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How to Photograph the Northern Lights

The northern lights over Reydarfjordur in the eastern fjords in Iceland

Photographing the northern lights for the first time can be an exciting but challenging experience. I was already an enthusiastic photographer when I first saw the aurora, and I wanted to fully appreciate and watch the display without being distracted by my camera. However, I was also very excited to capture an image and didn’t want to miss out on photographing the scene.


If you are hoping to photograph the northern lights, it helps to be prepared. Night photography can be technically complicated, and the aurora is fleeting; considering the settings and equipment you might need before you begin can relieve some of the pressure of capturing your first northern lights photograph. It will give you more capacity to enjoy the show too.


This guide contains everything you need to know about photographing the northern lights. Check out the links a the bottom of the page for specific advice about photographing the northern lights in Lofoten and Iceland.


Navigating this Guide



Finding The Aurora


The northern lights and streaks of light taken in the Lofoten Islands Norway

Most great photographs need a little planning. During your trip, you may notice the northern lights in the sky just as you happen to be in the perfect location for an image, but you will increase your chances by thinking about your night photography shoots in advance.


When looking for somewhere to view the northern lights, most people start with somewhere away from light pollution and with an open view of the sky. However, there is more to finding the best location for aurora photography, and some of the most interesting spots will break these rules.


If your goal is to capture a great image of the aurora and not just observe it, this section can give you an approach to finding a northern lights photography location.


Discovering Aurora Photography Locations


The northern lights over Skogafoss in Iceland, which is lit up at night.

Most landscape photography compositions featuring a portion of sky can work as an aurora photography location. However, there are several elements to consider when looking for a place to photograph the northern lights.


  • How much sky is in your composition. The northern lights appear in different places in the sky in an unpredictable way. If your location features only one composition, and you can only include a small patch of sky, you will have a lower chance of the aurora appearing in your photograph. Compositions with lots of sky have a better chance of success. 


  • The direction you are facing. Predicting where in the sky you’ll see the northern lights can be difficult, but there are clues. If the aurora prediction during your shoot is low, it will be more likely to appear in the north. If the prediction is medium, it might depend on where you are in the world - high latitude locations like Lofoten see medium aurora overhead, but it is more likely to appear towards the north at lower latitudes (such as Iceland). Strong aurora can appear anywhere in the sky. If you have scoped several potential spots to watch the aurora, and they all face in different directions, the predicted strength of the aurora can suggest the best one to pick. 


  • Features in the landscape. Although most good landscape scenes can work with the aurora overhead, some features work particularly well. Patches of water or ice can reflect the colours in the sky and are a great way to extend the colour of the northern lights into the rest of the scene. Some artificial lights, such as from windows or streetlights, can bring light back into the landscape and create a cosy atmosphere in a winter scene. 


Beginner and Advanced Photography Spots


The northern lights reflected in the ocean at Skagsanden Beach in Lofoten, Norway

When you photograph the aurora, you will be dealing with setting up your camera in the dark and attempting to create a composition without being able to fully see the landscape. When the northern lights appear, it can feel like the clock is ticking, and there can be some pressure to get the process right.


Some locations for northern lights photography are easier than others, and it’s best to start in a place where you’ll have a better chance of capturing a good image. As you build more experience and see the aurora multiple times, you can think about a location with a lower chance of success but potentially a more advanced composition. 


Simple aurora photography locations have these features: 


  • A wide view of the sky, which will allow you to turn and capture the aurora wherever it appears. Ideally, you would already have composition ideas facing multiple directions at these locations. 


  • A large main subject in the middle-distance, such as an isolated mountain. Large-scale images are easier to compose in the dark, and you are more likely to capture the scene in focus. 


  • They face north. Weaker aurora appears further north, so there will be more nights when the aurora is visible in images where you are looking roughly in that direction. 


Complex aurora photography locations have these features: 


  • Compositions that only work with less sky visible in the frame. This reduces the chances that the aurora will appear in the right place and means that you might see the northern lights but miss them in your image.


  • Intricate foregrounds, which may be closer to the camera. Small, nearby foregrounds are more challenging to get in focus in the dark, and it can be more difficult to expose the image correctly. You may have the same chance of capturing the aurora in the frame as you would with a large-scale photograph, but it will be technically more difficult to get right.


