How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis – Northern lights

Ron Niebrugge Alaska, Chugach, How to, Photos, Travel 77 Comments

Aurora photo

Yesterday I wrote about finding aurora borealis, today how to actually photograph the aurora Borealis. 

Tripod
The main requirement is a tripod.  Your exposures will be at least 10 seconds and possibly more, there is no way to hand hold the camera and get decent results.

Lenses
You also want to use the fastest wide angle lens you own.  Most consumer wide angle zoom lenses are f/3.5, this is barely fast enough. A f/2.8 or f/2.4 is much better.  Many SLR cameras come with a 50mm prime lens that most people quickly replace with a more convenient zoom lens.  If you still have an old 50mm prime lens laying around, dig it out – it will probably be the fastest lens you own.  I have an old f/1.8 that works great.  The problem with a 50mm lens is that it isn’t wide enough to capture the full band in most auroras, you usually need a wider lens – more like 28mm or wider.  Serious aurora photographers usually own at least one f/1.4 wide angle prime lens.  These can be somewhat expensive, and very specialized since most nature photographers don’t need fast wide angles because they are stopping down to maximize depth of field for landscape photography.

Shutter Speed
The idea behind using a fast lens is to reduce the shutter speed by as much as possible.  Auroras can have lots of interesting details in their bands and rays, but these details are largely lost with exposures in excess of 30 seconds – the wonderful color is still there, but longer exposures turns the details in to blobs of colors.

ISO Settings
Another way to reduce the shutter speed is to increase the ISO settings on digital cameras, or use higher speed film.  Today most people seem to use digital cameras, so my discussion will focus on these.  Higher ISO settings on digital cameras lead to increased image noise, especially in dark areas, I would use the highest ISO setting that you can live with noise wise.  I have no problem using my Canon 5D Mark II at 1600 ISO, and wouldn’t hesitate to go to 3200, above that, things get fairly noisy.  Because of the lack of detail in auroras, these type of images do respond well to noise reduction efforts in Photoshop.

Focus
Since the Aurora is far away, you can set focus on infinity and forget about it.  Test your lens in advance in daylight, some lenses need to be backed off slightly from full infinity for proper focus.

Noise Reduction
I talked about image noise from using high iso settings, but there is another kind of noise to be concerned about during long exposures with digital cameras, and that is sensor noise.  Update:  I no longer use noise reduction – it doubles the exposure time for each image and the penalty isn’t worth the benefit.

Exposure
OK, you have a tripod, lens opened all the way, iso set high, focus at infinity – now you are ready to start shooting.  I typically start with about a 20 second exposure and adjust from there based upon what I’m seeing on the histogram.  The top photo for reference was 10 seconds at f/2.8 and 320 iso.  Exposures can really vary widely depending on the brightness of the aurora and moon, and this is why I rely heavily on the histogram.

Moon Light
Speaking of the moon, a moon lit night can be very helpful at lighting up the surrounding countryside not only adding to the composition possibilities, but the moon makes it much easier to shoot and for walking.  It does take a pretty good aurora to compete with the light from a full moon.

Other tools
A headlamp can be very valuable when shooting at night.  Be sure to turn your headlamp and any car lights off before taking your photo, as stray light can be a problem with long exposures.  A shutter release can be helpful as it reduces camera shake, I often use my two second timer instead.  Since auroras are often found in the winter, this entry on winter photography tips may also be helpful.

Composition
Including a mountain, tree or other subject matter can help aurora photos.  It is nice to have a reference point for scale.  Experiment, horizontal and vertical, include the moon and leave it out, including the surroundings, even shoot straight up, anything goes.

Patience
The biggest secret to Aurora photography is patience.  Good aurora photographers spend many nights out in the cold sitting, waiting and even sleeping in their vehicles.


Comments 77

  1. Star

    This is our last winter here in AK and I am happy to have found your information page. I have yet to take any photos. I have a Kodak Easy Share z760 digital camera. I have been reading the manual and have found all the settings you speak of. However, you list shutter speed in seconds and my camera represents it in a fraction or as a “. Could you help me out? I have been googling but have not been able to answer my questions there.
    Thanks so much!
    Star

  2. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Star,

    Yeah, usually your shutter speed is a fraction of a second – but for night shots, it needs to be many seconds. Your camera may not have those setting, but it might have a B setting. The B setting allows you to hold the shutter for as long as you have your finger on it. Check your manual out to see if you have a B shutter speed. Good luck!

