Seeing and photographing the Northern Lights is on many people’s bucket lists. However, a trip to the far north is no guarantee of success and photographing the Northern Lights is not that easy either. That’s why in this blog I will share my best tips for seeing and photographing the Northern Lights.
What is the Northern Lights?
The northern lights, also called aurora borealis or polar lights, are the well-known phenomenon of green light that dances through the sky in a slow movement. There used to be a lot of speculation about what the Northern Lights are, but we now know that they are a result of interaction between charged particles from the sun and our Earth’s magnetic field. The sun hurls electrically charged particles into space. These particles can come from solar eruptions, but also from coronal holes on the sun’s surface. Within a few days, these charged particles reach our planet, where they are deflected by the magnetic field. At the North and South Poles, these charged particles enter our atmosphere at high speed. Here some of it collides with oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules located in our atmosphere. This creates a play of colors in light. You can also see this phenomenon at the South Pole, where it’s called aurora australis or southern lights.
Where are you most likely to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights can only be seen in the Northern Hemisphere. You have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights somewhere between the 70th and 80th degrees of latitude, but it’s also possible to see the Northern Lights in other places nearby and sometimes even further, like in my home country the Netherlands. The further away you are from northern latitude, the smaller the chance and the less the intensity. The Northern Lights can often be seen as a light colorful glow (usually green) that slowly dances through the sky like a curtain of light. How well you can see the Northern Lights depends not only on the location, but also on the weather conditions, how much light pollution affects you and the Kp index. The strength of the Northern Lights is indicated by the Kp index, which ranges from zero to nine. The higher the Kp index, the more activity there is and you have a higher chance of seeing the Northern Lights. In a good location, such as in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, you can already see the Northern Lights with a Kp index of 2. In these places you have the chance to see the Northern Lights from September to April, although you have the best chance during the longest dark days. It must be dark enough to see the Northern Lights. But even in winter during the darkest days in the far north, there is unfortunately no guarantee that you will see the northern lights. Because the Northern Lights originate at an altitude of more than 100 km, the weather must be clear to see them. In addition, as mentioned, the Kp index must be high enough to be able to see the Northern Lights at all. In the far north this is possible from Kp index 2, but to really see it clearly, more intensity is needed and so you prefer a higher Kp index of, for example, 4 or 5.
TIP: Download the Aurora app to keep an eye on the Kp index of your location.
How do I photograph the Northern Lights and what camera gear do I need?
Seeing the Northern Lights once is already magical, but it’s of course even more fun if you also manage to capture the Northern Lights on camera for an eternal memory! Below I will tell you more about what camera gear you need and what settings you can best use for the perfect Northern Lights photo.
The Northern Lights are often less intense than you often see in photos. This is because when photographing the Northern Lights you can work with a longer shutter speed, which allows you to capture more light and capture the movement of the light better. To photograph the Northern Lights, it’s therefore best to choose a camera that you can set manually. Preferably with a full frame camera. These have a full frame sensor, allowing you to take sharp photos without much noise in low-light situations. In addition, full frame cameras use the full angle of view that lenses offer.
TIP: All these Northern Lights photos were taken with the Sony A7Riii full frame camera
TIP: Are you looking for a cheaper camera? Then choose, for example, the Sony A6400 (note: this is not a full frame camera)
Perhaps even more important than the camera for photographing the Northern Lights is that you have a lens with good brightness. This also allows you to take sharp photos in low-light situations, which is exactly the case during the Northern Lights. The brightness of a lens is expressed with an f-number, also called aperture. This number indicates the maximum opening of the lens. The smaller the f-number, the wider the aperture can open and more light falls on the sensor. This allows you to keep the shutter speed as short as possible, so that the shapes and contours of the northern lights remain clearly visible in the photo. Therefore, choose a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or larger (smaller number). Regarding the type of lens, it’s best to choose a wide-angle lens or an all-round zoom lens such as a 24-70mm. A larger zoom lens or telephoto lens is not recommended. You then get less of the environment on screen, but the aperture f-number is also usually a lot higher with these lenses, making them less sensitive to light.
Tripod and self-timer
Furthermore, a tripod is essential to keep the camera steady while shooting with a long shutter speed. Also use a remote control or the self-timer on your camera so that your camera only starts taking photos after a few seconds. This prevents the camera from moving slightly when you press the shutter button while taking the photo and causing motion blur in the photo.
Warm clothes, photography gloves and camera bag
It’s usually cold and dark when photographing the Northern Lights. Please note that this will affect your equipment and also yourself. For example, the cold will drain the batteries of your camera more quickly and you also have to be careful when taking photographs at temperatures below freezing. Therefore, dress warmly with layers and make sure you have an extra warm hat, socks/shoes and, especially, warm gloves. After all, it’s cold, dark and you stand still a lot. With poor clothing you will get cold very quickly and you even run the risk of frostbite, especially in Arctic areas. Keep extra camera batteries warm against your body, for example in a warm inner pocket.
