In My Heart

Here are some Northern Light photography tips

Northern light photography

Here I will share with you some basic thoughts about northern light photography or aurora borealis photography. The article is mainly about the technical side of this kind of photography.

aurora borealis I am one of those relatively few who live at 70 degrees north i Norwegian Lapland. As such I have the opportunity to see this nature fenomenon quite often. But even for me the magic of the aurora borealis never ends.

For centuries many atists have tried to describe the Northern light in paintings, drawings and in many other mediums. And of course more and people try to do some aurora borealis photography.

Here are the basic tips that you may try if you have the opportunity

(Photo: Martti Hagman)

Equipment needed

You don't need expensive cameras for your Northern light photography. I use a Canon EOS 400D. You can use any camera that: can take long exposures (up to 30 seconds)
a wide angle lens
a telephoto lens (optional)
a cable release, remote shutter release cord or remote control (optional)
warm clothes
fold-up chair (optional, but nice to have if you have to sit and wait)

Remove UV filter and any other filters from your lenses. Too often the filters will cause concentric rings and disturb your northern light photography.

Choice of Lens

You can use a 55 mm lens, but often you'll want to get more of the sky into the image when there's aurora activity all over the sky.

To get more of the sky in, you'll need a lens in the range below 20 mm. I use a 10-20 mm lens.

A lens slower than f/4.0 is going to be troublesome to work with, as exposure times and/or ISO numbers will have to be raised to compensate.

At times you want to zoom in on nice colours or patterns and shapes. Then a telephoto lens is handy.

Prevent camera jarring

A tripod makes your work much simpler. It must have a ball head or pan-tilt head because it must be able to point straight up. You must keep your camera absolutely still during the long exposures required to record the lights. If you don't have a tripod, you can place your camera on your car door, on outdoor furniture or on something sturdy.

Another effective gadget for this purpose is a simple bag of beans or sand which put your camera on. This bag can for instance be hanged on car door or whatever. Press the camera down on the bag. This will keep your camera steady.

You can make the bean bag yourself - or you can buy it. Read this article on how to make the bean bag as a means to keep your camera steady. It is especially important with northern light photography because of the slow shutter speeds needed. To prevent camera jarring, if possible, use a cable release. My camera hasn't got this possibility. But I have bought a remote control which is convenient. It doesn't much either. But you may also use the in-built timer. It is important to prevent camera jarring when tripping the shutter.

Basic settings

If possible, use ony manual settings. This applies also to the auto-focus (AF). Remember that AF does not work when photographing night skies.

Use the widest aperture (smallest f-number, i.e. 2,8 or 4). With a wide aperture you can use higher shutter speeds.

Experiment with shutter speeds up to 30 seconds. f/4.0, up to 30 seconds
f/2.8, 15-20 seconds

Set the focus at infinity.

It will be OK to set the ISO number at 400. Higher numbers (800 or 1600) may give more grainy photos, but may still be necessary to try out.

Use daylight white balance. But if you don't know about white balance, don't let that stop you. Go ahead.

Lower the LCD brightness. Good for your night vision.

RAW mode

If you are able to do some manipulation on an image processing program, then you should consider using the RAW mode (if your camera supports it). If not, just go ahead and experiment.

The Composition

This is an area where most people can improve. Good foreground elements will add a lot to the quality of the image. Too many Northern light pictures have a forest silhouette as the foreground. We have to stretch our imaginations more to get some steps further.

You can take photos of northern lights without a foreground element at all. This way the photo gets more abstract.

But you're more free to capture interesting patterns and shapes between the horizons. You often find nice patterns and shapes that can make good elements in your composition.

It is also possible to move the camera in the middle of a 30-second expose. The motion blur may create another interesting element.

Whenever possible, include a foreground - frame the lights with trees, get them reflecting in a lake, the possibilities are endless.

Finding a good location

Planning ahead can be important. A good location will have an interesting foreground, minimal light pollution, and as much open view as possible, preferably a 360-degree view.

The best thing is to find the locations during the day. You can reduce the time searching in cold weather. This way you can use your time shooting instead of searching for locations for your northern light photography.

Get as far away from artificially lit areas like cities or villages as you can. Light pollution will decrease the intensity of the aurora borealis you can capture. Remember that car headlights will damage your exposure.

I hope these simple tips will help you in your Lapland photography and northern light photography sessions. Of course you can use these tips even in Alaska, Canada and in Russia.

Here you can enjoy the northern lights photography of the Porjus-based photographer Patricia Cowern.

Read more about the Aurora Borealis (Northern Light).

Take the opportunity to learn a little more about the Lapland light.

Take a look at Lapland photos and other Scandinavian photos at our sister site.

Where the Reindeer Roam