5 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
I’m assuming that if you’re reading an article about photographing the Northern Lights that you have some knowledge of what they are.
But if you’re uninitiated, the Northern Lights occur because particles from the sun collide with the Earth’s atmosphere.
As a result of those collisions, light is created, often green in color, but sometimes yellow, red, blue, and purple as well.
The color that’s created depends on the gas the particles collide with: oxygen creates greens and yellows while nitrogen produces red, blue, and purple.
Because both the particles from the sun and the gasses in the atmosphere are moving, the lights also have the appearance of moving, often being described as dancing across the sky.
It’s a sight to see, that’s for sure. It’s also a lot of fun to photograph.
Here are five quick and easy tips that will help you get better photos of this incredible phenomenon.
Location and Timing
Though the Northern Lights can be seen relatively far south like the northern continental United States, certainly the better bet is to travel northward, to Canada or Alaska.
These locations are much closer to the magnetic poles of Earth, creating a much more vivid light show.
The best time of year to see the Northern Lights is in winter, November to March, when the cold, cloudless skies provide an unobstructed view of the dancing lights.
Naturally, traveling away from urban areas to minimize light pollution is another top tip.
The problem, though, is that planning these kinds of outings can be a little overwhelming.
That’s why we recommend joining up with Special Interest Tours for a six-day tour of Alaska.
The great thing about photographing the Northern Lights as part of a tour group is that you not only have everything planned out for you, but you get to rub elbows with other Northern Lights enthusiasts.
Better still, Bob Berman, a world-renowned astronomer, and Dr. Neal Brown, a former professor and expert on the Northern Lights, will be along for the ride to provide detail-rich and interesting learning opportunities.
The tour takes you right into prime Northern Lights territory and at just the right time – mid-March.
That means you’ve got the location, the timing, and the expert insights ready to go to help you get stunning Northern Lights images.
The tour also includes fun activities like sled dog rides, a visit to the Chena Hot Springs, private lectures with Dr. Brown and Mr. Berman, and, of course, nighttime coach rides into the Alaskan wilderness to witness and photograph the Northern Lights.
Include Foreground Interest
Just like when you photograph any landscape, it’s important to consider the inclusion of foreground interest in your shots of the Northern Lights.
This serves a couple of purposes.
First, foreground interest draws the eye into the shot. By having something eye-catching in the foreground, it invites viewers to have a closer look at the image.
Second, because the Northern Lights are so visually powerful, you need something to balance out the shot. Foreground interest accomplishes this.
In the image above, the abandoned boat provides that balance between foreground and background, helping to create a scene that is also more interesting from front to back.
You MUST Have a Tripod and Camera Remote
There are no ifs, ands, or buts, about it – when photographing the Northern Lights, your camera needs to be mounted on a tripod and you need to have a camera remote to fire the shutter.
Giving your camera the most stable base possible will allow you to also get the sharpest photos possible.
Although there’s no specific set of camera settings for every single instance of the Northern Lights, you will certainly be working with shutter speeds that are into the realm of 30 seconds or more.
With such long shutter speeds, you need to do everything possible to ensure your camera doesn’t move.
A sturdy tripod and a camera remote will go a long way in helping you get the sharpest photos.
Use Live View
Another tip for getting ultra-sharp photos is to use Live View to focus your shots.
Live View gives you the chance to set your focus, and then zoom in to check if everything is sharp.
A good rule of thumb is to set your focus at infinity or just slightly less, that way everything from foreground to background is nice and sharp.
Just be sure you set the focus after you set your camera settings.
Shooting in manual mode is the way to go, so you’ll need to do some test shots to dial in the best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Dialing in those settings prior to focusing the shot will help you avoid accidentally messing up the focus.
Use a Wide-Angle Lens
Wide-angle lenses are ideal for photographing the Northern Lights because they allow you to capture the size and scale of both the lights and the landscape below them.
You don’t need a super ultra wide lens, but something in the range of 14-24mm is a good bet.
If you don’t already have a wide-angle lens, do some shopping around and find one that’s got a large maximum aperture. You want to be able to collect as much light as possible by opening the aperture, that way you can minimize your ISO setting and avoid photos full of digital noise.
What’s more, that wide-angle view allows you to incorporate more of the scene, like including foreground interest as discussed above.
With these simple tips, you’ll be set to take better photos of the Northern Lights come the fall and winter.