Tips For Northern Lights Photography



Imagine standing under a star-spangled sky, a cool breeze nipping your cheeks, everything illuminated by a dance of light streaking across the heavens. Capturing this ethereal spectacle — the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis to use its scientific name, offers photophiles a chance to turn a moment of celestial extravaganza into a lasting memory.

The Northern Lights are natural light displays that occur in high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic. Their vivid colours and hypnotic movement make for exceptional photography subjects. Experienced gazers can often predict where the lights will appear, with famous hotspots such as Tromsø in Norway, Abisko in Sweden, or the town of Reykjavik in Iceland. But capturing their elusive beauty is another challenge altogether.

Getting the perfect shot of this spectacle is a blend of art, science, and a little bit of luck. The visuals you can capture are as diverse as the lights themselves, ranging from subtle hues draping the night sky to dynamic, almost theatrical displays of colour.

This article will dive into how understanding the science of the Northern Lights can enhance your photography, provide essential equipment suggestions, and give you practical tips on leveraging weather and location to your advantage. Additionally, we’ll explore composition techniques unique to Aurora Borealis photography, discuss how to experiment with camera settings, and cover basic post-processing tips to make your images truly shine. We’ll also outline common mistakes to avoid when shooting the Northern Lights.

So, ready your thermals and pack your gear. We’re off to the fascinating, colourful phenomenon that is Aurora Borealis photography. Because as they say – in photography, there’s more to light than meets the eye. Let’s begin.

Understanding Northern Light

A photograph is only as breathtaking and engaging as the understanding of its subject. In the case of Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, a deeper comprehension of this natural marvel will not only enrich your photography experience, but also enhance your ability to capture extraordinary images.

Northern Lights are natural light displays occurrence in high-latitudes regions on Earth. They occur when particles from the Sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. The energy released during this phenomenon creates curtains of color dancing in the sky, mesmerizing onlookers and photographers alike.

The colors of the Northern Lights are quite a spectacle to discuss. Originating from the type of gas particles coming from the sun, you will mostly see green, but can also spot pink, red, blue, and purple. Green, the most common color, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the Earth. Reds are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Blue is given off by nitrogen at lower altitudes, and purple and pink hues emerge from nitrogen at high altitudes.

You’ll find that the intensity of the Northern Lights is not constant. It is influenced by solar activity and the frequency of solar winds entering the Earth’s magnetic field. When solar activity is high, the lights become more vibrant and tend to be seen further towards the equator. During periods of low solar activity, the lights are usually visible only in the Polar Regions.

Understanding the science behind these colors triggers, can assist you in predicting the colors that might manifest during your photography sessions. By mastering this, your grasp on the subtleties of Northern Lights photography will be greatly strengthened, providing a substantial improvement to your pictures.

Now that you understand the science behind these dancing celestial curtains, you’re ready to gear up and capture them. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the necessary equipment for shooting the dazzling display of Northern Lights.

Necessary Equipment

Venturing into Northern Lights photography isn’t necessarily a gear-intensive operation, but it definitely asks for some specific tools. Not having the right tools is like showing up to a chocolate tasting session with a nose full of cold – you’re missing out on the full experience. Here’s a brief run-through of the essential equipment you’ll need for your nighttime photo adventure:

  1. A Robust Camera: You don’t need an ultra-high-end camera to capture stunning Northern Light images, but a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual mode is ideal. This enables you to control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which are critical factors when shooting in low light conditions. Remember, the more control you have over these settings, the more creative leeway you have with your final image.
  2. Wide-angle Lens: When it comes to lens selection, a fast, wide-angle lens should be your best friend. The larger field of view allows for capturing vast landscapes along with the majestic aurora. As for speed, a lens that can open up to f/2.8 or larger helps gather as much light as possible in a short duration of exposure.
  3. Trusty Tripod: Although we love testing our telekinetic powers, it’s safe to say none of us can hold a camera steady for the length of time required for good Northern Lights photography. That’s where your tripod steps in. It holds your camera steady throughout the exposure, ensuring sharp images devoid of any movement blur.
  4. Remote Shutter Release: This little gadget might seem somewhat unnecessary, but it’s quite key. When you press the shutter button on your camera manually, even the slightest shake can cause a blurry image. The remote shutter release allows you to take the shot without physically touching the camera, eliminating the risk of camera shake.
  5. Spare Batteries: Cold weather and batteries don’t enjoy each other’s company much, leading to batteries draining faster than usual. Having a set of fully charged spare batteries, kept warm in your pocket, is an excellent idea to keep your shoot rolling.

