How to Photograph Northern Lights

What are Northern Lights?

Auroras, known as Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere and as Southern Lights in southern hemisphere, are one of the most impressive and beautiful natural phenomena on Earth.  It’s a stunning colorful light display in the sky caused by particles released from the Sun colliding with gases in Earth atmosphere. Typically they are green, sometimes they are yellow or purple. But there are also very rare auroras that are completely red, blue and even black. Color of the aurora depends on the gas particles it collides with. Aurora isn’t static – it dances in the sky, sometimes moving slowly and gently and sometimes moving very quickly. Aurora can last just a few minutes or the spectacle might go on and on for a few hours.

Due to their nature (unpredictability, the fact they appear only in the dark, fast movement) Northern Lights can be a bit tricky to photograph. So in this tutorial I will give you some tips on capturing stunning photos of aurora. I hope you will also enjoy sample images showing this beautiful light show.

Interesting fact: even though most of us assume that Northern and Southern Lights are basically the same, newest research shows that in fact there are some subtle but noticeable (at least from physics point of view) differences.

Northern Lights display in Finland

Where to go and how to prepare to photograph Northern Lights?

Unfortunately auroras aren’t visible everywhere on Earth what makes them even more fascinating. The closer you’re to the north or south, the bigger the chances you’ll see aurora. In this section you’ll find some tips on where to go and how to increase your chances of experiencing it once you’re on location.

To have any chance to see aurora you basically need to go far to the north or to the south:

  • Best places to see Northern Lights are: Northern Europe (Iceland, northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia) or northern Canada. But sometimes Auroras can be also seen e.g. from Scotland or even north of the Baltic states.
  • Best places to see Southern Lights are: Antarctica, Ushuaia town in Argentina, southern tip of New Zealand.

From the above you should realize one thing: it’s a LOT easier to see Northern Lights than Southern Lights as much more land is in the arctic circle in the north than there is in the south. That’s why Northern Lights are so popular and that’s why I’m focusing on them in this tutorial.

Northern Lights require dark skies. It means that you have to travel to the chosen location in winter (or late autumn) as otherwise day will be too long. Also make sure to travel to a remote location outside of any city or bright lights.

In most locations Northern Lights are visible from late August (or mid-September) to March/April. Outside of this time window the day is too long.

But even that might not be enough. You can be in the wild, see perfectly clear skies and still not see any aurora. That’s why you also need to pay attention to aurora forecasts.

Aurora forecasts and what is Kp number (and why it’s so important)?

Just like there are weather forecasts, there are also aurora forecasts. Most of them is based on data collected by NASA or NOAA and examples include Aurora Service or Space Weather Aurora Forecast. It’s good to check various forecasts as they sometimes differ a little bit. Also bear in mind that aurora forecasts are in their infancy and we often can’t accurately predict northern lights. It means that the fact that aurora forecast is bad, doesn’t mean you won’t see it. Being alert and awake whole night might sometimes really reward you with some stunning northern lights displays. Photographing aurora is a lot about luck and patience!

But how to read the forecasts? The key to understand them is Kp-index. This number ranging 0 to 9 tells how visible the aurora will be and the higher it is, the better. With Kp anything less than 2 it will be very difficult to see any lights in the sky – they will be too faint. Here are meanings of various Kp-numbers.

kp-number Meaning
0 No Activity
1 Very low activity
2 Low activity
3 Low to moderate activity
4 Moderate activity
5 Minor storm
6 Moderate storm
7 Strong storm
8 Severe storm
9 Extreme storm (such storm caused power outage in Quebec in 1989)

You can check current predicted Kp-index in several websites and apps (e.g. Aurora Service). Bear in mind, however, that they might not reflect real values. Sometimes predicted Kp-index is very high and you might discover there is no northern lights activity at all. On other times, Kp-index might be predicted to be very low but aurora is clearly visible and is stunning.

Equipment needed

Similarly to shooting night photos there are a few equipment requirements that you need to meet in order to be able to capture aurora:

  • Sturdy tripod – as you will be shooting with long exposures you can’t take your photos hand holding your camera. You need to put it on a tripod.

  • Fast lens – ideally you should have lens with f/2.8 aperture (or even faster – I often shoot at night with Canon 24 mm f/1.4 lens) but aperture of f/4 still would do fine. Note, however, that in case of f/4 you will need to use exposures two times longer than if you would use f/2.8 lens.

