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How to Photograph the Northern Lights With a DSLR

Looking for some great tips for how to photograph the Northern Lights? If so, then you’ve certainly come to the right place! This week at PhotographyGiveaways.Com, I’m going to be running through my absolute top tips for how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR camera. Of course, if you don’t own a DSLR, and perhaps only have a point-and-shoot type of camera, you’ll want to read through this article as well, as much of the information I’ll be sharing will relate to photography in general as it relates to how to best capture photos of the Northern Lights — no matter the specific type of camera you might be using — and should still be of great value to you.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR Camera

The phenomenon of the Northern Lights (their technical name being the “Aurora Borealis”) is, in my opinion, probably the most awe-inspiring natural phenomenon that a human being can reasonably expect to witness in an average lifetime. I’ve seen them countless times in my life — living for great stretches of time fairly far up north has that perk. Weak auroral displays can be quite beautiful. But, the rare strongest of strong displays must be seen to even be imagined. They are fearsome, awesome, inspiring, furious, other-worldly, terrifyingly beautiful. The word “amazing” does not do them justice — I know of no word which does, really. How can you explain what it’s like to witness the strongest displays of the far-north Northern Lights adequately? I suppose the closest one may hope to come is to say: Go outside on a clear night. Look up at the stars, and imagine that, quite literally, the entire night sky has been set on fire with constant, giant, ferocious and furious bursts of white, green, red, purple and blue flame lapping and dancing violently across the starry backdrop of the inky-black night-sky.

Of course photographers are drawn to capturing awesome visual images — the capturing of images is what photography is all about. So, naturally, it’s very common for photographers to have a strong interest and desire in photographing the Northern Lights. But, like many things in photography, getting truly great images of the subject you’re trying for isn’t nearly as simple as just pointing your camera and clicking the shutter release. If you go outside on a night when the Northern Lights are visible, aim your camera at the sky and click, you’re going to end up with an extraordinary lackluster photograph.

So, how does one accomplish it? How does one capture a truly awe-inspiring photograph of a truly awe-inspiring display of the magnificent Aurora Borealis? What you’ll need is to familiarize yourself with some of the most tried and true tips for how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR camera. And, those tips are just what I’m going to be laying out in the following paragraphs of this article.

The first thing I’ll tell you is to familiarize yourself with the basics of night-time photography. And, practice getting some night-time shots — especially away from any city lights — the further out in the country you are, and the darker it is, the better for photographing the Northern Lights. Get out there and do some starry-sky, nighttime shots. Check out our “Night Photography Tips For Beginners” primer for starters and then, on nights when there are no Northern Lights in the sky, get out there and practice your nighttime photography skills. The better and more familiar you are with capturing good photos at night, the more it will help you get good photographs of the Northern Lights. There’s other things you need to know when it comes specifically to how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR camera as it’s not exactly the same thing as straight night photography. But, the more skilled and at home you are with nighttime photography, the better you’ll be with capturing the Northern lights.

There are a couple of pieces of equipment you’ll need in order to photograph the Northern Lights. You’ll want:

  • A good, steady tripod.
  • A camera that is capable of making timed exposures. I.e., one with manual shutter control.
  • A wide-angle lens — a 50mm lens at the absolute longest can be used if that’s the widest you’ve got, but something 35mm or less is highly preferable. (I tend to switch between my 16mm non-fisheye and 28mm most frequently for Northern Lights photos.
  • A remote shutter release, if your camera is capable of using one. This is very helpful, but not entirely essential. Nevertheless, if you don’t have one and your camera is capable of using one, then I highly recommend picking one up. Simple mechanical releases are cheap and they’re so helpful when doing any sort of timed exposure.

Tips for taking photos of Northern LightsThe next thing you’ll want to do will be to scout out locations. Spend some time during the day looking for good spots so you’ll know them when a night comes up where the Northern Lights are visible. Ideally, you’ll want your spots to be as close to home as is possible — as, sometimes Northern Lights displays can last all night, or sometimes they can be over quickly. It can be frustrating to see the glimmer of an auroral display dim in the city sky or suburban sky, grab your gear, hop in the car and start heading out to the country only to find, upon your arrival, that the spectacle is over.

