get a decent picture. I saw mainly green with my naked eye and the camera was able to make it appear even stronger. Just didn’t have a tripod so the pictures are blurred. Iceland can be a hit or a miss – we went in December and never saw the Aurora. Have seen some stunning photos taken by others from the Scottish mainland and islands.

  20. I go to Iceland on the 14th of December I have a Nikon Coolpix P610, can this be used to capture the northern lights? If so, how?!

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