After the camera and lens, the settings are what brings your vision to life. In the upcoming sections, we’ll dig into camera settings, composition techniques, and post-processing to help you create compelling images of Aurora Borealis. Remember, understanding the basic tools and the optimal usage of them sets the bedrock for any successful photoshoot, be it under the glowing Northern Lights or anywhere else.

Weather and Location

When it comes to shooting the Northern Lights, your environment is just as crucial as the equipment you’re packing. Getting your settings right might be one part of the equation, but weather conditions and location can make the difference between a striking capture of the aurora and, well, just an average shot of the night sky.

Now, to the untrained eye, you might think that all you need for Northern Lights photography is a dark, clear night. However, it’s not always that straightforward. Yes, clear skies are a friend to the aurora photographer, but let’s delve into the why and how.

Clear Skies

Northern Lights are typically visible in dark skies, so the fewer the clouds, the better your chances. Why so? Simply put, clouds can completely mask the aurora, or at the very least, diffuse its intensity. Also, considering you’ll be aiming your lens upwards most of the time, any cloud cover can limit the visibility of this natural spectacle. So, keep your eyes peeled for clear skies when planning your Northern Lights hunt.

Darkness Favors the Aurora

The darker the location, the more vibrant the aurora displays. This is no subtle coffee shop wall-art — the Northern Lights demand the spotlight. Choosing areas with minimal artificial light pollution will increase the visibility of the lights dramatically. So skip the city lights and head for more secluded spots. Think remote lakes, mountainous regions, or indeed, the isolated beauty of the Arctic landscapes.

Wintertime is Prime Time

Winter is among the best seasons to photograph the Northern Lights. Why? It’s no complex equation—more hours of darkness simply provide more opportunities to witness the aurora. This is particularly the case in high-latitude locations, where winter sunsets come early and sunrises arrive late.

Local Forecasts and Solar Activity

For precise planning, keep an eye on local weather forecasts to avoid cloudy nights. Furthermore, leverage information from solar activity websites and apps. These platforms can provide you with real-time predictions on Northern Lights activity, helping to optimize your chances of witnessing this elusive phenomenon. Remember, outside of the optimal viewing regions, Northern Lights displays aren’t an everyday occurrence, so a little forecast foresight goes a long way.

In summary, a perfect blend of clear skies, minimal light pollution, winter darkness, and well-timed solar activity can significantly boost your prospects of capturing the Northern Lights in all their glory. It’s one part science, one part geography, and if we’re being honest, a pinch of luck! But with careful planning and patience, the results are nothing short of magical.

Composition Techniques

Northern Lights photography often extends beyond the simplistic notion of pointing your camera skyward and pressing the shutter button. To weave the majesty of the Aurora Borealis into an image that truly mesmerizes, composition is key. In this pursuit, several techniques can be employed to elevate the visual appeal and narrative strength of your image.

Firstly, let’s tackle the concept of foreground elements. Though the ever-dancing lights of the aurora may seem to command the scene, factoring in elements of your surrounding environment can provide valuable context to your image. Frozen lakes, towering trees or quaint local buildings can serve as perfect foreground elements to add depth and dimension, while also offering a contrasting sense of reality against the otherworldly aura of Northern Lights. Simply put, while a brilliant sky full of swirling lights is undeniably awe-striking, having a solid or identifiable object in your frame elicits a sense of scale and perspective that heightens the viewer’s appreciation for the spectacle.

Another important compositional technique is the use of leading lines. Whether it be the straight road veering into the distant horizon or a winding river that appears to disappear into the vibrant lights overhead, leading lines guide the viewer’s eye through the image, providing a visual pathway to the Aurora. This classic compositional tool is just as effective in Northern Lights photography as in any other genre, enabling you to add structure to your image and create a sense of motion or flow.

Lastly, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a well-utilized Rule of Thirds. This perennially popular principle advises dividing an image into nine equal rectangles, three across and three down, and then placing the key elements of your scene along these lines or at the points where they intersect. In the context of Northern Lights photography, you might place the vibrant bands of light along the top third line, maintaining a balance with interesting landscape features occupying the lower two thirds.

Let’s not forget that these are guidelines and not concrete rules. Photography is an art form, and your creativity is the driving force behind your images. So while these techniques may serve as useful starting points, feel free to veer off from the conventional path to create images that reflect your unique vision and interpretation of the mesmerizing visual feast that is the Aurora Borealis.

