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How to Photograph the Northern Lights like a Boss

lisabettanynorthernlightsiceland

The number one spot of my bucket list has always been photographing the Northern lights. As a child, I dreamt of seeing magical green lights illuminate the sky in person. Last October, I spent 21 days chasing the Aurora Borealis in Iceland and finally got to cross it off my list. If this is a dream of yours, book a ticket and go. It was truly a remarkable experience and one you will never forget.

Essential Gear for photographing the Northern Lights

When I was in Iceland, I spent a lot of nights out shooting the Aurora and found a formula that worked like a charm. I was going to write ‘patronus charm’ but then realized it’s pretty passé to make Harry Potter references, but that epic Harry vs Voldemort wand battle always reminds me of Auroras, so I feel it has some relevance here. Back to the photography –> Here’s what you’ll need:

1. Tripod.

A nice tall one so you don’t have to crouch, unless you want to work out your thighs. The photographer’s squat has been known to tone and strengthen one’s posterior. A stable ball head also helps.

2. Remote Timer.

You may be a ninja, but you can’t always be on your game and camera shake is everybody’s enemy.

3. Wide Angle Lens.

A 14mm, 15mm or 16-35mm work best. I used the Rokinon 14mm, Canon 15mm fish-eye & Canon 16-35mm. I felt that the 16-35mm gave me the sharpest images.

4. Headlamp.

Contrary to popular belief and that wascally wabbit, no matter how many carrots you eat, you cannot see in the dark. Go buy a headlamp right now (one with the red light so you don’t burn your eyeballs) and keep it in your camera bag. Learn from my mistakes and avoid falling into a swampy hole or down a rocky hill littered in sheep poop.

Aurora Borealis, Siglufjörður, North Iceland, 14mm. f/2.8 at 13s, ISO 1250.

Aurora Borealis, Siglufjörður, North Iceland, 14mm. f/2.8 at 13s, ISO 1250.

 

Tips for photographing the Northern Lights

There is no real magic involved in shooting the Aurora. It’s all mother nature. You basically just have to set up your camera, stand there and push the shutter button. Well, maybe there is a little more to it, but I know you can do it! You just need to dance a little with your settings.

1. Focus to infinity using Manual focus.

Set your focus to this symbol –> ∞. I find that each of my lenses is slightly different as to the exact point where my image is the sharpest. Some I set to slightly before infinity others right on it. Play with this and over time you will find the money zone for your lens. Set this up while you are in your car in the light. It can be such a pain to fuss with once you are on location in the pitch black.

2. Set your Aperture to wide open.

Let in as much light as you can! I used f/2.8 in all my photos. This is a default for any night or star photography, so remember it. There is a test later.

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The Green Monster & the Icelandic Cabin. 16-35mm, 10s at f/2.8, ISO 640.

 

3. Set your ISO from 800 to 1600.

This is another general setting for night stuff and it works for shooting Auroras too. I started with ISO 1600 for most of my shots. On those magical days I got a really bright Aurora, I set the ISO to 640 – 800 to reduce a bit of the noise. Noise isn’t a huge problem at ISO 1600 for a shot like this anyway, but if you can take the shot at a lower ISO it is always better. If not, it’s nothing the old noise reduction slider in Lightroom can’t handle.

3. Set your Shutter speed from 5-30s.

This is the setting you will be constantly changing depending on how bright the aurora is and how much movement you want to capture. I changed the shutter speed constantly, averaging around 10s. With weaker Auroras (barely visible to the naked eye), you will most likely need a 25-30s exposure to see the lights (see the 25s photo below from Jökulsárlón). For badaboom Auroras, (aside: does anyone else miss Tony Soprano?), you might only need a 5-10s exposure (see the 6s top image in this post.)

My first aurora above Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. 14mm, 25s at f/2.8, ISO 1600.

My first aurora above Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. 14mm, 25s at f/2.8, ISO 1600.

 

Auroras move very quickly and if you use too long of an exposure, you can lose some of the definition of the streaks. If you have enough light, shorter exposures capture the movement a lot better.

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Shorter exposure to capture the light striations, 6s at ISO 800.

 

All the above settings are a starting off point. Make sure you continually check and tweak your settings as the sky changes. Auroras move around and change intensity all the time and if you aren’t watching you will end up with areas of over exposure.

