How to Photograph the Northern Lights
with today’s digital cameras
By Photographer Patrick J. Endres
I’ve been teaching photographers how to photograph the northern lights for two decades. For many, just seeing the northern lights is a life-long dream, but photographing them is both a thrilling and awe-inspiring experience.The advent of the digital camera has somewhat demystified northern lights photography, at least to a small degree. Getting real-time feedback in the field is a huge advantage, however, it has not removed the need for experience or being well informed about the many, many, aspects necessary to make it a success.
In response to the many questions I received about how to photograph the northern lights, I wrote an extensive tutorial that thoroughly covered the topic. I ended up with a 330–page eBook simply titled “How to Photograph the Northern Lights, which is now in its 3rd edition. I teamed up with former University of Alaska aurora scientist Neal Brown, who offers scientific explanations about the aurora. What follows here are excerpts from that tutorial which provides some essential information to get you started.
Aurora Science and Forecasts
In Search of the Aurora
Timing Seasons and Weather
Dealing with the Cold
Choosing Cameras and Photo Gear
Preparing Your Camera
In the Field
Wrapping it Up
To dig into this topic, it is helpful to at least start with a little science about the northern lights. It is certainly not necessary to know this to photograph the lights, but it helps in understanding the forecasts and helps inform you on destination decisions.
It was only 100 years ago that scientists discovered that the sun was responsible for the northern lights. We have come a long way in our understanding of space science since then. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Heliophysics Research Division has made significant efforts in trying to better understand the sun and its effects on Earth. Scientists have engaged in collaborative efforts to monitor how, why, and when solar storms happen, and we aurora photographers benefit from the knowledge they share.
Even the smartest aurora scientists will tell you that predicting the aurora presence on any given night is far from a perfect science and includes many changing variables. Many resources that help give some idea of northern lights activity exist on the Web. Here are two worth noting:
The color is determined by the atmospheric gas at altitude, (mainly atomic oxygen and nitrogen), its electrical state, and the energy of the particle that hits the gas. The colors of the aurora are made up of red, blue and green light emissions. Other colors may be seen as a mixture, or blending, of the three.
When evaluating an aurora picture on my camera’s LCD display, I’m often shocked by the colors I see there that were not visible to my naked eye. If you can see even the faintest bit of color with the human eye, the camera captures a much more vibrant color. I’ve learned to shoot test shots often, even if the aurora is not particularly active or apparently colorful to your eyes; you may be surprised by what you find in the final image.
Because the aurora are drawn to the earth’s magnetic poles, far northern and southern latitudes offer excellent opportunities for viewing auroral displays. The “auroral zone” (also called “belt” or “oval” is the region in the circumpolar north where the aurora borealis can be seen approximately two-thirds of the year. This region reaches all eight circumpolar countries. While chances of seeing the aurora are statistically much greater in the aurora belt region, it is not necessary to travel all the way there to see them.
During large geomagnetic storms, the aurora oval expands, and the northern lights can be seen in more southerly latitudes. However, this may happen on a much more limited frequency. In the U.S., Alaska is the only state under the aurora belt. Because the aurora are drawn to the earth’s magnetic poles, far northern and southern latitudes offer excellent opportunities for viewing auroral displays.
Some points to consider when selecting a location for aurora photography:
Geographic Latitude: It would be ideal, although not necessary to find a spot within the auroral belt. (According to Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu, this is the polar region where the aurora is visible about two-thirds of the year). I live in Fairbanks, about 65 degrees latitude, which is geographically well situated for aurora viewing.
Light Pollution Free: Go somewhere free of light pollution, far from city lights or airports.
Direction/Orientation: Most of the shooting orientation will be between the northwest and southeast sky. With this in mind, position yourself to shoot with light sources (towns or cities) to your south. When solar storms are very strong and hit the earth’s atmosphere with strength, both the northern and southern sky will contain the aurora, and often in some wild colors.