  • They face south. Some scenes look perfect for capturing with the northern lights but point away from the north. This means you’ll need a stronger aurora for a good chance of it appearing in the frame. If you have limited nights available, you may have to choose between a better composition facing south and an alternative composition facing north (with a better chance of success). 



Composing Landscape Photographs for Aurora


The northern lights over a fjord with snow-capped mountains in Lofoten Norway

If you research the best northern lights images on the internet, you’ll notice that they are often photographs of the landscape, not the sky.


Landscape photography is often improved by a colourful sky at sunrise or sunset, but most images are primarily about the landscape. The sky can be a finishing touch to a great landscape composition and aurora photography is no different: the aim is to capture a landscape image but with the northern lights as a feature to add interest and atmosphere.


To create a great landscape composition with the northern lights, the first thing we are looking for is a great landscape composition. Don’t take on the extra challenge of finding this spot in the dark. Scope out locations during daylight and consider which scenes might work with aurora if you were to return and capture them at night.


Ideally, you should never start an aurora photography shoot at a location you haven’t already photographed during daylight.


Predicting the Aurora


A close up view of the Northern Lights with detail in the aurora

The Best Time to Photograph the Aurora


The aurora can appear at any time, and its strength is determined by the amount of particle emissions from the sun arriving at the Earth's atmosphere. For planning the best time to watch the aurora, the easiest features to control are the level of darkness and whether the sky is clear.


If you visit a northern location in winter, especially in December, there will be hours of true darkness when you might see the aurora. A lot of advice recommends the 3 hours either side of midnight as the optimum time, but I can find no rigorous evidence for this. The concept of peak viewing hours may have emerged because they are (on average) the darkest.


Particles can hit the atmosphere at any hour of the day or night, and the time determines whether it is dark enough for aurora to be visible. Although there may be a peak aurora viewing hour, it’s important not to be led by this: you’ll have a far better chance of capturing the northern lights using short-term predictions and seeing any hour of darkness as a potential opportunity.


The problem with northern locations like Iceland and Norway is that they are often very cloudy in winter, and it's not uncommon to go many days or sometimes weeks without seeing more than a small patch of clear sky. If you travel to see the aurora, the main challenge will not be a lack of solar activity or darkness, it will be clouds blocking your view.


Some ways to improve your chance of seeing the aurora through timing are:


  • Spend as long as you can, as far north as you can. Places like Iceland can be beautiful for aurora watching, but only a tiny fraction of Iceland is as far north as the Arctic Circle. Parts of Norway are much further north, and there are more nights where the aurora is visible. The best way to improve your chance of seeing the aurora is by spending more nights outside at the highest possible latitude.

  • Travel during a season where you get the most dark hours. The shortest day in the northern hemisphere is around the 21st or 22nd of December - the closer to that date you travel, the more darkness you will experience, so the more time there is for the northern lights to appear. However, this will likely be a balance between the landscapes you hope to capture (the best winter scenes are often in February) and whether you want some daylight for other kinds of photography (anywhere in the Arctic Circle will get no light at all around the shortest day). 


  • Check outside whenever it is dark. I used to wait for 'peak time' for aurora in the middle of the night, and visitors often become superstitious about the best time to see it. Peak time might just be a quirk of average annual darkness; the aurora can appear at any time, so you should be thinking about the northern lights whenever it is dark.


Prediction for Northern Lights Photography


The northern lights over a range of mountains with red huts in Lofoten Islands Norway

Cloud Cover Forecasts


The main challenge to watching the aurora is cloud cover. Even if you usually check the weather forecast for temperature or rainfall, you’ll suddenly find yourself caring about the cloud while hunting aurora.


Detailed cloud forecasts present the cloud cover in three levels: low, medium and high. High cloud is often very thin, and you can still see the aurora through it most of the time (though it can spoil your images at higher coverage levels). Low and medium cloud is thicker and will be the barrier to your aurora watching.


I use the app Clear Outside to get a sense of the cloud coverage, but local forecasting agencies can be better, and you may want to use several weather services for comparison. The Norwegian weather service yr.no is used widely among photographers even when they are not in Norway.


Although cloud forecasts can't be completely reliable, especially in mountainous terrain, they can give you a sense of what time of night the sky might be clear to plan your attempt to see the aurora.


Cloud cover forecasts can sometimes be good enough to tell when a region has clear skies. In some locations, like Iceland, it’s possible to drive a long distance in one evening, as the roads are straight and sometimes completely clear of snow in winter. On certain nights, you might find the cloud cover in your location is heavy, but an hour’s drive could take you to a clear area.