Experimenting with Camera Settings

Northern Lights photography is both an art and a science as much as it’s an exercise in adaptation and experimentation. When it comes to camera settings, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Elements such as light intensity, color variance, and the speed of the auroral movement all play vital roles in dictating the optimal settings. However, the joy lies in understanding these elements and experimenting to capture the best, most vivid images.

Long Exposure

To truly capture the dramatic essence of the Northern Lights, you’ll want to make friends with longer exposure settings. For those unfamiliar, exposure refers to the amount of light that your camera sensor receives. In scenarios with less daylight, like nights blessed with an Aurora Borealis display, extending your exposure time proves essential. A start point would be anywhere between 10 to 25 seconds. However, remember to keep an eye on your image preview. If it’s too dark, consider increasing the exposure time a bit more. Be mindful though, overly long exposures might lead to blurry stars due to the Earth’s rotation – affectionately known as “star trails.”

Wide Aperture

In the world of lenses, ‘wide’ might feel a bit counterintuitive as it actually refers to a lower numerical value. The aperture is the opening in the lens through which light enters. To capture more light, setting your camera to a lower aperture value, say f/2.8 or f/3.5, is often beneficial. Again, this isn’t a set rule. The versatility of the Northern Lights warrants flexibility and a check-preview-adjust approach.

High ISO

Opting for a higher ISO value can make your camera more sensitive to light. An approximate range for Northern Lights photography would be 800 to 3200. This, too, can change based on how active the lights are. A word of caution: while a high ISO lets you capture more detail in low light, it can introduce some “noise” or grain into the image, which may need some cleaning up during post-processing.

Manual Focusing

Lastly, don’t forget about focusing. Auto-focus can sometimes struggle in low-light environments, potentially leaving you with blurry images. Therefore, mastering manual focus ultimately serves to your advantage. A simple trick is to set your focus to infinity (∞ symbol on your lens), then adjust slightly back if necessary until the stars in your shot are sharp points of light.

Remember, experiential learning goes a long way in photography. Experimenting with different settings, adjusting on-the-go, and learning through trial and error will eventually lead you to the most stunning images of these celestial dances. So, don’t let the technical jargon intimidate you. Step out, play around with the camera, and let the northern skies be your ultimate colorful canvas.

Post Processing Tips

Post-processing, simply put, is the cherry atop the wonderful sundae of your Northern Lights photography. Even though technology and high-quality cameras can capture stunning shots, a little extra tweaking in post-processing can further emphasize the majesty of the Aurora Borealis and make your photos really shine.

First off, you’ll need a good photo editing software. Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop are industry favorites, though there are several less pricey or even free options available that still offer a decent array of features. If you’re just starting out and budget conscious, consider trying software like GIMP or PhotoScape X.

Once you have your software of choice, you can begin to enhance your images. The first area you might focus on is color edits. Remember our previous discussion in the ‘Understanding Northern Lights’ section? The different colors of Northern Lights relate to the types of gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, sometimes the camera doesn’t do justice to the spectacular colors of the aurora. In such cases, gently adjusting the saturation and vibrancy can emphasize that ethereal dance of colors across the night sky.

Next, consider tweaking the exposure and contrast. Northern Lights photographs may occasionally be underexposed due to the darkness of the surrounding environment. Slightly increasing the exposure can help bring out subtle details within the image. Be cautious with this adjustment though; going overboard could make your image look unnatural. Adjusting the contrast will provide a punchier look by brightening the highlights and intensifying the shadows.

White balance is another tool in your post-processing arsenal. It adjusts the color balance in your image, affecting the mood and atmosphere of your photograph. Play around with the temperature slider; moving it towards blue will create a colder, winter atmosphere, while moving it towards yellow will create a warmer image.

The Noise Reduction feature is another gem, particularly for Northern Lights photography. With the high ISO settings used during capturing the Aurora Borealis, images can get quite noisy. Noise reduction can help you clean up that digital “grain”, though be careful not to overdo it, or you might end up with a photo that appears excessively smooth and artificial.

Remember: subtlety is your best friend in post-processing. Little tweaks here and there can elevate your raw photograph to a professional-looking image. Respect the real colors and atmosphere observed during your photo shoot. Post-processing isn’t about altering reality, but rather enhancing the beauty that is already there.

Finally, spend time learning about all the functionalities of your chosen editing software. There are numerous detailed tutorials online for each software type. Understanding how to handle your software properly will offer you a broader perspective and diverse tools to develop your very own post-processing style.