  3. Ken

    Star: when your camera lists shutter speeds, the fractions are all less than a second, and when it shows shutter speeds with ” next to it, that’s in seconds. I’d advise against using bulb or “b” mode, unless you have a cable release or wireless remote (Nikons wireless remote will allow you to open the shutter with one press and close it with the second) trying to not jiggle the camera while holding the shutter for 10-20 seconds is basically impossible.

  4. Yvonne Bennett

    I found your website and help on dslr photography of the northern lights. I’ll be shooting in March using an Olympus EVolt 500. While I’ve used the camera some, never for night photography. Anything special you can advise??

    Thanks,
    Yvonne

  5. Post
    Author
  6. Yvonne

    Thanks Ron. I’ve done a lot of reading and just invested in a 14-54mm, f2.8-3.5 lens to replace my 14-45mm, f3.5-5.6. I should be in good shape, especially since I have the ability to set exposure times and shoot in “RAW” format.

    Yvone

  7. Post
    Author
  8. Gilli

    Thanks for the advice

    I only have a Nikon 18-70mm lens f3.5-4.5

    and a sigma wide angle lens 10-20mm f4-5.6

    tripod and cable release

    I leave on tuesday for iceland, what ISO and exposure times should I start with for these options?

    many thanks g

  9. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Gilli,

    I would start wide open with a 30 second exposure with at iso 400, and then adjust from there. It hasn’t been a very good year for Northern Lights, hopefully you will get lucky!

    Good luck,

    Ron

  10. Post
    Author
  11. Dave

    Hi Ron

    You mention, you rely on your histogram. In your experience, what particular items are you looking for in your histogram?

    Thanks

    Dave

  12. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Dave,

    I want to make sure the mountain of data isn’t too far too the right or left – especially right with northern lights – I don’t want the lights over exposed.

    Because of the black night sky, I don’t mind if a good portion of the data is up against the left side of the graph, it should be since the night sky is largely black. But there will usually be a second hump of data sorta speak – this is the data for the actual lights, and they should be near the middle.

    Hope that makes sense.

    Ron

  13. Frances

    Thanks sooo much for your info ! I have a 35-80 (2.8) Nikon Lense on a D70 Nikon SLR, , and a 18-35 3.5/4.5 Nikon lens, which would be better to use ? You say pick the best, so that would be the 2.8, but it is only a 35, so should I use the 18-35 even though it is 3.5/4.5 ? Also, I have a remote control for the D70, but it seems to fire some of the time only, what do you mean when you say you use your 2 sec timer ? I understand that would simply wait 2 secs before firing ,but how would you get a long exposure with that ? I find your shots incredibly beautiful, and thank you for sharing your knowledge so generously ! sincerely, Frances

  14. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Frances,

    Thanks and you are welcome!

    That is a tough one. The faster lens is better, but Northern Light can often occupy a big portion of the sky, so then a wider angle would be better. I would use take both. If the lights are in a tight band and really moving, use your fast lens. If they are a big arc and not moving much, then use your wider angle lens. In between, then it is a compromise – you might try them both if you have the time.

    I use the two second timer with mirror lockup instead of the remote control. With the remote control, you don’t need to use the two second delay.

    Ron

  15. Frances

    Thanks for your quick reply ! I don’t understand about the mirror lock up, and the 2 second delay, how do you do that ? Sorry that I am not more experienced, so you will have to explain it to me, sounds like a great idea ! I have only used the mirror lock up to try to clean my sensor, and didn’t know that I could do a time exposure using it, sure would like to know how you do that ! thanks, I looked at your gallery, and I am so impressed, you have traveled , and gone to all my favorite places ! what a treat to see all those lovely images ! I live in BC myself, and Utah is one of my favorites ! I am not schooled in Photography so I kind of fake it, but I really love it !

  16. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Frances,

    Thanks – I have been very blessed to have been able to travel to so many wonderful places. I really love BC!

    The idea behind using the two second timer is it reduces the camera shake created when you hit the shutter button. You are accomplishing the same thing with your remote, but it is a good way to fire the camera if you don’t have a remote. It is great for landscapes, but doesn’t work for wildlife where timing is critical.

    Another way to reduce camera shake is by locking up the mirror before you take a picture. It is probably a minor thing, but the mirror can cause the camera to shake a little bit. Not all cameras have mirror lockup, and the way you set it is different with each camera, so you would need to check your manual for the one.

    I hope that helps!

