7 Easy Steps for Perfect Northern Lights Photos

Recently, I took a trip to the city of Tromsø to see the Northern Lights. It had been almost a year since I first visited this area and saw the northern lights here, but ever since, I’ve been itching to see more aurora shows and to take better photographs of the lights. My first attempts were poor at best, but on this most recent adventure I was prepared and took some of the best photos I’ve captured thus far on my travels. It was incredible. But also on this trip, I also realized that my friends were having trouble taking their own photos of the northern lights. Perhaps it was because of all the different settings and maybe it seems more complicated than I think it is. So with that in mind, I’ve written a guide to help anybody, of any level, to take perfect northern lights photos. In 7 Easy Steps, you be taking perfect northern lights photos. Any DSLR camera and tripod set up will be enough to capture the northern lights. Let’s begin.

Step 1: Set Camera & Lens to Manual Mode

  • Set your camera to Manual Mode. For most people this will be under the big M setting on the functions dial – usually on the top of the camera. The camera screen will look something like the photo below with a big M letter on the LCD. 
  • Secondly, set your lens to manual, instead of auto-focus. This is done by sliding a button on the lens itself. You will want your lens to be at the widest possible setting. Usually 24mm or less. And the focus should be on infinity. This should be done during day light hours or somewhere which has light to see.
    • A second point to the one above. Having the proper focus on the lens is probably the most important factor to getting great northern lights photos. If you don’t have proper focus on the lens, then you’ll have blurry photos and it’s not even worth taking photos. We need to be sure to get crisp and clear photos of the aurora. I know this from first-hand experience.

Step 2: Set Your Aperture to the Lowest Possible Number

  • The number next to the “F” on the LCD screen should be at the lowest possible number. Turn the dial till the number is 4 or 3.5. If you have a good lens it will be 2.8 or lower. 

Step 3: Set Your ISO to at least 3200

  • The ISO settings come in values of hundreds and thousands, so you either want to choose a high enough ISO of 2000 or 3200. You don’t want to push the camera to 4000 ISO, unless you really need more light – as this makes the photo grainy-looking.

Step 4: Set Your Shutter Speed to at least 4″ Seconds

  •  Your starting shutter speed, at least if the camera has an aperture of F4.0, should be 4″ seconds, if the lights are strong. If they are weaker and harder to see, then bump your shutter speed to 10″ seconds or 15″ seconds. The photo below was taken for 13″ seconds.

Step 5: Check the Final Settings such as AWB, and RAW

  •  The last two settings on your screen are to check if you have the auto-white balance set at AWB and not some other color temperature (see LCD photo above). If you have a program that can edit photos, then choose the RAW image format, instead of jpg.

Step 6: Set Your Camera on the Tripod and Level It

  •  Once the settings are good, put your camera on the tripod and if there is anything in the foreground, then make sure to level the camera as best as possible. This will give you a straight photo and you won’t have to crop later.
  • As a side note, be careful when the camera is tilted upwards and leaning back on the tripod. It can easily tip over and break a part. My camera has fallen this way, especially if the camera was pointed straight up in the sky.

Step 7: Use a Timer Delay or Remote Shutter to Take the Photo

  •  Finally, you’re ready to take the photo. If you can, use a 2-second delay to take the photo after pressing the trigger. Even better is to use a remote shutter so you don’t shake the camera while it is taking the photo. If you don’t use a timer, be very gentle with pressing the shutter with your finger so as to minimize any movement.

What’s Next?

  • After taking the photo, check out your shot and see how the shutter speed did. If there is too little light, then go back to step 4 and increase your shutter speed a few seconds. Keep adjusting till it looks perfect.

Other Tips

  •  Battery Life: The battery life of a camera can go down significantly in the cold, but it’s not necessary to bring many extra unless going out for a long time. Try to bring at least an extra battery and like other photo trips, bring a second memory card to be sure that your camera works.
  • Condensation: If you’ve been inside in a warm area right before going outside to see the lights, your camera might have condensation on the lens as it cools back down outside. You can either wipe it off the main lens glass, or separate the lens from the camera body for a few seconds, and then put it back. This should allow you to get rid of the moisture or let it evaporate away.
  • Moonlight: Moonlight is actually really nice for lighting the background of a photo. You’ll get nice blue colors on the photo. It doesn’t really affect the photo taking at all. You can even shoot directly into the moon light if necessary.

Taking a Photo of Yourself Under the Northern Lights

  • To get a selfie or photo of yourself under the northern lights, repeat all the steps above, except change the timer to a 10 second delay and add an external flash or strong headlight to the photo. You’ll want at least some bright light (car headlights work too, although it might be too strong). You’ll have 10 seconds to run into the photo and after the flash goes off, you’ll want to stay as still as humanly possible – very important – till the camera finishes taking the photo. Give yourself at least 10 feet’s distance from the camera and enjoy getting an epic photo under the lights.

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