In the United States, Alaska is the clear winner as a northern lights photography destination because of its proximity to the aurora belt. Additionally, the mountain landscapes of northern and interior Alaska make outstanding foregrounds for diverse and interesting photo compositions. In Alaska, the “auroral belt” or “zone” occurs between a 3° to 6° latitudinal range, near 70° N. I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is situated at latitude 64.8° N, just below the auroral belt, and offers excellent aurora viewing opportunities.
I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is situated at latitude 64.8° N, just below the auroral belt, and offers excellent aurora viewing opportunities. Fairbanks International Airport provides relatively easy access to perhaps the best launching place for aurora photography in the United States. Whatever you decide to do, flying into the Fairbanks International Airport is a good start. There are companies for vehicle rental and many hotels or B&B accommodations from which to choose, should you make Fairbanks your base to explore on your own. By traveling the paved and fairly well-maintained roads that lead out of town within a 60-mile radius, you can find plenty of locations that are suitable for aurora photography.
Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is located along the Chena Hot Springs Road just 65 miles east from Fairbanks, takes guests on night excursions to see and photograph the aurora. You can combine a few nights at the resort with your own exploration of the broader Fairbanks vicinity. One-night guided excursions in the Fairbanks area are also available, and companies providing this service are increasing.
If you do plan to explore on your own, practice attentive driving. Photographers are known for looking at the landscape instead of the road. This can be precarious, especially at night. While road surfaces are generally in good shape, icy conditions in Alaska’s Interior are common in the winter. Exploring the areas ahead of time, during the daylight, is safer. Stop and pull off the road if you want to check out the night sky, and don’t drive sleep-deprived.
Driving north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway in winter can be very treacherous and it is not recommended unless you are a veteran winter driver, and your vehicle has all the necessary saftey equipment inlcuding a CB radio, road flares, spare tires, cold weather gear, emergency gear, jumper cables, tow rope, etc.
March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year; October is a close second.
Aurora activity is directly connected with solar storm activity on the surface of the sun. Therefore, being aware of this will help determine the optimal times for viewing the most active aurora displays.
According to SpaceWeather.com, statistically speaking, March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year; October is a close second. Although the reasons why are not fully understood, there is no doubt that equinoxes favor auroras.
The data from their website plots geomagnetic activity per month, which is overlaid with the cloudiness factor in the diagram below taken from my eBook. Remember, however, that clear skies can be equally, if not more productive from a statistical perspective also.
I’ve photographed the aurora during all phases of the moon’s presence.
Predicting what exactly is the best time of night to view the aurora is difficult. There are, however, some generalizations and statistical averages:
Stay awake and be ready. I’ve never had much luck by going to sleep and then waking periodically to check. By the time you actually get dressed and prepare all the camera gear, the show can easily be over.
Plan to spend a chunk of time viewing. The aurora displays and activity follow a somewhat predictable pattern. Whether it is a homogenous arc, a rayed arc, or a corona, they present different types of photo opportunities at different times of the night.
Because aurora viewing is best in Polar Regions, you are likely to experience cold weather. Sometimes, very cold weather, especially if you are visiting Alaska in the winter. If the thought of cold weather freaks you out, consider a time like late September or early April. The temperatures are a little warmer then, but the skies are still dark at night.
Get yourself dressed properly and outfitted with the necessary equipment. This will greatly increase both your efficiency and enjoyment while spending a night photographing the aurora. Below are a few suggestions to help prepare you:
While the digital age has taken much of the exposure mystery out of aurora photography, it is imperative to be well informed on a few particular aspects of digital photography to secure a proper exposure. Perhaps the single most helpful tool on your digital camera in getting a proper exposure is the histogram. It is the graphical representation of the tonal values in your image. Camera LCD monitors can be deceiving on a dark night, which is another reason that your judgments on exposure should be based on your histogram and not the preview image you see. It is fine to consult that for composition, but learn to rely on your histogram. If you are not familiar with this, please see the article below.
Read your histogram: Do not be fooled by your camera’s LCD monitor. The preview may serve as a good reference, but a bright LCD monitor on a dark night can make things appear brighter than they are. Learn to read your histogram. I strongly suggest reading Understanding Histograms from www.luminous-landscape.com.