    Ron

  17. Frances

    Thanks for your reply, do I understand you correctly ? you use the mirror up, feature to take the picture, but I thought that when you press the shutter down with the mode dial set to MUP,then ,you have to push the shutter button down again to take the picture, so how would that be like a time exposure ? Would that not be just like taking a picture the regular way, except that the mirror comes down after the picure is taken ? Sorry to be so dumb, but I thought that you had a method to take a time exposure without a remote control. I have the remote control for the D70, but I also own a D300, and don’t have a remote for it. Last time I used the remote with the D70 for fireworks I found that it would not go off when I pressed it , so I ended up missing some of the fireworks, it seemed to close the shutter OK, but would not always open it right when I pressed the remote, thought the battery was weak so I bought a new one, and still had the problem, had the new battery checked, and it is ok, so I sure would like to have another way to take a time exposure. Hope you understand all that, I almost don’t !

  18. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Frances,

    That is a good question. I understand what you are saying, and no, using the self timer and mirror lock up doesn’t take the place of the remote for long exposures.

    My camera will keep the shutter open for 30 seconds, and that is as long as I want to go with Northern Lights, so that is why I can use this method, but if I wanted to go for more then 30, I would have to use the remote.

    For long exposures, you are doing it right with your remote, but I don’t know why you were having problems – maybe your buffer was filling? I know I have had that problem when photographing fireworks, especially if noise reduction is turned on.

  19. Frances

    Thanks again for your quick answer, that is what I wanted to know, I looked up my manual and it say’s this” A picture will be taken automatically if no operations are performed for about 30 seconds after the mirror is raised, this doesn’t mean the shutter stays open for 30 seconds, does it ? I will try using the remote again, it seems to be Ok the first time I use the remote, but if I want to take further pics, such as in the example of fireworks, it doesn’t want to work again, and I keep tying, and finally it does work, so I’m wondering whether it just needs a rest between, but don’t see the reason for that. Thanks for all your help, you are very kind ! If I get anything I will send you some, how do I do that ? can I download pics on this site, and how would I do it ?

  20. Post
    Author
    Ron

    You are welcome.

    If you get something good, you can email me a jpeg.

    I have talked about using mirror lock up with a 2 second timer. You can also lock the mirror up without the timer. It sounds like with your camera – if you don’t take a picture within 30 seconds of locking the mirror up, the camera will take a photo and I assume lower the mirror – I think my camera does the same thing.

    Good luck!

    Ron

  21. santa

    I would personally advise against using auto for white balance. What you will find after an evening of shooting is a strange variation in the coloration of your images due to the fact that each exposure may have a somewhat different color balance. If you shoot RAW then of course you can alter the final color balance as you choose. The image above is at a higher kelvin temp than I normally would shoot at. Locally the Lights rarely appear that yellow. I normally shoot around 4300. Most camera settings for “flourescent” is around 3800K and that is a nice setting that isn’t too far from what the eye sees. Ultimately it’s somewhat subjective. Your photography is absolutely stunning. Some of my aurora images are at http://www.pbase.com/santa/aurora. It’s been a quiet time recently with this solar minimum. Hopefully things will begin to pickup.

  22. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Santa,

    Thanks for the comment – I enjoyed your images, and remember seeing many on them on NSN!

    Interesting comments on the white balance. I do always shoot in raw, so I can control it after the fact. On this image, I adjusted the white balance based on the white snow more then anything else, so I didn’t think it was too warm.

    Thanks again,

    Ron

  23. aly

    hey I am a 15 year old kid in Nevada. Could i see the northern lights here or would i have to go to canada or alaska. i have always wanted to see them. I plan to be a photographer, do u guys have any tips for me.

  24. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Aly,

    You can see them in Nevada, but it would be a very rare event, but it has happened. Not only would it be a huge aurora to show that far South, but you would also need to be far from any city lights.

    Going to Alaska or Canada would be your best bet – they are an amazing sight!

    Thanks,

    Ron

  25. Post
    Author
  26. gilli mcg

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gilliflowerart/sets/72157605304449806/

    Hi Ron ,
    December 31st, 2007 at 2:31 am , I wrote you for advice . For some reason I did not see the response. Just re-visiting your site to brush up on your excellent article ready for my next trip to iceland soon…..and found your response . Thank you !!! I was lucky again, last time (have some pics on the website above from the past two years chasing the borealis).

    The most dificulty I had was finding something to focus on this time, it was so dark on some nights that I had to send my husband into the darkness with a torch to give me something to focus on.

    thanks again ….I tell everyone about this site!

    best gillix

  27. Post
    Author
  28. gilli mcg

    hi ron thanks – I was not that lucky this time …tripod broke …by the time I got sorted ….it was gone …..but the view from the flight home was spectacular…and for a level one we saw it above scotland not that far from glasgow AMAZING…..the activity level is 6 tonight and there is a slim chance that my family in scotland will see it …..wish I lived up there. I can’t wait another year to see it again ….I need to find a way to see it again soon….hooked. many thanks gilli

  29. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hey that is great Gilli! The aurora is sure an amazing sight that never gets old. We have clouds here, so I don’t think we will be seeing anything here.