  • Remote shutter release – although this item isn’t required it greatly increases your chances of capturing sharp photos as you won’t touch your camera and so won’t introduce any shakes or vibrations.

  • Spare batteries – as auroras are captured in the middle of winter usually, it’s very cold and so batteries drain much faster than in warmer conditions. Make sure to have a few spare with you.

  • Hand warmers – hand heaters/warmers will be useful not only to keep you warm during whole photo shoot but will also let you warm the batteries a little bit so they stay alive for a longer period of time.

  • Head lamp – although this is more optional accessory I cannot imagine shooting in the wild without it. Not only makes it easier to navigate in the area but will also help you in manual focusing (more on that later in the tutorial). Just make sure to get head lamp with red light mode. Using strong white light will result in your eyes adapting to it. The problem is that our eyes adapt to darkness much slower than to brightness so you will need a couple of minutes (up to 30) to adapt your eyes to darkness after switching them off. Red light in turn is quite dark and shouldn’t ruin your darkness adaptation yet it should help you in things like setting up your equipment, reading map, charts and so on.

Taking the photos

Actual taking of the photos doesn’t differ that much from taking regular night photos.

  1. Make sure to switch your lens to manual focus and disable image stabilization as it doesn’t work well on tripod (and might in fact introduce some camera vibrations).
  2. Switch to fully manual mode on your camera (most often denoted as M).
  3. Switch to Live View mode to set correct focus. If you see anything in the distance, try to focus on that (sometimes stars or some distant lights are visible in the Live View preview). If all you see is blackness, turn on your head lamp and try to lit some object in the distance (tree, rock). Focus on that with your lamp on.
  4. After setting the focus, take test shot (with very high ISO so exposure will be much shorter) and assess the focus. If the image doesn’t look sharp enough, adjust your focus, take test shot again and so on until you get sharp photo.
  5. Set your aperture to fastest value available on your lens (e.g. f/2.8 or f/4).
  6. Set your shutter speed according to northern lights movement speed. If they are moving very fast on the sky, you will need to use shorter shutter speed (in range 2 – 5 seconds) to avoid aurora looking as a colorful blob. If they are moving slowly, you can try using values in range 5 to 10 seconds (or maybe even a bit more).
  7. Set your ISO speed so the image on your screen has correct brightness. You don’t need to make it as bright as it was shot during the day (as you’re shooting in the middle of the night). Just make sure enough details are visible.

Post-processing the photos

Post-processing northern lights photos isn’t very difficult. There are basically a few things to do:

  • Color correction,
  • Enhancing contrast and
  • Reducing noise.

I start with white balance correction. And in case of northern light photos how you set it depends on the effect you want to achieve. Do you want whole scene to be bluish so it looks like a night photo? Or maybe you prefer to give everything greenish hue to make aurora even stronger? No approach is wrong. Take a look at below photos.

First image has following White Balance: Temperature – 3700 ; Tint – 0

Second image has following White Balance: Temperature – 3100; Tint – +15 (toward magenta)

Both images have completely different look yet each of them is ok and interesting in its own way.

Next thing is color saturation. I basically increase Vibrance (the way it works makes it perfect to adjust saturation of blues of the sky and greens of the aurora). If that’s not enough I usually move to individual color sliders and move saturation of greens, yellows a bit to the right to make them more saturated.

I also play with contrast. If you’re using Lightroom the easiest thing to make aurora pop, is to increase Whites a bit (but without clipping any highlights) and darkening blacks a little bit. In the image on the right you can see what settings I used for an example image above.

Also you will usually need to reduce noise as you will be using high ISO. What you should bear in mind is to avoid going too far with noise reduction as otherwise stars will start to disappear (as most noise reduction algorithms will treat them as noise).

I hope this tutorial will help you in capturing stunning aurora photos and processing them. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask!

2017-03-15T18:26:17+00:00 March 14th, 2017|Posted in: tutorial|
  • Björn Andersson

    Good tutorial and nice images. What where the kp-numbers for the Auroras you photographed?

  • Wojciech Toman

    Thank you Bjorn (nice to hear from you 🙂 ). kp-numbers varied from 3 to 6 (first image in the tutorial was taken when kp-number was in 5 to 6 range, I’m still working on the most impressive aurora I’ve seen).