The general rule of thumb is this: practice, practice, and then practice some more. With time, patience, and hands-on interaction with editing tools, you will craft Northern Lights images that do justice to the actual mesmerizing celestial spectacle. In fact, you might even make Hemingway, a usual heavyweight contender in the limerick world, drop his julep out of sheer awe. Or, at least give him a good reason to make another one.

Mistakes to Avoid

In every photographer’s life, a little rain must fall, metaphorically speaking, and even literally when you’ve just set up for that perfect shot. Jokes aside, Northern Lights photography carries its own set of challenges, and even the pros occasionally stumble. Here are some common mistakes to look out for when embarking upon your Aurora Borealis capturing endeavor.

Overshooting the Exposure

In the pursuit of the perfect shot, it can be tantalizing to let your camera drink in every bit of light it can. However, overexposure can be a fatal flaw in Northern Lights photography. By overly brightening the night sky, you risk losing the dazzling colors of the aurora and ending up with a washed-out image. Aim for a balance by starting off with a shorter exposure time (around 5 seconds) and adjust as necessary. It’s a delicate dance, but your patience will be amply rewarded.

Unsteady Cameras

Ah, the dreaded blurry image! The Northern Lights are a spectacle that we, unfortunately, can’t request to “stay still.” Consequently, a motionless camera is necessary for sharp images. Never underestimate the importance of a reliable tripod for this purpose. A wobbly, lightweight tripod can be worse than no tripod at all, especially if you find yourself fighting off a polar breeze.

Overlooking Composition

Sometimes in our awe of the celestial spectacle, we may forget about how we compose our shot. It is important to maintain balance, use leading lines, and incorporate elements of perspective for a shot that truly captures the essence of the Northern Lights. Remarkably, the same, age-old rules of composition apply even when your subject is a natural phenomenon millions of years old and thousands of kilometers away. No pressure, right?

Neglecting The Cold

Not to sound like a concerned grandmother, but do remember to dress warm. Many a photographer has been caught off guard by just how quickly colder climes can affect them. Keeping yourself comfortable and warm will keep your mind focused on the goal – capturing the dance of the northern lights, not doing a jig to keep warm yourself.

Avoiding these pitfalls, while embracing the element of surprise that Northern Lights photography often brings, can elevate your images from ‘snapshots’ to ‘keepsakes’. As the saying goes, it’s not only about learning how to dance in the storms but also how to do the tango with the aurora lights. Or something like that…


Photographing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is an exciting and fulfilling endeavor, offering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to capture one of nature’s most spectacular displays. It’s the kind of challenge that welcomes us photographers with open arms, and will inevitably leave you humming Dean Martin’s ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ whenever you recall the experience.

Welcoming us with its emerald vistas wrapped in celestial veils, Northern Lights photography is undeniably unique and immensely rewarding. More than just a unique feature in a photography portfolio, it’s a testimony to the very essence of photography- freezing magnificent moments in time, right at the intersection where nature’s drama unfolds with technological marvel.

Success in Northern Lights photography largely comes from a blend of preparation, practice, and patience. It’s about not just understanding the scientific wonders behind the phenomenon, but also mastering the tools of your trade – your camera equipment and settings. From the perfect location to the ideal weather conditions, from the camera’s setting dials to recognizing an almost poetic alignment in composition, every aspect counts. And let’s not forget the post-processing magic. A well-polished picture can really make those Northern Lights dance!

But at the heart of it, like any other field of photography, it’s about learning from mistakes and growing with every click of your camera. Those slightly shaky initial images, the somewhat overexposed shots, and yes, those freezing moments when you wished you had packed one more layer of thermals – they’re all part and parcel of your learning curve. Embrace these as opportunities to better your craft, not just as pitfalls to be sidestepped.

As you continually refine your skills and understanding, each attempt becomes better than the last, and the thrill of seeing your beautiful captures of the majestic Northern Lights will only amplify. So, gear up and start preparing for your adventure, because capturing the Northern Lights is nothing short of capturing infinity!

To conclude, I recall the words of Vincent Van Gogh – ‘I often think that the night is more alive and richly colored than the day.’ As you delve into Northern Lights photography, you’ll find the truth in his statement. Each night spent under the star-studded theatre of the Northern lights, camera in hand, brings you one step closer to mastering this enthralling aspect of photography. With time, practice, and the ever-helpful ‘Delete’ button at your disposal, photographing the Northern Lights will become less daunting and more electrifying. So, step out, look up, and let your lens do the talking.

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.