A lot of practice, trial and error has gone into this tutorial on how to photograph the northern lights. Taking pro northern lights photos is difficult to master. More difficult than any other kind of long exposure photography. Here are some tips to give you all possible chances for success.
It’s so much more than just photography that you have to worry about
Simply getting to the right place is a logistical challenge when planning to photograph the northern lights. Photographing the northern lights isn’t like photographing sunset at a popular landscape destination like Moraine Lake, or Moon Bells. In fact, it’s the polar opposite. Speaking of polars. You need to be close to the polars just to get a chance to seeing them! Either the south pole, or the north pole.
The only other photography that requires the same dedication, and patience as northern lights, is wildlife photography. Almost the same amount of planning, and patience is required. Many nights spent out in the cold will have you staying up late, and going to bed unsuccessful. However, it only take one great northern lights photo to make it all worth it!
Preparation is the Key to Taking Pro Northern Lights Photos
As with all photography, preparation is 90% of the work. Or at least it should be. Preparing for you photography scenario is like studying for a test. You can put it off, and procrastinate until the night before, and you might even do OK, but you don’t want an “OK” photo, you want a great one, so get serious about preparation.
There are so many variables with outdoor photography, control the things you can. Prepare for the things that you can’t. The best way to do that, is to stack the cards in your favour. The odds of getting great northern lights photos is low, even if all the conditions magically come together. So do everything that you can to put yourself in the right place.
Being in the auroral zone
The auroral zone is usually about 3 – 6 degrees wide (around 3,000 – 6,000 kilometers). This zone in usually anywhere between 10 – 20 degrees away in latitude from the geomagnetic poles. Chances are, if you’re close to the arctic circle at 66 degrees north, you’re in a good spot.
Scoping has never been so important.
If you want to know the trick to taking pro northern lights photos, this is an important one. If you’ve ever photographed with me before, you’d know I love scoping destinations before I photograph them. What is sometimes a luxury, in this case is practically essential. It’s difficult to see in the dark. Chances are, if you’re in the arctic, you probably don’t know the area well. Scope during the day and use apps like Sky Map to show you what to anticipate after dark. This gives you the ability to find interesting foreground, or subject matter that might compliment the northern lights in a really unique way.
Prepare to be outside for a very long time
There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Dress for the elements and understand that getting that shot in these conditions might mean bearing and grinning the cold. Pack snacks, friend of mine and arctic expedition photographer Jon Golden always highly recommends macadamia nuts for cold weather shooting. The extremely high fat content keeps your metabolism running hot.
No other form of photography will push your camera technology like this
I am a massive advocate of “creative intervention”. Using creative means to find a solution for lack of equipment. I think it’s more important to be outside, doing what you love. Rather than sitting at home and being discouraged that you don’t have enough pro camera equipment, a faster lens, a full frame camera body etc.
For northern lights photos, proper technology and camera equipment is crucial. Except for maybe underwater photography, your camera will never work so hard to produce stunning imagery.
Fast lenses, 2.8 and faster are essential. Full frame sensors are also extremely important. The reason equipment matters even more for shooting northern lights than simply a long exposure night sky photo, is because we’re not jut trying to maximize available light. We’re also trying to photograph the definition of a fast moving, hardly visible to the naked eye, phenomena.
Technique for Taking Pro Northern Lights Photos
There exists well calculated formulas for the perfect northern lights images. Much like other long exposure photography, there is a middle ground to achieving a desired effect while still retaining implied motion, and shape and detail. Northern lights are simply unique because they take place in the darkest of night skies. Balancing a well exposed image, and a sharp and well defined streak of dancing northern lights is difficult, but not impossible.
If you want to be taking the best northern lights photos you possible can, you will need to be shooting in full manual. Manual shooting mode, and manual focus. Adjust your aperture as wide as possible. Adjust your shutter speed between 6 seconds, and 12 seconds. Focus on the brightest star in the sky, zooming in to be sure it is tact sharp. Some cameras will be able to handle ISO much better than others. Know what your highest ISO setting is for shooting an image that isn’t overly grainy.
Grain in your photos is OK. You are shooting the darkest skies in the world. People will naturally have a lot go grace when viewing your images. They’ll be focused on the northern lights more than your hot pixels. You can also adjust some of the noise in post-processing, however, you cannot make a soft aurora streak, a sharp and bold streak in post-processing.
Did I mention the wind?
It’s pretty rare to find yourself photographing northern lights on a quiet and calm arctic night. Arctic winds can be strong, like hurricane strong. The wind might not scare the locals, but it will cause your not so sturdy tripod to make some blurry images if you’re not careful. Take care to really shove your tripod into the ground. Use what ever you can to weigh it down, and support it from the wind.
Don’t forget about the light pollution
Yes. There is light pollution everywhere in the world. Even the darkest skies often have light pollution from nearby cities, towns, or even farms and tiny villages. You might be far enough up north to see the northern lights, but you’re never too far to disregard light pollution. Nothing can make a beautiful northern lights photograph loose its’ appeal like having some orange light leaking into the side of the frame.
If you’re so lucky to witness this incredible spectacle, take some time and soak it in. Photographers can easily forget to be in the moment and appreciate what it is that’s happening right infant of them. I know I am guilty of it. Don’t let the excitement of getting the perfect photo distract you completely from just experiencing and engaging with one of the most unique phenomena on the plant.