The Northern Lights are one of nature’s greatest wonders. Taking pictures at night can be challenging, and it helps to have some decent equipment, but even a cell phone can capture them at their brightest. Here’s how I – with no formal training – took some pretty good pictures of one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. Read on for my best tips for photographing the Northern Lights.
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Familiarize yourself with your camera settings
You’ll need to practice adjusting your camera settings a bit first – you don’t want to spend the whole time flipping through unfamiliar menus – but even an amateur photographer can get some pictures worth sending home. The automatic modes that take great daylight shots aren’t going to cut it for shooting the Northern Lights. You don’t necessarily need a lot of technical knowledge, but you should dig through the menus and check out the different options available to you. Practice setting your camera on manual mode (usually the M on the dial if your camera has one) and following the tips in this article somewhere else in advance.
Use a long exposure
I started out with six seconds, but found that my pictures were too bright, so I dropped it down to four. Depending on the intensity and movement of the Lights, you’ll want to adjust this higher or lower. When the Lights are faint and/or more stationary, a longer exposure will give your camera more time to record the image. If they’re very bright and moving a lot, try an exposure time closer to 2-3 seconds.
Cameras vary, but most decent point-and-shoot style ones, as well as anything higher-end will give you the ability to control your exposure time. While I can’t speak for the iPhone, my Samsung also has a manual mode that allows me to adjust the exposure.
Set your focus length to infinite
My first round of photos were a bit blurry, so I played with my settings a bit, hoping that I’d get another chance to see the Lights. I found that the infinite focus setting in manual mode did wonders. Unless you’re trying to capture something in the foreground, use infinity to get the clearest pictures.
Use a tripod
Since you’ll be using a longer exposure, you’ll need to use a tripod if you want clear pictures. Even if you have the steadiest hands in the world, you will move slightly while the shutter is open and this will make your pictures blurry. I love my little Gorilla Pod (http://amzn.to/2ufLCem) because it’s easy to set up on strange surfaces, and can even wrap around things like sign poles. It’s also a lot better than lugging around a full-size tripod.
The first time we saw the Northern Lights, we were caught unprepared because we were pulling into the hotel parking lot after dinner. I couldn’t get any good shots, but I spotted a waist-high sign across the road, so I ran across and used it as a steady base for my camera. It wasn’t the best solution because my angle was limited and I had to crop out parts of the sign from the bottom of my picture, but the shots I got that way were a lot better than the ones I took holding my camera. In a pinch, the ground, fence posts, car hoods, and rocks can serve as steady bases, but having a tripod is always a better solution.
Use the timer
I found that I got my best pictures using the self-timer feature on my camera. Even when using a tripod, the simple act of pushing the shutter button can jostle the camera a bit, causing a blurrier image. Your camera should have a timer feature to delay the picture by a few seconds. My good camera has the option of 2 seconds or 10 seconds. Two is more than sufficient for taking regular shots of the Northern Lights. You just hit the shutter button and let go of the camera, and two seconds later, the shutter opens and begins taking the picture. This is especially important if you’re not using a tripod, or have a bit of a wobble going on an uneven surface.
As a bonus, using the 10-second exposure, I was able to take some pretty cool shots with myself in front of the dazzling show in the sky. If I had another chance, I’d experiment with some different lighting options, but without any planning, I’m pretty pleased with how they came out.
Post-Production is key
Don’t feel like you’re cheating if you need to touch up your picture a bit. Every professional photograph you’ve seen on postcards, posters, and screensavers has been retouched to some extent. I found that bumping up the contrast was all mine needed to look pretty good. This can easily be done in most photo editing options, including Instagram.
I prefer working in Photoshop. To adjust the contrast there, you go to the Enhance menu. Every version is a bit different, but there should be a lighting sub-menu with a Brightness/Contrast option. On Instagram, after you crop your picture, instead of selecting a filter, choose “Edit.” Contrast will be one of the options there.
Like anything, practice will improve your skills, so familiarize yourself with the settings you’ll be using in advance. Even if you can’t view the Northern Lights where you live, you can try your hand at nighttime photography, or shoot some images of the moon to get a feel. An even longer exposure may catch a shooting star if you’re lucky.
Don’t forget to enjoy them yourself
This one is the most important! It’s easy to get caught up playing with your camera settings, but take some time to enjoy the show with your own eyes. I was so giddy the first time we saw the Lights that I was jumping and twirling around in between shots and during the long exposures. Seriously. I would hit the shutter button and then just spin around in sheer glee. I definitely looked ridiculous. If seeing the Northern Lights is a once in a lifetime experience for you, don’t miss out on it by only viewing it through your camera lens.
More advanced photographers can play with their aperture and other settings, but I found that these tips worked wonders for my first experiences with the Northern Lights. I’m not a professional photographer by any means, and I don’t claim that my pictures are postcard quality, but I’m happy with what I was able to shoot. We saw them vividly twice, and my pictures from the second time were much better than the first thanks to my additional practice. If you’ve seen the Northern Lights, tweet me your favorite photos @nomadbytrade13!
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Do you have any tips for photographing the Northern Lights?
Want to see more of my adventures in Iceland? Check out these posts:
- 25 Pictures to Put Iceland on Your Winter Bucket List
- Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary
- What to Pack for Winter in Iceland
- Snowmobiling and Caving in the Vatnajökull Glacier
- The Best Spot to Ride Icelandic Horses
All photos in this post were shot with a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera, like the one pictured below.