Good luck in your Aurora hunt & ask any further questions in the comments below!

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    John
    April 13, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    I used a Northern Lights app with my phone, as I didn’t bring the right gear! Thank goodness the guide did! Fairbanks was another good place to see the lights, we did get lucky and caught a great show! Excellent article, thanks! I shared it with some friends as well.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 10:58 AM

      Fairbanks looks incredible for Auroras. It’s on my list for sure. Next time gear up and don’t forget the snacks.

  • Reply
    Tom Foil
    April 13, 2016 at 12:19 PM

    Hi Lisa.

    Photographing the Northern Lights had always been on my bucket list as well. That is, until 2012 when I moved from Louisiana to New Hampshire and was able to finally check it off my list.

    Granted, we don’t get to see them quite as often as places like Iceland or Alaska, but I’d say at least half a dozen times a year, we do see them here. And I photograph them every chance I get.

    Love your writing style, by the way.

    :)

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 1:20 PM

      Did you post any of your shots? I’d love to see them. I saw a few baby auroras in Banff and Jasper, but nothing like Iceland.

  • Reply
    Mike Veerkamp
    April 13, 2016 at 12:37 PM

    Very cool. Any luck capturing Northern Lights on Vancouver Island?

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 1:22 PM

      Not yet. There is a lot of cloud cover usually. I’ve heard of people capturing decent shots, but I’ve never been lucky so far. If I am, I’ll let you know!

  • Reply
    Paolo DLR
    April 13, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    Step 1: Read this blog post.
    Step 2: Actually go somewhere to view the Auroras.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 8:10 PM

      I was hoping i could just stay here in my pajamas. Iceland is so far away. I’ll just have to use my imagination today.

  • Reply
    Carlos Ortega
    April 13, 2016 at 6:27 PM

    Loved your photos as always Lisa!!! Not very far from your home town you can flight to Whitehorse in the Youkon area. I went there 2 years ago and was able to see some beautifuls northen lights. For sure a great experience, here is the link to one of my photos in flickr if you want to see it. https://flic.kr/p/nuRjhZ

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 8:17 PM

      Those are beautiful images. I’ve added Whitehorse to my list! Thanks :)

  • Reply
    Sharon
    April 13, 2016 at 7:31 PM

    Hi Lisa – I have a Canon 16-35 f/4. Do you think it is pointless to attempt the northern lights with the f/4 or is there hope?

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      April 13, 2016 at 8:14 PM

      There is hope for sure, you’ll just need to increase your ISO or shutter speed. Start at ISO 1600 and a 15s exposure. If the exposure is too dark, then go to 20-25s. If you hit 30s and it’s still too dark then go up to ISO 3200, but you will probably have enough light :) Good luck!!

  • Reply
    Mercedes Catalan
    April 14, 2016 at 2:39 AM

    Gorgeous photographs!!! I’m still hoping to see some from Northern Ireland before the season ends! If the weather allows me, hahaha!

  • Reply
    Derek Briand
    April 16, 2016 at 10:08 AM

    Great tips! Warm weather gear too :) Frost nip on the fingertips prevents getting the lens cover back on haha.https://blueskyz.smugmug.com/Other/DerekSBriand/

  • Reply
    Brian Holberg
    May 10, 2016 at 5:06 AM

    Thanks for the article and information. With all of your travel it would be nice to see an article on how you pull it off and pack. For example visiting Iceland in winter. It’s one thing to pack your camera gear but how do you fly with a tripod, winter gear, boots etc. When I vision this I’m taking 4 suitcases with me! There has to be tips and tricks to it.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 10, 2016 at 7:15 AM

      Good post idea! I’ll add that to my list. I always manage to get it down to one carry on and one suitcase. I wear most of my winter clothes on the plane :P

  • Reply
    Xplorato
    June 22, 2016 at 4:31 AM

    Your tips are always worth the read and your photgraphy :) never disappoints, lovely!

  • Reply
    Tips on How to Find the Northern Lights in Iceland – Mostly Lisa | Photography tips & inspiration
    October 20, 2016 at 11:43 AM

    […] cover this more in depth in THIS post, but since you are here, you are probably wanting a few tips, and who am I to deny you? So […]

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