A good location is someplace dark — the darkest you can find. The further away from any city or large town, the better. And, pick a place that will have no, or as few as possible, artificial lights appearing in the foreground of your images, or even in the near vicinity to where you are. The settings you’ll be using to capture decent images of the Northern Lights will cause artificial lights in the image to become hugely blown-out, can easily over-expose any foreground elements in the photograph, and even wash-out the sky into a very unattractive tone. You want a bright, striking aurora against a black, dark sky, ideally. Too many artificial lights in the camera’s field of view and they’ll wash-out the sky into an ugly blue-white, decreasing the contrast between the sky and the aurora and diminishing the impact of your images.

The next thing to remember when learning how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR is to pay close attention to weather patterns! The further north you happen to be, the more commonly the Northern Lights occur. If you happen to live above the arctic circle, then brilliant auroral displays are pretty much at least a weekly thing. As you move further down in latitude they become more and more rare. It’s said that as far south as along the US/Canadian border, the Northern lights are visible, in an average year that’s experiencing average sunspot activity, about 10 times throughout a twelve month period. Although, most of these occurrences are very dim — most, due to light pollution, being practically, or entirely, imperceptible from a near-city viewing position. The further north you go, the more often they’ll be visible. The further south you go, the less often… until, of course, you pass the equator, then the opposite is true for the southern lights.

The important thing to remember is that the Northern Lights happen more frequently and with more intensity during periods of high solar activity — periods wherein there are more sunspots, solar flares and solar prominences than usual. Such activity follows a twelve year cycle — the last peak occurred in 2011/2012, and the next will occur in 2023/2024. So, we’ve currently passed the peak and are moving toward a lull. But, this is just a general cycle. There are sporadic periods of increased activity within that cycle as well. And, you can keep track of them.

There are a couple of places on the Internet you can go which publish real-time solar activity updates and reports. Some of these places are SpaceWeather.Com and SpaceWeatherLive.Com (two different sites with two very similar names) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also maintains a very, very extensive website from its Space Weather Prediction Center which includes an “Aurora 3-day Forecast“. So, keep an eye on solar activity and if the sun starts acting up, be prepared for higher chances of auroral activity occurring over the next few nights.

Of course, it’s also important to pay attention to the weather down here on earth, as well. Photographing the Northern Lights in the winter is always attractive, as the white, reflective snow covering the ground can make for highly interested exposures — sometimes reflecting the magnificent colors of the auroral dance taking place in the sky above. The crispness of the air in the winter (the colder the air, the less light dimming and diffusing moisture and dust it can hold) also allows for brighter, crisper auroral lights. But, you’ll want to be mindful of the temperatures. Remember that cold weather will cause your batteries to drain more quickly. And, extremely cold weather can cause mechanical malfunctions in the internal working of your camera. Avoid shooting in weather you’re not comfortable being in. If you’re suffering the temperature and cursing the cold in order to get the shot, then you should probably wait for a night when the aurora is out, but the temperature isn’t quite so harsh.

How to photograph the Northern Lights for beginnersProbably the most important information for how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR camera is, of course, the actual camera settings you’ll need to use in order to get the best looking pictures. The most important thing to keep in mind in this respect is that the Northern Lights — even during their most brilliant displays — are actually very dim. They don’t put out a lot of light. They may appear quite bright to your eyes, but in reality, they’re not very bright at all. When you look at them, you’re seeing them at night, in a dark setting. The human eye is very, very good at adjusting itself in such situations to pull out the detail of dim light in an otherwise dark setting — a human being, in a totally dark environment, can actually detect the light of a lit match at up to roughly two miles away. Amazing, huh? Unfortunately, even the best modern cameras and camera lenses just can’t come anywhere close to matching the human eye’s abilities in this regard.