In the truest sense, there is no right or wrong histogram, since a histogram just tells you the information about what is in a picture. It is your job to make the histogram reflect the scene that you want, or that you are taking. Because the aurora has some degree of brightness, you want to make sure your histogram shows that. The left side of the histogram represents pure black and the right side represents pure white. Obviously, on a dark night you can expect more darks in your histogram, but if the aurora is present, you should also see some values reaching into the mid tones as reflected in the second example.
Proper Exposure is critical: Even though a RAW file offers latitude for exposure compensation, accurate exposure is imperative, especially when shooting high ISO.
Shoot in RAW format: If you are uncomfortable with RAW, shoot in RAW&JPEG format (if your camera permits it). Even if you don’t know how to process a RAW file, don’t worry. Someday you will be glad you did. Consider the RAW file like a negative. It will always be there and you can process it at any time.
Generally, on a dark night, I would recommend starting with an exposure of 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600 and see how your histogram looks. Make adjustments based on that first test exposure.
The exact (and correct) exposure values are going to vary based on the brightness of the moon (or other ambient light present) and the brightness of the aurora. If you understand how to read a histogram, getting your exposure correct is not that difficult. Especially since you can make adjustments as necessary based on what your histogram tells you.
You can tweak the exposure by adjusting ISO, Shutter or f/stop as necessary based on your lens and your camera’s ability to utilize high ISO. High ISO tends to result in grainier images, but this will greatly depend on your camera. Reducing your time allows you to capture more definition in the moving northern lights. From the chart below you can see the benefit of a f/1.4 aperture if your goal is to have a short exposure time.
Many digital cameras have two in-camera settings that can control noise in a digital file.
High ISO Noise Reduction: This applies to JPEG only. If you are shooting in RAW format, you can ignore this in-camera setting since the noise reduction takes place in the postproduction process.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction: Turn this setting on unless you have tested your camera beforehand with it turned off and are satisfied with the image quality. The pictures should be free of hot pixels which can be caused by a heated sensor. With long exposure noise reduction (LENR) turned on or set to auto, all long exposures (over 1 second on the Canon 5D Mark III) are followed by a second additional frame with the shutter closed. The in-camera software compares the two frames, subtracts the noise and saves that image. It may slow down the LCD preview process, but you can still keep shooting.
An excerpt from Canon’s website:
“Some users wonder why this noise reduction feature isn’t always ON at all times. The answer is that using it can slow down your shooting of one picture after another. Here’s why: to do its job, Long Exposure Noise Reduction has to re-energize your imaging sensor and in effect take a “blank” exposure, after your actual picture is taken, for the same length of time. During this time, you cannot shoot another actual picture — the red card busy light on the back of the camera stays on until the process is completed. If you shoot, for example, a 30 second exposure, the camera has to be tied-up for an additional 30 full seconds before your next picture can be taken.”
There are a number of programs for making modifications and corrections to raw files:
In these programs, you will find the necessary tools to address white balance, color saturation and tonality, noise reduction, shadow and highlight control, etc. The question of shooting a raw file over of .jpeg file will be immediately answered at this point!
This subject is addressed in my eBook, with illustrations about what a histogram should look like, and other exposure-related details.
There are a ton of camera options out there spanning a huge price range and it can be confusing. I photograph with Canon cameras, currently the 5D Mark IV, which is an outstanding high ISO performing camera. Canon’s other digital SLR’s are excellent options as well. Nikon and Sony have an equally strong lineup, sporting some of the best dynamic range currently available.
But all of the professional and many semi-pro cameras deliver amazing results and you can’t go wrong with many of them. They all have their nuances, lens selection, and functional differences. It will come down to preference. For example, many photographers love the Sony A7RII mirrorless camera I hated it, especially in the cold. Just personal preference. I dedicate an entire chapter to this in my eBook, discussing DSLR’s, both full frame and cropped sensors, Mirrorless Cameras, and Micro four-thirds models.
