Capture The Elusive Northern Lights With These Easy Camera Settings

by | Dec 13, 2023 | Family Adventures, Travel Tips

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In the crystal clear silence of the Arctic Circle, the first flicker of the Aurora Borealis begins. There, in a single, fleeting moment, time stands still. Those whose dreaming eyes turn upward at just that moment might question their vision until Aurora Borealis responds by streaming her shades of green across the sky for all to see. 

To capture this dreamy, ethereal dance through the lens of a camera is not possible; it’s important to understand that right from the start.

Capturing the elusive symphony of the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, is a dream for many photographers. These coy celestial ripples of light that enchant skygazers around the world offer a rewarding challenge to photographers of all levels. 

Within those gorgeous, crisp images of the Northern Lights rests a skill set gathered with frostbitten fingers and worn-out hiking boots. It is only with patience, preparation, and a bit of technical expertise that it is possible to catch those magic lights in the sky. 

The following tips will set enthusiastic travelers up for the joy of capturing an image that nearly matches the beauty of seeing it in person.

 

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Understanding the Aurora and Its Playground

Aurora photography isn’t about pointing and shooting. It’s about understanding the science behind the aurora’s appearance. 

The Northern Lights happen when charged particles from solar activity collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. This impact creates those brilliant displays mostly seen in the northern part of the hemisphere. Sounds like witchcraft and sorcery, doesn’t it? 

One of the best places to catch the alchemy is in Northern Norway. With its clear skies, the result of minimal light pollution, Norway has become a haven for aurora chasers.

 

The Best Time and Tools for the Task

For all great photography, timing is critical, but for Aurora photogs, timing is paramount. 

The best photos are the fruit of the equinox months, March and September, when aurora activity is at its peak. Winter also provides the darkness needed for night photography. 

Speaking of night photography, a waning or waxing moon offers a natural source of gentle light. However, a too-bright moon can wash out the aurora, so many photographers seek the new moon’s darkness.

In addition, equipping oneself with the right gear is paramount. A sturdy tripod is the first thing on the list, as human hands can not hold a camera nearly still enough for the work of capturing Aurora Borealis.

Followed close behind is a reliable camera body—whether it be a full-frame camera or a high-quality mirrorless camera. The Nikon D series, for instance, is a preferred choice for many professionals.

Lenses are crucial, too; a wide-angle lens with the lowest f-number ensures as much light as possible can enter, which is vital for the long exposures necessary to capture the playful northern lights.

 

man in a knit cap photographs the neon green auroa borealis

A man attempts to fit the entire Northern Lights into his iPhone camera.

 

Camera Settings: The Key to Clarity

As stated before, this is not a point-and-shoot activity. Manual mode grants full control over the shot. A higher ISO setting allows more sensitivity to light, but it’s a balance to avoid excessive noise. For ISO, starting points around 1600 to 3200 are common, with noise reduction techniques applied in post-processing. Manual focus is used to achieve sharp focus at infinity, ensuring the stars and aurora are crisp, with the focus ring checked regularly throughout the shoot.

 

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The Ritual of Capturing the Aurora

Test shots are a good idea to dial in the best camera settings. The aurora forecast, just like a weather forecast, guides photographers to the right place and the right time. (This isn’t a trip one can plan months in advance.) The KP index, a scale that measures geomagnetic activity, becomes the photog’s compass. 

When conditions align—solar cycle, KP index, and local weather—photographers should grab their gear, lace up, and head out. Their advanced planning means the camera bag is packed with extra batteries and memory cards along with their head torch, the only source of bright light in the vast darkness.

Keep in mind that long exposures are essential, with shutter speeds ranging from 5 to 30 seconds depending on the aurora’s intensity. This is a decision that will need to be made on the spot. 

The aurora can move swiftly across the night sky, so a longer shutter speed can capture more movement, which creates a silky effect. For more detailed aurora photos that show individual rays, a faster shutter speed should be used.

 

photographer stands atop a mountain photographing the swirling northern lights

Caught in the act: A man so focused on the shot, he almost misses the cosmic light show happening right above him.

 

Post-Production: From Raw to Real

Shooting in RAW format, the digital equivalent of a film negative is the best way to ensure image quality is retained for post-processing. 

The final image that graces social media feeds is often the product of careful editing to bring out the colors and details in aurora photos. 

Do keep in mind that landscape photography techniques should also be used, ensuring the surrounding scenery complements the photograph’s composition.

 

bundled up photographer prepares camera settings in a frosty tundra

There are three things you need to capture a great photo of the Northern Lights: patience, determination, and warm winter gear.

 

 

More than a Souvenir

The process, from watching the moon and waiting out the weather to witnessing the aurora with one’s own eyes, is as much a personal journey as it is a pursuit of the perfect celestial photograph. Beautiful photos of the northern lights are more than just travel pictures; they provide evidence of an encounter with one of nature’s most majestic phenomena. 

Through long exposure times, clear nights, and the serene patience of a night spent under the stars, photographers continue to chase and, every once in a while, capture the Aurora Borealis. 

 

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Steffy McCourt, married to her handsome college sweetheart for 19 years, is a mom to three active and awesome boys, two budgies, one cockatiel, and a mischievous corgi. Currently an ELA Teacher in Plymouth, Michigan, she also writes for parenting magazines and education websites. She just recently launched her own travel website, www.mifamilytravel.com; a tribute to the state of Michigan. She has an MS in Educational Leadership from Butler University and a BA in English from Indiana University.