How to photograph the Aurora Borealis


In a few days time, I’ll be in Iceland strapped with my Nikon and tripod, hoping to capture what Mary and I have always wanted to witness, the Aurora Borealis.

This natural light show in the sky most commonly occurs in mid-winter months, it’s February, so we’re hoping that Iceland delivers.

I’ve never really spent much camera time focusing on shooting the night sky. So, I thought I’d take a little refresher and save myself the frustration of winging it (in sub-zero temperatures). It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you’ve traveled almost 3,000 miles to witness, so you’ll want to make the best of it.

So, here’s what I’ve learned.

Choosing the location

To shoot aurora, there are a few requirements necessary when it comes to the right place and time. Light normally in photography, is your best friend, but that’s not the case when shooting a night sky.

  1. Distance from light
    You must be a fair distance from any city lights since any ambient light will diminish the visibility of the radiant glow or stars in the sky. This applies to both northern lights and star photography.
  2. Clear sky
    On that note, the sky should be clear with no clouds.
  3. Include a landmark
    Your shot should include something interesting in the foreground to give a sense of place. Look for a forest of trees, a mountain or a building to include in your image, (like the featured image above).
  4. No moon.
    Or at least the moon cannot be above the horizon while you are photographing. Similar to what happens with city lights, the light show is diminished when the moon brightens the sky.

Essential Equipment

  1. Camera
    The first thing you’ll need of course is a camera. A DSLR camera preferred. Digital cameras offer instant replay, which is great so you can see what’s working and what’s not, and adjust accordingly.
  2. Tripod
    The second essential ingredient is to have a sturdy tripod. The tripod will stabilize your camera during the necessary long exposures.
  3. Cable Release
    You have a camera, a tripod, now you need a cable release. Some say that it’s not a necessity, but I would highly recommend using one.
  4. Battery
    This is a no-brainer, but how many times have you gone out in the field and realized that your battery was only half full (or is that just me?). Make sure it’s fully charged as the cold night may cause your battery life to be shorter than usual.
  5. Lens
    There are several desirable qualities to look for when considering lenses. A wide-angle lens is preferred, fast (large aperture of F2/8 or wider). I’ll be using my Nikon 16-35mm F/4G ED, which I think will do the trick.
  6. Flashlight
    Make sure you take a mini-flashlight with you. It’s dark out there and it’s a little easier to adjust your camera/tripod settings if you have some light. You can thank me later.

Location scout

This is not always possible but it’s a great idea if you can make it work. Go one night ahead of time before it gets too dark to scout out the best location. It’s a lot easier to find a suitable location while there’s still some daylight – keeping in mind that you’ll want something interesting in the foreground.

Camera Settings

Your camera may be different from mine as there are a large variation of camera models out there offering varying differences in settings. Some of the specific settings that will work on my camera (Nikon D800) may be different from yours. But here’s a great place to start:

  1. Adjust your camera to Manual mode. Note: This is one way to set your camera. I am quite used to shooting in Manual mode, so that’s what I’ll start with. But, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode as well, whatever you’re most comfortable with. Maybe try both.
  2. You’ll need a long exposure, for my Nikon I’ll set it to Bulb. That allows me to adjust the exposure to whatever I want.
  3. Set your ISO to 800. Take a few shots with the 800 ISO setting. Once you get the hang of it, you can adjust your shots by adjusting the ISO setting. But start with ISO 800 first.
  4. Set your lens f/stop at its largest opening (f/2.8 or larger).
  5. Set your shutter speed to 15 seconds. This number can also be changed depending on the brightness of the aurora, or as you get the hang of what your camera can handle.
  6. Keep your white balance set to Auto.
  7. Set your focus to infinity. Ideally get there before it gets dark. Using Auto Focus, focus your camera on a distant “infinity” focal point, like a mountain horizon.
  8. Patrick Endres, from Alaska Photo Graphics suggests using Auto Focus before it gets dark. To focus, try this; find a bright object in the sky (not the moon) and center your camera on it by looking through the viewfinder. Now turn on live-view and maximum zoom in on the object, and adjust until sharp.

Back to you

Actually, it’s my turn. In the next few days I’ll be perched somewhere in Iceland waiting for the magic to begin. I’ll be showcasing my images in a post upon our return so stay tuned for that. Have you photographed the Northern Lights before? If you have any further suggestions, please pass them on. I’ll need all the help I can get.

Our featured image was shot by Marcelo Quinan via: Unsplash

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