Aurora Forecasts


Many aurora forecasts are available online, and I like the ones offered by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Fairbanks or by the Space Weather Prediction Center. You can also use apps for a simpler presentation of the data or for setting up alerts. 


Some services predict aurora activity 27 days in advance, and these forecasts can give you a rough idea of whether the aurora will be strong on those days, though the exact strength is very hard to predict. 


The prediction gets more accurate on 3-day forecasts because that is roughly how long it takes particles to reach the Earth from the Sun (though this timing varies, so the estimates are not perfect). 


When you are on location or considering going out to shoot, most services will offer a more accurate prediction 30-45 minutes in advance. At this level, you can get a very good sense of your likelihood of seeing aurora if the sky is clear. 


The best way to use aurora predictions is by comparing them with cloud data and planning your sleep. I have a series of decisions based on the weather and aurora forecasts, linked to the time of day: 


  • Before 10 pm: if the sky is clear and it's dark, I'll try to spend as much time as possible outside, even if no aurora is forecast. The northern lights can appear at any time, and I've seen vivid displays even when the forecast is very low. 


  • Between 10 pm and 1 am: if the sky is clear, I'll go outside even if the aurora prediction is low (kp 1 or above). I want a better chance of seeing the aurora if I'm going to disrupt my sleep, but I'm willing to gamble a little. 


  • After 1 am: if forecasts are for a clear sky and aurora of kp3+, I'll get up for a chance to see the aurora even if it's very disruptive to the night. 


Moon Cycles


Some advice will tell you to avoid aurora hunting during a full moon, as the extra light from the moon makes it less likely that the aurora will be visible. However, this is a more complex decision.


If the aurora is weak, a full moon will impact your viewing, and you are more likely to see the northern lights with a fully dark sky. However, the moon also illuminates the landscape and helps to create atmospheric nighttime images. Some moonlight on the scene assists in focussing and exposing the image effectively.


If the aurora is strong enough, it will still be visible even with a full moon in the sky. Photographing the northern lights during a bright moon can produce incredible images with clear landscapes and vivid aurora adding to the composition. If the aurora is so weak that a full moon is enough to prevent you from seeing it, it also would be too weak for a strong photograph.


If you do try to photograph the aurora during a bright moon, you need to consider where the moon will appear in the sky. Although the moon can light up the landscape for a more rounded composition, it’s likely to ruin your shot if it’s actually in the frame. If the sky is dark enough to see the aurora, the moon will appear as a very bright object, and it will be impossible to make it look detailed and natural in your photograph.


Use an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to predict where the moon will be during your shoot, and pick a location where your planned compositions will put the moon behind you.


Photographing the Aurora


The northern lights over a mountain at night, taken in Hamnoy, Reine, Lofoten

Photographing the aurora can be technically complicated and awkward on location. Add the elements of standing outside somewhere very cold in the dark, with the time pressure of capturing a fleeting natural display, and it can be a highly charged experience. This section is about the equipment, settings and techniques you might learn to prepare for the moment.


Before getting into camera settings and equipment, there is some general advice that can help prepare you for your first northern lights photography shoot.


Practice Astrophotography


You may only get a brief, exciting moment to photograph the aurora; don’t make that the first time you try photography in the dark. Before you travel, take some time to capture a good image of the night sky where you live; check your equipment, learn how to focus in low light, and experiment with settings until you are comfortable with the process.


The Milky Way is often visible at the right time of year (July to October is best), and this can be a good alternative nighttime subject to the northern lights. However, any subject will do. If you can capture a foreground with sharp stars in the sky, you have everything you need to capture the aurora.


Enjoy the Spectacle


Watching the northern lights is an incredible experience, and you will get the most out of it by paying attention in the moment, not fiddling with your camera.


However, as photographers, we also chase the excitement of finding great light or a beautiful scene; capturing an image with the aurora is a bucket-list experience for many of us.


These two ambitions of paying attention and capturing an image can be in conflict. However, the worst outcome is being distracted by the camera during the aurora but still not achieving a successful image from the effort.


Aurora displays last for different amounts of time: sometimes for more than an hour, and sometimes just a few moments. I like to take the initial moments to appreciate the scene before trying to work with my camera, and I always remind myself to enjoy the movement and colour. Watching the scene for a few moments first can also help you consider and improve your composition and approach.


