Witnessing the Northern Lights is an unforgettable experience, and one you’ll treasure for a lifetime. The beautiful natural phenomenon looks other worldly, and the stunning range of colours twinkling across the night’s sky make for incredible photography.
The aurora borealis is, unfortunately, notoriously difficult to capture on camera. However, with a little know how, the right equipment and some patience, it is possible to walk away from your experience with a photograph you’re proud to show off.
Read on, and discover how you can photograph the Northern Lights like a professional.
Bring the right equipment
Professional-grade cameras will achieve the best results, and they’re a great investment if you travel often as they’re capable of capturing high quality images in all conditions and lights.
Professional nature photographer, Markus Killi, recommends an APS-C DSLR camera used with a wide angle lens, between 10mm and 24mm to capture the best shots. Going wider than that can distort the image, which results in a photograph that looks unnatural.
APS-C DSLR stands for advanced photo system type-c digital single lens reflex, which is code for a high-level camera with interchangeable lenses that will set you back several hundred pounds. It’s a few steps above a standard compact digital camera and your trusty smartphone snapper.
Of course, not everyone will want to invest in a DSLR camera, so can the Northern Lights be captured with a smartphone camera? Markus Killi says it’s certainly possible, but only with additional equipment.
“If you want to take aurora photos with a phone, you need at least some kind of tripod to keep the camera still,” says Markus. “Perhaps a selfie stick can do the job if you stand it in the snow!”
Certainly, the higher quality the camera, the better the results. Whether you choose to bring a professional camera, or try your best with a smartphone, keeping the camera perfectly still is essential. You’ll need a long exposure (the length of time the camera takes a picture) so you can catch as much of the light as possible – but the result will be poor if the camera moves even a little. Like Killi suggested, a selfie stick can work at a push, but a proper tripod will yield the best results.
Taking the shot
So you’ve travelled deep into the north, the skies are clear and aurora borealis is due to make an appearance. When you’re ready to capture the shot, you’ll need to:
- Set up the frame using your camera’s manual settings. Automatic settings will often fail to capture the light in the dark surroundings, so it’s important to switch your camera to manual mode. Markus highlights the importance of white balance settings – choose daylight to best capture the aurora. But, most importantly, experiment with your camera at night before you visit the Northern Lights to find the settings that best work for you.
- You’ll also need to either set a timer on the camera, or use a remote, as even the tiny movement of pressing the trigger manually will create a blur in the image. Killi recommends using a wired trigger, as in his experience, wireless triggers can malfunction when taken into the chilly environments the lights are best seen from.
Framing the image is, of course, essential. Markus says: “Framing and composition is just the same as a landscape photo – don’t put the horizon into the middle!
“Of course, in an aurora photograph, there should be more sky in the frame than ground,” confirms Markus, “but the ground should still take up at least a quarter of the image. It doesn’t look nice if there are only tree tops in the frame.”
Extra tips and advice
Because the Northern Lights aren’t as strong as electrical lighting, you need to travel to a remote area to not only see the light clearly with your eye, but with your camera too. This means getting deep into the countryside, where there is minimal light pollution. For the image, you’ll also want to ensure there aren’t any buildings obstructing the shot, as this can often spoil the image.
Travelling into the icy wilderness doesn’t just mean you need to wrap up warm – you also need to protect your equipment. Markus advises bringing extra batteries for your camera, as the cold can drain the battery. To keep the spares fully charged, his tip is to store them close to your body for warmth.
You’ll also need to protect your camera when returning back inside. The frosty conditions will make the temperature of your camera drop. When you get inside, the camera can become humid and, as a result, damaged. To avoid your camera breaking, keep the equipment in the camera bag, to help it return to room temperature slowly.
Taking a great picture of the Northern Lights isn’t simple, but it is certainly achievable. Remembering our handy tips will mean you come away from a trip of a lifetime with something to treasure and show off to your loved ones.