Good performance at high ISO
Has a port for a remote shutter release
The larger the sensor, the better the quality
Can shoot in RAW mode or RAW/JPEG
Battery functions well in the cold
When choosing a camera, one of the biggest considerations is the size of the sensor. If you use a lens made for a 1:1 sensor (or FX full frame) camera on a camera with a smaller sensor, this will result in a crop to the image. Some lenses are made specifically for the smaller sensor cameras, but they often have smaller apertures (greater than f/2.8) for the wide-angle versions.
See the illustration below for examples of what happens when a lens for a full-frame sensor camera is used on a camera with a smaller sensor. This really illustrates the advantage of using a wide focal length lens.
If you are shooting .JPG files, (which you really don’t want to do) you will want both Long Exposure and High ISO Noise Reduction turned on.
If you are shooting RAW, you only need Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on (This can be turned off in the Canon 5D III model, and some other cameras as well).
There is some debate on the need for Long Exposure Noise Reduction due to the cold temperatures in which aurora photography takes place. Since noise is a function of a heated sensor, cold temps can prevent the heated sensor. I advise that you test your camera first, should you chose to turn this setting off.
While it is not impossible to photograph the aurora with a little point and shoot digital camera, it is challenging indeed and I don’t recommend it. The models are constantly changing, and perhaps in the near future, it will become easier.
There are several desirable qualities to look for when considering lenses for aurora photography, As a general rule of thumb, you want as many of the following:
Fast (large aperture of F/2.8 or wider)
I have yet to discover the perfect lens, but here are two general ultra-wide-angle zooms that work well. Other lens manufacturers like Tamron, Tokina, Zeiss, etc., offer lenses available in mounts to fit Nikon, Canon, Sony, and other cameras, and they have some outstanding options. I discuss this more thoroughly in my eBook:
Canon 16-35mm F/2.8 USM Good optical performer, but not exceptionally fast. A bit expensive but versatile for both aurora and excellent for daytime general landscapes.
Nikon 14-24mm F/2.8 G ED Excellent quality, auto focus lens but loses that function when used on a Canon with a converter.
A tripod is absolutely essential for northern lights photography. A tall tripod will be more comfortable, as you will be aiming the camera up towards the sky. Squatting under a short tripod while cranking your neck can become very uncomfortable, quickly. (NOTE: A good ballhead and tripod are really important. On photo tours, I see many frustrated people whose small tripod and flimsy ballhead either break or operate so poorly that they miss many photo opportunities. A good tripod is worth it.)[
The Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 tripod, although on the shorter side, is an adequate inexpensive tripod. It even has built-in leg pads to protect your hands from cold metal.
The series of tripods by Really Right Stuff are exceptional and expensive tripods. They are lightweight and made of sturdy carbon fiber.
Foam pads on your tripod legs will help keep your hands warmer.
If you get a tripod with a center column, the ability to remove it can be advantageous for close up photography. Additionally, one should not rely on expanding the center column completely for aurora photography, since this makes the camera less stable and susceptible to wind movement during long exposures.
Shutter Release: Prevents camera shake and allows for exposures in excess of 30 seconds. (Some wireless remotes only offer exposure options of 30 seconds. Make sure to check the version you have if you plan on using a wireless remote)
Batteries: Have a few batteries at your disposal. Keep them warm in a parka pocket.
Chemical Hand warmers: I use them all the time. They can be kept inside an over-mitt or in a pocket of your coat for a quick hand warming option.
A headlamp allows the use of both hands while handling your camera. Consider the on-off switch before purchasing since you will be operating the headlamp with gloves on. The Princeton Tec Remix Headlamp is a good choice.
Setting up your camera and lens properly is important for successful northern lights photography. Let’s review a few of the basic steps. There is a large variation in camera models; and therefore, some of the specific settings may be slightly different depending on your model. If there is a great variation in the intensity of the auroral displays, and you have a fast lens, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode; otherwise, Bulb or Manual mode is best. I shoot in both Aperture and Manual modes, depending on the circumstances and lens choice. As you get familiar with judging the intensity of the aurora, you can make accurate estimates of exposure times, should the brightness of the aurora change in cosiderable amounts-which is often the case throughout the course of a night.
Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (or manual) if exposure is under 30 seconds. If exposure is over 30 seconds, switch to Bulb.
Set your lens f/stop at its largest opening (f/2.8 or larger)
In Aperture Priority mode, a slight overexposure tends to be helpful, perhaps +1 to +1-1/2 of a stop. (This varies greatly depending on your camera model. It can be up to as much as 4 stops on some camera models. Experiment, and review your histogram.)
Using Bulb mode: If your exposure exceeds the in-camera timer of 30 seconds, switch your camera to Bulb mode. Plug in your shutter release (some cameras have built-in intervalometers). Your exposure will continue as long as you hold the release button down. Be aware of the helpful clock that counts in seconds on the camera’s top LCD panel.
TAKE OFF YOUR LENS FILTER!!
When photographing the aurora, removing the filter from your lens is essential. Why? Look at the photo to the right, and you will see a series of concentric rings which appear at the center of the image. This can be a disheartening discovery after a night of shooting the aurora since the rings are very difficult to remove, with even the best Photoshop geek on the job. What causes the rings? Charles Deehr, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, says:
“These are interference fringes due to the parallel faces of the filter and to the narrow spectral emission at 5577 Angstroms in the aurora. That green, atomic oxygen emission line is the strongest emission in the aurora near our film and eye peak sensitivity, so it shows up first when there is any device in the optical path which sorts out the spectral emissions.
Pre-focusing your lens: Don’t overlook this important step. I have found this to be the biggest problem with photographing the aurora. With the new genre of autofocus cameras and lenses, there is tolerance built into the lenses to accommodate for changes in temperature. For this reason, you can’t just manually turn the focus dial to infinity and be confident that it will be in focus. The old manual lenses worked this way, but the new ones don’t. (A few manual focus lenses still work this way, like the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8, but even those should be checked to make sure.)
Because of this, there are two ways to focus your lens. In my experience, pre-focusing by using autofocus during the day has worked well for most lenses except for the wide f/1.4 lenses like the Canon and Rokinon 24mm 1.4L. For these lenses, it is necessary to use the live-view function (if your camera has it–most DSLR’s have it). Achieving focus and using live view is discussed in depth in the full version—it can be more challenging than you might think.
Before it gets dark, focus your camera on a distant “infinity” focal point, like a mountain horizon.
Find a bright object in the sky (not the moon) and center your camera on it by looking through the viewfinder.
Turn on live view and maximum zoom in on the object, and adjust until sharp.
Finally—now that you have invested in a camera, lens, tripod, ball head, cold weather clothing, equipment, and most likely travel—it’s time to go into the field and give the actual shooting a try!
By now, you are well on your way to answering the question of “how to photograph the northern lights!”
Long exposures: Remember that long exposures chew up batteries quickly.
Keep them warm: When waiting for the aurora in extremely cold conditions, I remove the flash card and battery and put them in my pocket. When the action happens, I quickly put them back in the camera and start shooting.
Although I have one with me, I rarely use a headlamp during the night. It may seem awkward at first, but after 10 or 15 minutes, night vision becomes well-adjusted as your pupils dilate. You also need your headlamp less if you’re familiar with your camera’s features and buttons making it easier to operate in the dark. Practice, practice, practice!
When Using Your Headlamp:
Be sure it is on its dimmest setting.
Limit use to retain night vision. Use it as little as possible, and turn it off as soon as possible. Night vision helps you see and compose more critically on a dark night.
Use a red filter/gel. This feature is standard with most headlamps.
Point it downward. This helps prevent your light from shining in both your own and other people’s photos.
Avoid looking directly at others when wearing it. They will like you for this!
Have a spare battery nearby.
A brief review and some final considerations before you begin your aurora photography adventure.