However, if the northern lights appear when you aren't prepared and don’t have a great composition in front of you, consider leaving the camera in the bag and focus on creating the memory instead.


Northern Lights Photography Camera Settings


The northern lights next to a snow covered mountain in Lofoten Islands Norway

There are no correct settings for photographing the northern lights, but your decisions will be driven by capturing enough light without leaving the shutter open too long. Movement in the aurora (or your camera, if it is windy) can spoil the image, so we need to find ways of capturing enough light without a long shutter speed. 


This section examines aperture, shutter speed and ISO separately to determine the best choices and the trade-offs. It also describes approaches to focussing in the dark and using advanced techniques to mitigate the impacts of shooting in low light.



Aperture


The widest aperture you can use will be determined by your lens, and is likely to be around f/4 or f/2.8. Wide apertures let in the most light, but they also capture less of the scene in focus; this is the trade-off we are trying to manage.


Many aurora compositions will use a wide-angle lens to capture a lot of sky and might not have any foreground subjects near the camera. In these large-scale images, where your main foreground subject is far away, the shallow depth-of-field of a wide aperture will be less of a problem.


If you have a nearby subject in your image, a wide aperture will make it difficult to focus on both the foreground and the sky. However, a wide aperture is still the best way to let in more light, and you might mitigate the problem of focus with special techniques (see section on Advanced Techniques for Aurora Photography)


The best choice for aurora photography is to use as wide an aperture as your lens allows. 



ISO


Your highest possible ISO is determined by your camera. However, the highest useable ISO is often lower than the highest ISO you can set; your images will be grainy at very high settings. In general, more expensive cameras can produce more clear photographs at higher ISOs.


If you have already chosen your widest possible aperture, your ISO will determine your shutter speed, so we must balance a low ISO (to avoid noise) and a low shutter speed (to avoid blurring). You can expect to be shooting around ISO1600 or above.


The mitigation to the consequence of using a high ISO is de-noise software, which has developed a lot in recent years and can make up for very grainy images.


However, you can also prepare for this setting by creating test shots with your camera before you travel. Use a range of ISO settings for some photographs of a twilight sky, then use de-noise software to clean the image. Examining the area around the stars will tell you the amount of noise you can expect at various ISO settings with your particular camera.


For aurora photography, use as high an ISO as you can, based on the capabilities of your camera.



Shutter Speed


Aurora of different strengths can behave in different ways, so the effect of shutter speed depends on what kind of show you get. A weak aurora can appear as a faint green glow, and a long shutter speed (30 seconds) will ensure that the aurora is visible in your image.


Stronger aurora forms flowing shapes and patterns, often in different colours, and it looks much better with a shorter shutter speed that can capture detail in the shapes (2-10 seconds).


You'll also need to consider light on the rest of your composition. If the dark landscape is an important feature of your composition, you may need a longer shutter speed to capture enough detail in the foreground, but a shorter one for definition in the aurora. One mitigation for this problem is to use two images - one with a longer shutter speed for the landscape and another with a shorter shutter speed for the sky - blended later in software.


Your shutter speed might be longer for a faint aurora (to ensure it is visible) but shorter for a strong aurora (to capture detail and shapes)



Choosing Camera Settings on Location


The best approach to finding the correct settings is to test on location, remembering that the goal is only to capture enough light with the lowest possible ISO and shutter speed. If you are prepared enough for the moment, this does not need to take long or impact your aurora viewing, and it will help you get the best settings for the type of aurora and the amount of light you get on location.


Using your camera in manual mode, set the widest possible aperture and an ISO of 3200, then test your shutter speed at around 10 seconds. Check the histogram of the resulting image to determine if it is too bright or too dark.


If the image is too dark, you can increase your ISO or shutter speed, depending on the capabilities of your camera and the strength of the aurora. If you have a high-quality camera that can produce good images at high ISO, increase it. If your camera is at its ISO limits and the aurora is moving very slowly, increase shutter speed. Test again and check the results.


You’ll quickly find settings which produce an image at the right exposure, and remember that the histogram only has to be bright enough to capture the darkest area, not exactly in the middle.


Rather than trying to memorise some 'correct' settings, test shots will help you determine when you have exposed correctly with the lowest ISO and shutter speeds possible.



