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Photography Tips: How to photograph the Northern Lights

photograph the Northern Lights

‘How to photograph the Northern Lights?’ is probably one of the most common questions when it comes to Aurora Borealis! First, I suggest you to read my post: Chasing Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) in Finland – Top Tips Before You Go, in which you will get answers to other ‘popular’ questions like ‘What’s the best time of year to see the Northern Lights?’ or ‘Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?’.

Here is a beginner’s guide to photographing the Northern Lights (all I have learned and what helped me to shoot some incredible Aurora images), let’s start!

Planning – location, Aurora forecasts

If you want to go taking Aurora photos on your own, I suggest you to do some LOCATION SCOUTING during day time. That way you will be already familiar with the area and you won’t lose time searching for the right spot when the Auroras decide to appear. Keep in mind that the best locations to see the lights are dark places, with no city lights!

Beside that Aurora is best seen during CLEAR, crisp, cold winter NIGHTS (from late November to mid March). All about Aurora forecasts read HERE.

Keep in mind that you’ll be very cold, so DRESS APPROPRIATELY (warm, thermal clothes with gloves, scarf, cap) – this is very important, trust me, I was so cold during my first ‘not well’ prepared night of shooting that I just wanted to go back in a warm cabin.

Camera equipment

  • Tripod & remote release

For a night photography you’ll need a sturdy tripod (it’s impossible to take longer exposure time photos without it). You should also have a remote shutter release that allows you to fire off the camera without physically touching it to reduce any chance of camera shake. If you don’t have a remote release, you can set your camera on a 3 – 5 second timer before firing.

  • Camera with manual mode

One of the things you should do when shooting Aurora is to put your camera on manual mode (for night photography auto focus just won’t work). Also manual mode allows you to set up ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

  • A wide angle lenses

A wide angle lenses are ideal for capturing the Northern Lights. Why? Because this kind of lenses allow you to capture vast landscapes alongside the Auroras overhead. Find out more about the best lenses for travel photography and which lens to use for what HERE

How to set up your camera?

  • Focus at infinity

As Auroras are very distant from us you must focus at infinity (or as close to it) to get sharp images. Most lenses have an ∞ symbol on them which is used to mark the approximate infinity focus point, but they need to be adjusted slightly more to ensure sharp focus. The best way to check it is during the day, experiment and practice a little to find and mark where the manual infinity focus on your lens has to be to give you the sharpest image.

  • Light sensitivity – ISO

Start with the ISO 400 – 800. If that isn’t bright enough, continue to increase your ISO until it is. Most of my ‘Aurora’ images are shot in ISO range 800 – 1600.  Don’t increase ISO too much as that will influence on your image quality.

  • Aperture

Open your aperture to the widest possible value ( f/2.8 works great), that will allow as much light as possible into the camera’s image sensor.

  • Shutter speed

Keep your shutter speed or exposure time between 10 – 30 seconds. If Aurora is moving quickly, try 5 – 7 second exposures, when it’s not moving as quickly try 10 – 30 second exposures.

  • Shoot in RAW format

Always shoot in RAW image format so you can easily adjust and edit in post production parts that are overexposed or underexposed. Also, you can change your white balance settings, colors and sharpness.

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