How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Despite having made three trips to Iceland, two of which were specifically to photograph northern lights, I had yet to see the aurora borealis until a few nights ago near my new home. I drove only 30 minutes from my apartment to Elk Island National Park after seeing forecasts that called for moderate to high auroral activity. I arrived that night around midnight to find that the northern lights had already started dancing across the sky in various shades of green and purple. Finally! Northern lights! I was beyond excited to see the light show of the north and spent just over 3 hours photographing the aurora from various spots within the park.
If this was my first time photographing the northern lights what makes me an expert worthy of teaching other people how to shoot it? I did face challenges beyond my control while shooting the aurora that cool summer night, but I got the technical aspects (like exposure settings) dead on. I've been photographing the night sky for years, and shooting the northern lights is not much different that shooting a star-filled sky. The main issue I did have was high winds. I was making long exposures, and the breeze made the tree tops move, causing them to be blurry in most of my images. There was also the coming and going of cars with blazing headlights interfering with some of my exposures. Despite these challenges, I'm pleased with my first northern lights images. Here is how I captured them and what I learned in the process:
Research Weather & Aurora Forecast
The northern lights can only be seen on clear, dark nights. If you live in a city, you have to get away from the light pollution of traffic and street lights. The farther out, the better. In some countries (like Iceland) the aurora can only be seen during winter months when it is dark enough for long enough to see them. Here in western Canada, especially in the northern parts around Edmonton and up, northern lights can be seen year-round if the conditions are right. It was mid-July when I first photographed them. Check the aurora forecast with one of the many websites that predict northern lights activity (I've listed several below). Then check the weather forecast for the area you want to photograph them in. Keep in mind that the weather can change. The night I made these images, there was a thunderstorm that cleared just minutes before I went out to the national park. Dress accordingly, you may be outdoors for a while!
Prepare Camera Gear BEFORE Going Out
Don't wait until you're on location in the dark to fiddle with your equipment. Choose your lens, pop it on your camera, and put in on your tripod (you cannot shoot the northern lights without a tripod!). Then choose your settings. I turn in-camera long exposure/noise reduction off. That's because I don't want to slow the camera's operation down with these features. Because I chose a full frame camera, I wasn't worried about noise and only needed to reduce it slightly in post (shoot RAW for the love of photography). Crop-sensor cameras are fine for shooting at night. You may have a bit more noise in the shadows, but you should be able to fix much of it later. I set my dial to manual mode and set my ISO at 1250 originally, then, on location, I found I could lower it to 800 for most shots.
You don't need a fancy f1.4 or f2.8 lens to shoot the northern lights like all those other blogs tell you. It helps to let in as much light as possible, reducing ISO requirements, but don't fret if you don't have one. I used my Nikon 18-35G at f3.5 mostly. I even took a few at f4.5. They're fine. As far as shutter speeds, I chose 15 seconds to start, and when I was shooting, I made adjustments between 8 second and 15 second exposures depending on the situation. To reduce camera shake, turn your two second timer on or use an external shutter release.
The most difficult part of shooting at night, aurora or not, is focusing. The general rule is to focus to infinity. Turn your focus ring to the infinity mark and turn auto focus off. Rarely are lenses actually perfectly focused to infinity even when set at the mark (for example my 18-35mm is focused to infinity just slightly before the infinity mark on the lens). Make sure you know what infinity actually is on your lens before you go out to shoot. I'd recommend marking this somehow in case you accidentally lose focus. If you're set to infinity, then your foreground (treetops, etc.) should be in focus.
Finally, make sure to set your compensation to "0." While shooting, check your histogram occasionally to make sure your shots aren't way underexposed. My advice is to adjust shutter speed if necessary and leave the ISO as low as possible. Keep in mind that the slower the shutter speed, the more ovular stars will appear, and the less distinct the shape of the aurora will be as it dances across the sky.
Look North, Find a Foreground, and Be Patient
The general rule is to look north to dark, clear skies. If the aurora is strong, then it can actually create waves in all directions and be photographed from the south as well. When you arrive on location with all your gear preset, try and find a north facing direction to start with, preferably with a decently interesting foreground (I approach northern lights photography much like landscape). Take a test shot, or two, and make compositional adjustments accordingly. Another general rule is to shoot super wide, but I also zoomed to 35mm for a few shots. Sometimes the northern lights will be the subject of the shot, sometimes the background, keep this in mind while composing images. Use your LCD level between each new composition to make sure things aren't crooked.
The northern lights can appear anytime of night, but usually between 12AM and 4AM. Be patient if you don't see them and keep in mind that they may first appear very weak and not visible to the naked eye. Take occasional shots to see if the aurora is there. If it swells in color and dances across the sky in a spectacular display and then fades away, don't pack up and go home yet. Stick it out. It may come back again even stronger.
Camera and any lens with manual capabilities and built-in self timer
Tripod (with bubble levels if camera does not have built-in level)
Remote shutter release (self-timer works fine though)
Weather appropriate clothing
Water and/or coffee
Post Processing Tips
Like everything else, if you shoot it right in the field, you should have very little work to do in post. Because northern lights images are dark and lean toward the left side of the histogram, my first task in Lightroom was to increase the exposure, blacks, and shadows a bit while still maintaining that it was nighttime. Once deep blacks were recovered, I simply increased saturation, contrast, and vibrance moderate amounts in order to bring forth the colorful aurora and bring out the subtle orange and purple hues that are less obvious than the bright green. Increasing clarity a slight amount (+10 to +20) helped to accomplish this even more. Then, I adjusted white balance more toward the cooler side on both sliders because I wanted to keep the sky a natural shade of blue (I originally shot in daylight white balance, which I found to be slightly too warm). There was no set formula, I edited each image individually. For me, it's all about creating the look that represents reality as well as what I perceived. It's easy to over saturate and push colors beyond natural levels.
As far as noise reduction, I left everything in the default setting except the luminance slider, which I increased to +16. I didn't add any additional sharpening.
I hope this helps you to be successful on your northern lights shoot. I was very lucky to be able to see and photograph them in mid-summer. I definitely hope to have that experience again soon. Feel free to message me with any questions. To find out what's in my camera bag, click here.