    Ron

  30. Rusty Walker

    That is the next photo project…Any place you would suggest to the week end traveler for a good chance to see and photo the aurora? What about time of year?
    Thanks,
    Rusty

  31. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Where do you live Rusty? Fairbanks Alaska would be a good place, or even further North, but that may not be close for a weekend trip. October is maybe the best time of year.

    Ron

  32. Marie

    Hi Ron
    I have been reading your comments with great interest and would like your advice about taking photographs of the aurora borealis from a moving object, a plane, which I think may make things very difficult, but I’d really like to try to get some useful pictures if possible. I have a nikon d80 and a 50mm F1.4 lens and was wondering if you had any advice or comments re the best way to take photos that weren’t just a blur of colour?
    thanks loads
    Marie

  33. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Marie,

    Thanks.

    That is a good question. All you can do is use that 1.4 lens and as high of an ISO setting that you can stand and see what happens. It just may be too dark, but what do you have to lose. If it is a bright enough aurora, it just may work.

    The bigger challenge maybe light from within the plane, especially if you are trying this from an airline as they have double pane windows that I think will reflect too much interior light.

    Good luck – let me know how it goes.

  34. ZMac

    Hi ron,
    I was wondering what camera you use when you photograph the lights.
    i currently have a Canon EOS 1000D camera and was just wondering if this is high enough quality, or should i try to get something better?
    thanks
    Zmac

  35. alyx

    i was hoping you would be able to help me…im looking for a good camera that will take great pics of the auora…i dont have one now and my budget for it is anywhere between one to two grand…i dont really have any experience with photography…but im willing to learn…i hope you guys can help…thanks…

  36. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi alyx,

    That is a good question. I would look at the Canon XSi
    . You can get it in a kit with lens like the one I have linked to – you might consider adding a telephoto, I think this would be an all around great setup.

    Hi ZMac,

    Sorry I missed your question. Yeah, I think the 1000D is plenty of camera for Northern Lights. I would stick with the camera from now, and maybe cosider upgrading in a couple of years.

    Ron

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  38. Michael

    Hi Ron,

    I am thinking of traveling to Fairbanks during this early Sept. Obviously, northern lights is one main reason for me to go up there. But there is a little concern – I checked the moon calendar, which shows it will be near a full moon over those days. So could you please advice more detail on how much impact the moon would have on my viewing and shooting the northern lights. If it’s huge, I may have to reconsider my dates, which is not very convenient.

    Many thanks
    Michael

  39. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Michael,

    I have seen some wonderful images with the moon and northern lights, it can add a interesting element. The moon also does a great job of illuminating the landscape, and that can also be a bonus.

    The problem with a full moon – it takes a lot brighter northern lights show to over power the light from the moon. Without the moon, a small display might be workable, but with a full moon, the same small display might not even be visible, so that makes it a bit more of a gamble.

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  42. Matt Schneider

    Ron,
    I have an Olympus E-620 w/ f/2.8 wide angle and am having trouble capturing reds. I shoot 15-30 seconds no higher than 400 ISO. I live outside of Fairbanks and see bursts of red all the time, just can’t catch them. Any suggestions on this?
    Thanks,
    Matt

  43. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Matt,

    You might try a bit lower ISO, but otherwise I really don’t know why that is. My Canon’s seem to go over board with reds, so I haven’t noticed that issue.

    Good luck,

    Ron

  44. Francis

    Ron,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading and trying to learn from this site. I would love to capture the northern lights and intend to take the boat from Bergen to Kirkenes and back in February. I have a Canon 1000d camera and would welcome your advice on two issues.
    Firstly, what are the chances of taking a good shot from a moving boat?
    Secondly, if you think it is worthwhile, what lens would you recommend? I presently have the 18-55 is kit lens. fixed 50 f1.8 and the 70-300 is. Is it worth buying a fast wide angle lens?
    Many thanks for your advice

  45. Post
    Author
    Ron

    Hi Francis,

    It will be really tough to do from a moving boat – even a really bright show will require a few seconds of exposure.

    I don’t think I would buy a fast wide angle lens yet. I would start with what you have – that 50 is a fast lens, I would use it and your current wide angle for now.

    Have fun!

  46. Francis

    Hi Ron,
    Thanks for the prompt reply and advice.
    There will be three/four occasions when the boat will be in port at night, so if I’m lucky, I’ll use a tripod.
    Thanks again,
    Francis

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