How to photograph the northern lights

Stuart Forster provides tips on how to photograph the northern lights.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see the northern lights in the night sky of Manitoba several times. Each time, watching the lights swirling and dancing in the darkness felt like a near spiritual experience. If you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to simultaneously view and photograph the northern lights.

northern lights swirling above trees in northern Manitoba, Canada
The northern lights above trees in northern Manitoba, Canada.

The northern and southern lights

As their common name suggests, the phenomenon otherwise known as the aurora borealis can only be seen in our planet’s northern hemisphere. The aurora australis is the southern hemisphere’s equivalent. In both cases, ghostly, shimmying light appears to dance in the night sky when gases in Earth’s atmosphere collide with electrically charged particles released by the sun.

That is most prevalent in the wake of solar winds, caused by sunspots on the surface of the sun. There’s an 11-year cycle in solar activity affecting the aurora. It last peaked in 2013. Nonetheless, sightings are still frequent at northern latitudes under the right conditions.

For people on the ground to be able to see the northern lights, the solar activity has to occur when the night sky is relatively free from cloud cover.

People viewing the northern lights at Gangler's North Seal River Lodge in northern Manitoba, Canada
People viewing the northern lights at Gangler’s North Seal River Lodge in northern Manitoba, Canada.

Travel to view the northern lights

In recent years, the prospect of viewing and photographing the northern lights has appealed to more people than ever. In part, that has been down to the increased availability of budget air travel to destinations previously regarded as niche or luxury destinations. However, travel restrictions and measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 look set to impact air travel over coming months.

Affordable flights to Keflavik International Airport with Icelandair helped open up Iceland to many travellers who once could only have dreamt of photographing the northern lights. Lapland — whose landscapes around Kuertunturi and Äkäsmylly are widely regarded among the most rewarding for photographing the northern lights — can be reached by flying into Ivalo, the most northerly airport in Finland. Booking well in advance ensures that international flights to Canada represent decent value. Resorts in northern Manitoba, the Yukon and Alberta market themselves to travellers keen to see the aurora borealis.

Thanks to their accessibility, Canada, Alaska in the USA, the Nordic nations and Greenland are popular places for viewing the northern lights. An involved visa application process tends to discourage international travellers from heading to Russia for the lights.

Wherever you decide upon as your preferred destination for northern lights photography, it’s worth remembering that long-term planning is a factor in minimising travel and transport costs if you travel independently.

Specialist operators, such as Aurora Zone, tailor tours to photographers. That means you’ll be transported to locations with attractive foregrounds and have the expertise of an experienced photographer at your disposal. That’s handy if you have questions regarding techniques.

You’re far likelier to see the northern lights away from urban areas, as light pollution brightens the sky above towns and cities. If you’re staying in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, you can book onto tour that take you outside of the city. Grundarfjörður, on the Snaefellenses peninsula is a popular location for photographing the aurora borealis due to the presence of a mountain, Kirkjufell, and pool beneath a waterfall that can make for an interesting foreground.

The northern lights glowing green above trees in Manitoba, Canada
The northern lights glowing green above trees in Manitoba, Canada.

The best time of year to view the northern lights

People living in northerly climes say that the best time of year for viewing the northern lights is between October and April, due to the darkness of the sky. Solar winds can occur throughout the year but during summertime northern nights are short and, at higher altitudes, near non-existent, negating opportunities to see the aurora dance. They tend to be most frequently spotted on cold nights, free from cloud cover.

Rainbow by the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland
This photo was a product of a day on which the northern lights were not visible: a rainbow by the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland.

Useful apps for viewing the northern lights

Download an app — such as Aurora Alerts or My Aurora Forecast — to your smartphone so that you know whether you’re likely to see the northern lights: that will help with your planning once you’re at your destination. If solar activity is not going to be strong until after midnight maybe you can take a nap before heading out.

In addition to apps, the Aurora Service website may help you judge whether it’s worth driving to a location and spending time in the cold. Knowing that there’s only a small likelihood of seeing the lights will free up time to do something else. If you’re in Iceland perhaps you can focus on photographing landscapes or the icebergs that litter the black sandy beach by the Jökulsárlón lagoon on the island’s south?

Even if the solar activity is strong, cloud cover may scupper your chance of photographing the northern lights. Accuweather and WeatherBug count among the websites worth visiting to aid your planning while photographing on location.

Icebergs in the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon on Iceland
Icebergs in the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon on Iceland.

Clothing and equipment for photographing the northern lights

Inevitably, choosing the right clothing and footwear is important if you want to spend prolonged periods outside photographing the night sky. Experienced northern lights photographers usually suggest wearing multiple layers, for insulation, along with a hat, gloves and sturdy boots. Having the right clothing is important: you can’t be creative if you’re shivering and unable to concentrate.

A reliable tripod is essential for quality images of the northern lights. In sub-zero temperatures metal becomes uncomfortable to touch. Weighing 1.7 kilograms, the Rollei C5-I tripod is made from aluminium and features foam grips that make it easy to carry. Manfrotto’s BeFree Carbon Tripod is constructed from carbon fibre and weighs just 1.1 kilograms, making it a good choice for regular travellers who enjoy low light photography.

Freezing cold drains your camera’s battery quickly. Charge and carry substitute batteries in your jacket’s inner pockets, so you don’t miss opportunities to photograph bursts of activity by the aurora. The intensity of their swirling and movement pulsates.

Even with good planning, there’s an element of chance involved in any trip undertaken with the intention of photographing the northern lights: maybe you will see them, maybe you won’t. If you do, and you capture the phenomenon with on camera, you’ll have images to cherish.

Northern lights in the night sky above Lake Egenolf in northern Manitoba, Canada
The northern lights in the star-studded night sky above Lake Egenolf in northern Manitoba, Canada.

Six handy tips for photographing the northern lights

Tip 1: Though your principal intention is to photograph the northern lights, think about your composition. An element in the foreground — such as a tree, mountain or body of water — helps give your photo depth.

Tip 2: Manually set your point of focus then fix it using masking tape. Photographing in the dark while using your camera’s auto focus is likely to result in tracking and, potentially, to a blurred image.

Northern lights glowing in night sky above Lake Egenolf in northern Manitoba, Canada
The northern lights glowing in the night sky above Lake Egenolf in northern Manitoba, Canada.

Tip 3: Use a high ISO setting (e.g. 1600 – 3200). The northern lights move in the night sky. Using a low ISO means you don’t capture them effectively.

Tip 4: The intensity of the northern lights fluctuate, meaning your exposures will need to vary in duration. Experiment with the shutter speed and look at the histogram when reviewing the results while on location (in darkness relying on the screen view can be misleading).

Tip 5: Open your aperture to the maximum available (e.g. f2.8), to allow as much light as possible into your exposure.

Tip 6: If you’re using a lens with a stabiliser remember to switch the stabilisation off when using it during long exposures. Otherwise there’s a risk it will introduce blur.

Northern lights dancing in the night sky above tundra north of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada
My very first sighting of the northern lights north of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.

Further information

Illustrating photos are by Stuart Forster of Why Eye Photography. Stuart has experience of writing about photography and lecturing on the subject of travel photography.

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2 Comments

  • Lisa gerard-sharp

    May 10, 2020 at 09:49 Reply

    Wonderful: I can appreciate the skill and artistry behind these images. This is well-written too, a reminder that Stuart is a rare photographer-writer, at home in both media. While I have lasting memories of the northern lights in Greenland, I lack the skills to capture them in photography.

    • Go Eat Do

      May 10, 2020 at 12:42 Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post and leave a comment. It’s very kind of you to say so and much appreciated.

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