Shoot in RAW format
Set LCD Brightness to low
Remove the filter from your lens
Pre-focus your lens on infinity or use live-view with loupe
Test exposure, consult histogram
Test exposure, consult histogram
Test exposure, consult histogram
Have 2 batteries and 2 flash cards
Use a tall, but sturdy tripod
Check the aurora forecasts
Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens
Put black tape over your red processing light under the wheel (for Canon users-your fellow photographers will like you)
Finally, good luck, and have fun! Getting yourself in the right spot with clear skies, good aurora activity, and smooth working gear can take a few attempts.
Put in the time. Persistence pays off.
Don’t give up early.
Enjoy the wonders of the night sky.
Don’t give up early.
When in the dark, wear something with reflective material.
Stay alert and walk carefully in the dark. Snow and ice can be slippery.
Don’t drive when sleep-deprived.
Be considerate of your fellow photographers. Practice good light-pollution-free etiquette.
Well, there you have it! You should have enough information to be on your way to photographing the northern lights. Believe it or not, there is a lot more to discuss on this subject and I’m sure you did not think I’d let you get this far without making one last plug for my eBook.
There is material in the ebook for both the beginner and the professional. f you are really serious about photographing the northern lights or are investing in a trip to do so, I strongly suggest that you get the full version eBook. I know; it sounds like a cheesy book pimp since I’m the author. But, based on my experience, after guiding aurora photography tours for two decades and seeing many common mistakes—not to mention, made many of my own—the cost is a trifle in the big picture of an aurora photography excursion. Even now, when guiding aurora trips, I have all the guests read the eBook before the trip, which makes a significant difference in the final outcome of their photos. Of course, having a guide is a great asset, but even they will assure you that the more you practice ahead of time, and the more information you have, the happier you will be with the results.
There is a huge investment both in time and money to get yourself well positioned to photograph the aurora, and that investment is too great to sacrifice to the misfortune of not being properly prepared. I only wish there was a resource like this when I started out; I would have thrown away a lot fewer pictures!
Read a full review of “How to Photograph the Northern Lights“
Please link back to this page when sharing. Thank you ~ Patrick
“If you dream about chasing the Northern Lights then buy Patrick J. Endres’ book because it will strengthen your resolve and encourage that dream. If you have an actual plan to try to see them then this book is an essential read. As we would expect from Patrick, it is magnificently illustrated with thought-provoking quotations, but it is much more than a pretty ebook. This is a substantial and authoritative work, with contributions on the science of the aurora borealis from Neal Brown. Yet it is a compelling and enjoyable read and extremely well laid out. You will learn where, when and even what time to photograph the Northern Lights, how to prepare, what to wear, how to actually capture them on camera and much more. This is the book to read on the Northern Lights.”
“This book is the authority on photographing the Aurora. Beginning photographers to seasoned pros will learn valuable tips from Patrick’s vast experience photographing Aurora in the far north. Not only does Patrick explain photographing the Aurora, but he shares valuable information on predicting displays, dealing with the cold, and composition guidelines. All this is illustrated with stunning Aurora Borealis images.”
Tom Bol, Professional Photographer
“I just wanted to take a moment to say Thank You for writing your book, “How to Photograph the Northern Lights”. It had been a dream of mine to not only see but to photograph the Northern Lights since I saw a photo of them as a teenager… 40 years later it happened. I just returned from a trip to Fairbanks, and I read your book many times before leaving and then practiced everything I read before my trip. Your book successfully prepared me for everything from the weather to making sure I had the right camera, the right lens, the right settings, and how to make use of the Aurora Forecast data. Your book was my bible and made my dream a complete success. So, Thank You for making my dream a reality!”
Thank you and Best wishes, Kyle Moore
“I’m pretty sure you’ll not remember but I got in touch two years ago after buying your first edition, and you were kind enough to point me in the right direction for a handful of locations in and around Fairbanks to shoot the lights… Thank you for inspiring, for teaching and most of all for being so passionate about the aurora. I can completely understand where the passion comes from, speak non-stop about it to anyone who will ask, and am currently looking for a way to head north for at least a month next time ;). It takes a good teacher to share the skills and understanding you have of both photography and the aurora, and to share it so openly is a credit to you.”
Thank you Patrick, Kind regards, Neil