Focusing


The biggest challenge to capturing the aurora is not camera settings, but focussing in the dark. There are several ways to approach this when the scene is too dark for your camera to focus automatically.


  1. Use a point of light in the scene. It's rare to be so remote that there are no lights at all, and you can usually find a house or a streetlight somewhere in view. The light doesn’t need to be in your composition; you can move your camera to focus on the point of light and then recompose without changing the focus.

  2. Focus manually. Most camera lenses have a focus dial that you can set manually. Using this approach, set your camera to infinite for maximum sharpness in the sky, rather than guess the appropriate focal distance for the foreground. 

  3. Use a head torch to highlight part of the foreground. If you are close enough to your subject, you might be able to shine enough light on it to allow your camera to focus on it automatically.



Advanced Techniques for Aurora Photography


The northern lights over Vestrahorn in Iceland

The low light available when photographing the aurora will force you to use settings which maximise the available light at the expense of other technical qualities of your image. There are some techniques which can mitigate some of these costs. 


  1. High ISO De-Noise. Using a good quality camera and de-noise software can produce good images at very high ISO values; this will give you more flexibility in your other settings. I recommend testing this before you travel by creating images at different ISO settings and working out the highest you can go at an acceptable quality.

  2. Focus stacking. A wide aperture will allow your camera to capture a lot of light, but make it difficult to get a sharp foreground and a sharp night sky. The solution is two images - one focussed on the foreground and the other on the background - blended in software for a fully sharp image.

  3. Multiple shutter speeds. If the landscape is very dark, you might find that the same shutter speed doesn't work for your foreground and the sky. In this case, take one exposure with a long shutter speed to capture the dark landscape, then multiple exposures of the bright sky at a shorter shutter speed to capture different moments in the aurora. You can blend your single landscape image with the best of the aurora images later in software. 



Equipment for Photographing The Northern Lights


The northern lights over the black church at Budir in Iceland, which is lit up at night.

You don’t need any specialist equipment to photograph the aurora; any camera - even a phone - can produce an image. However, this section can help to prioritise the things you’ll need on an aurora photography shoot.


Planning for a nighttime photography session is not just about the things you need, but also how you prepare them. Try to get the right lens on your camera before setting out, put your head torch and batteries in an accessible place, and make sure your layers of clothing are ready in case the northern lights are already active when you arrive on location.


  1. Your camera. An expensive camera rarely makes a real difference to your photography, but shooting at night is one of those cases. Better cameras generally perform better at higher ISOs and capture more detail in low light. You don’t need a professional-grade camera, but something that takes different lenses and allows manual settings will be much more successful.

  2. A wide-angle lens. Most aurora images are made with a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. The aurora doesn’t always appear in the same place and can move around the scene as you watch. Wide-angle lenses allow you to photograph more of the sky and have a better chance of capturing something of the aurora in view.

  3. A sturdy tripod. Your shutter speed for capturing the aurora will be in a range where it will be impossible to handhold the camera and keep it steady. You don’t need an enormous, heavy tripod to achieve a sharp image, but you will need to be able to let your camera go while taking the photograph.

  4. Spare batteries. Batteries drain more quickly in the cold, and it will be cold. After putting in so much effort to get in front of the northern lights for a photograph, you really won’t want to run out of power. Don’t rely on your general pattern of battery usage; ensure you have enough spare.

  5. Head torch. Navigating the nighttime landscape is impossible without a head torch. You’ll want to have your hands free for dealing with your equipment, so use one you strap to your head, not the light on your phone. A torch is not only for moving around in the dark, it’s also for checking your camera setup and possibly focusing. Be aware of other photographers who may be shooting when you use your head torch - keep it pointed at the ground and use the red light setting if it has one. 

  6. Warm clothes. Some great aurora locations can have surprisingly mild winter temperatures, but standing outside under a clear sky at night can get very cold. Don’t compare aurora shooting with your experience outside that same day: not only will the temperature drop, but northern lights photography involves a lot of standing and waiting; the lack of movement will mean you soon feel the cold without plenty of layers and a thick jacket. 


Photographing the Aurora in Lofoten and Iceland


Two of the most popular destinations to see the aurora are Iceland and Lofoten, and I have specific guides to northern lights photography in these places. Check out the links below for advice on the best locations and other tips for shooting aurora in Iceland and Lofoten.


A link to a guide to northern lights photography in Lofoten Norway
A link to a guide to photographing the northern lights in Iceland

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