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The Amateur’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

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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

The beginner's guide to photographing the northern lights

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.

Northern Lights over the Geysir area in Iceland

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.

The beginner's guide to photographing the northern lights

This would’ve been a lot sharper if I’d properly adjusted the focus.

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 Amateur's Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

This is without a tripod. It is not good.

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.

The Amateur's Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights

To get the person in the foreground, change the manual focus from infinite to the correct distance to the subject.

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.

The beginner's guide to photographing the northern lights

Practice beforehand

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.

The beginner's guide to photographing the northern lights

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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Photograph the Northern Lights like a pro with these tips.

Do you have any tips for photographing the Northern Lights?

Want to see more of my adventures in Iceland? Check out these posts:

All photos in this post were shot with a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera, like the one pictured below.

Photograph the Northern Lights like a pro with these tips.

Photograph the Northern Lights like a pro with these tips.


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11 Comments

  1. These are AWESOME tips!! Thank you! Now I just have to get to the lights themselves! If only it was as easily done as said!

    Happy Monday!

  2. These are really excellent tips! First time I saw the northern lights, almost 4 years ago, I got NO pictures because I couldn’t properly work my camera (being 19 and knowing very little about photography). I aim to have another chance to see them, and will definitely heed these tips!

  3. I think even as an amateur you can get incredible photos of the northern lights. It’s just one of those things that’s extra photogenic.

  4. This is excellent information! I would love to see the Northern Lights sometime – and with family in Alaska, we really should be able to manage it. If I came away without any half-decent pictures, I’d be so disappointed, though. Thanks!

  5. Great article with great tips for beginners. I struggled a lot, when I started pratising with my Canon year ago. You make it very easy to understand what to do and why.
    And besutiful shots too!

  6. Wow, the pictures look amazing. Thank you for the step by step guide to taking such great photo. I’ll definitely keep them in mind for future reference 🙂

  7. This is actaully perfect, I have always wondered the correct way to photograph Northern Lights so thank you so much for explaining in plain terms for those who are not that clued up on camera/techy jargon!

  8. These are nice tips for beginners and will give those without camera experience the thrill of being able to catch the Northern Lights in-camera. Obviously, there’s a lot more that you can build upon but there are two simple tips I can add: use a remote/wireless trigger and bring a strong flashlight, like a Maglite. The remote trigger is so you don’t even have to use the timer on your camera; makes it easy to create timelapses manually or just to take a selfie. For the flashlight, having a strong one can let you focus at long distances to help set your focus. For example, you can point your flashlight at an object 50-100 feet away, or if you’re with a second person, walk about 50 feet and shine the flashlight on yourself. Most cameras will be able to autofocus pretty accurately on a brightly lit subject at that distance, and once it focuses, set the lens to manual. You’re pretty much set for the entire night. This is also good for shooting stars like the Milky Way. Happy shooting!

    • Kris

      Thanks for the additional advice. I’d never thought of using a flashlight to trick it into focusing at a certain point. I just bought a remote trigger for my camera too, so I’m looking forward to playing with that.

  9. Thanks for your awesome tips and great photos. I should check infinity focus settings on my camera. I have never used this feature before.

  10. Great tips! I wasn’t lucky yet to see the northern lights but I’ll keep this tips fir the future encounter

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