Like with very many types of photography there is no one set of camera setting that one can point to and say “this is how you need to set your camera to get the best picture.” Pinpointing exactly the best way of how to photograph the Northern Lights with a DSLR can be somewhat tricky. The Northern Lights move — they’re constantly in motion. They’re dim, but their overall brightness varies greatly from display to display, and even minute to minute within a single night’s display. Along with other factors, like the reflectiveness of the surrounding landscape/environment, and the amount of secondary light pollution in the area, all of these things play a part to alter what exact camera setting will work best at any given time when photographing the Northern Lights.

The best you can do is to follow some rules-of-thumb, make adjustments as you gain experience and shoot a lot of photos. A good starting point is to start out at ISO 100, f/2.8, with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. If the Aurora seems really, very, abnormally bright, bump that down to 15 seconds. If the Aurora’s movement seems overly quick, then use the same settings, but bump the shutter speed down to 15 seconds, and move your ISO up to 200.

Some general things to remember is that you’ll want the last adjustment you’ll make to be the F-stop. You want to maintain a low, wide-open f-stop, such as f/2.8 is you can — in order to keep that aperture open wide and let as much light into the lens as possible. So, if you need to make adjustments, adjust shutter-speed first, ISO second, and then f-stop, if you absolutely have to. Keeping the ISO down is also a good idea as well if you can, as you’ll be doing lengthy timed exposures and higher f-stops will introduce more ugly noise into the images.

What’s important is that you keep taking photos, checking your results, making adjustments, taking more photos, checking results, making further adjustments, etc. If the Aurora comes out not looking bright enough, increase your shutter speed for the next shot. Too bright and washed out? Decrease the shutter speed. There’s so many variables involved that there’s no telling, until you get out there and start taking pictures, what camera settings will work best for how to photograph the Northern Lights in any single, given situation. So, you’re going to have to shoot, review, adjust, shoot, review, adjust, and so on. Spend enough time doing this in a session, and get a lot of pictures, and you’ll almost certainly get a few real winners among your batch of photos.

How to photograph Northern Lights with point and shoot camera.Also, if you can, shoot in RAW mode. Photos of the Northern Lights, shot in RAW, can often be worked in Lightroom to really bring out some incredibly spectacular and impactful images. And, forget about using any filters on your lens — no polarizers, no UV filters, nothing. Every micrometer of glass between the subject and your camera’s sensor diffuses and kills light in some measure. And, in photographing the Northern Lights, light is a highly precious commodity.

Remember, as well, that you’re going to be shooting at night — the Northern Lights do occur in the daytime — but, they can’t be seen. Their light is just completely drowned out by the sun. So, you’ll be photographing the Northern Lights at night. This means that you’ll likely want to have a flashlight with you, as it can be super-helpful when it comes to finding your way around in the dark, or finding buttons on the camera, or setting up tripods, or what have you. And, here’s a helpful tip: If you can find some dark red cellophane and an elastic band, wrap the cellophane over the end of your flashlight and secure it on there with an elastic band, so the flashlight shines only red light. Red-light wont affect your natural night-vision.

When you get out into the dark, your eyes will take a few minutes to fully adjust. Once they do, you’ll be able to see much, much better in the dark. Turn a flash-light on for even a split-second, though, and your night-vision is instantly lost. It’ll take your eyes a couple of minutes again to fully adjust back to the dark conditions and restore your ability for seeing in the dark. Turning on a light that is only emitting light in the red-part of the spectrum, however, will not significantly affect your night-vision.

Here’s a handy tip for acquiring some red cellophane on the uber-cheap as well: If you have a business near you that rents equipment for stage performances — a sound equipment rental place, or some such thing, check them out. These places often rent out large stage-lights that use cellophane cards of all different sorts of colors which slide in front of the light to change the color of the light. Very often, the cellophane gets ripped or torn during normal use and, when they do, they’re no longer of use to the company. When that happens, they usually just throw the cards in the trash and replace them with new ones. If you’re lucky, and you ask, they might give you some old ones that they’re just going to toss. Usually, depending on how bad the tear is, it wont be a problem for what you need them for. Or, often, they’re big enough that you can cut them down to smaller, unripped pieces that will work just fine for your purposes. Different colors are also great for securing over speed-lights with elastic bands to get different colored-lighting effects when doing off-camera, or strobist style flash photography.

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