There are special gloves for photography. Depending on the winter conditions they have to meet, they are a bit thinner so that you can continue to operate the buttons or a bit thicker and equipped with, for example, touchscreen controls or fingertips that you can fold open. Regular winter gloves will also suffice, but in arctic weather conditions with temperatures well below freezing you would prefer something better (this person who gets cold very quickly speaks from personal experience here). Your hands get cold really quickly if you have to take them out of the glove every time to take photos and it’s then difficult to get them warm again.
TIP: These photograohy shell gloves for over your liner.
Don’t forget to bring a camera bag as well. A camera bag is in any case useful to be able to take all camera gear with you, but it’s also advisable to prevent condensation from forming on the camera. Large temperature changes – for example when you go from -20°C outside to 20°C inside – can cause condensation and moisture is the last thing you want on your camera. A camera bag ensures that the camera + lens warm up more slowly and condensation has less chance.
TIP: We use the Shimoda Explore V2 25 and 30. These are expensive camera bags, but really ideal for outdoor photography and those who like to go hiking, camping, snowshoeing, etc. The bag has a comfortable (and removable) hip belt and has several handy compartments and straps to attach walking sticks or even snow shoes, for example. Want to know more about this camera bag? Then read my honest review here.
Camera settings to photograph the Northern Lights
Now that you have all your camera gear in order or know what you need, we can delve deeper into how to best set up your camera for photographing the Northern Lights.
To start, you need to set the camera to M mode (Manual) so that you can manually set the aperture, focus, shutter speed and ISO.
For a sharp photo and the shortest possible shutter speed, you want to set the aperture as wide as possible. A large aperture means a low f-number, but depending on the photo you want to shoot, set the aperture slightly higher or lower. To photograph only the Northern Lights and the starry sky, set the aperture to the smallest f-number and focus on the brightest star. If you want an object or person in the foreground to be in focus, set the aperture towards f/5.6.
Shutter speed is the time it takes for your camera’s shutter to open and close to take a photo. With a longer shutter speed you capture more light and you can capture movement in a photo. You want both to photograph the Northern Lights, but be careful not to set the shutter speed too long. If it is too long, the shapes of the northern lights will fade and it will become more of a green spot. The same thing happens with stars. Instead of sharp dots, these become faint stripes due to the rotation of the Earth. Depending on the intensity of the northern lights, you can set the shutter speed between 3 and 15 seconds. Preferably as short as possible, but because the northern lights are different every time you will have to play with the shutter speed to see which time is ideal for the situation in which you are photographing.
TIP: To calculate the maximum shutter speed to get sharp stars in the photo, there is the rule of 400 (full frame camera). Divide the number 400 by the focal length of your lens. The focal length is the number of mm at which you take the photo. With a prime wide-angle lens of 24 mm you do 400/24 = 16 seconds. If you have a zoom lens of, for example, 24-70 mm and you photograph at 50 mm, then the maximum shutter speed is 400/50 = 8 seconds.
The ISO represents the light sensitivity of the image sensor and is important for a sharp photo. You want to keep the ISO value as low as possible, because a higher number causes more noise (grainy image). Although you no longer have to be afraid of a slightly higher ISO with today’s modern cameras, it’s better to play it safe and set an ISO that is not too high. You prefer to keep the ISO somewhere between 100 and 1600.
File format and white balance
Preferably shoot your Northern Lights photos in RAW. Photographing in RAW not only gives you the best quality photo, but it’s also useful in post-processing your photo. For example, if your photo is somewhat under- or overexposed, a RAW file gives you more options to restore this in a photo editing program such as Lightroom. By photographing in RAW you also have to worry less about the white balance, which often produces too warm and yellow northern light photos in the automatic white balance setting. Therefore, set the white balance to 4000 Kelvin if you photograph in RAW or set the white balance to daylight.
When focusing in the dark, it’s important to set the camera to manual focus. Because in the dark, the autofocus does not know where to focus. To focus, you can aim the image at the brightest star so that you can then focus it with the focus ring. Before you continue, view the photo a few times via the menu and zoom in to check whether the sharpness is correct. Would you rather focus on an object – such as a person – in the foreground? Then set the aperture to a slightly higher number – for example f/5.6 – to prevent the object or background from becoming too blurry. Will the photo be too dark? Then set the shutter speed a little longer so that the lens can capture more light or set the ISO a little higher. Keep in mind that with a longer shutter speed you have to stand still extra carefully to prevent yourself from being out of focus in the photo.
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