A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a natural phenomenon that has fascinated people for centuries. The beauty of this celestial light show is unlike anything else in the world, and it’s no wonder that so many people travel to remote locations just to see it. But capturing this magical display in a photograph can be a challenge. The Northern Lights are unpredictable, and the conditions for photographing them are often challenging. However, with the right equipment and techniques, it’s possible to capture stunning images of the Aurora Borealis that will leave you and your viewers in awe. In this guide, we will explore the best ways to photograph the Northern Lights, including camera settings, equipment, and composition tips. Whether you’re a professional photographer or just starting out, this guide will help you capture the magic of the Aurora Borealis in your photos.

Understanding the Aurora Borealis: What it is and how it forms

To capture the magic of the Aurora Borealis, it is essential to first understand what it is and how it forms. The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a natural phenomenon that occurs when charged particles from the sun collide with atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. This collision releases energy in the form of beautiful, colorful lights that dance across the night sky.

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

The process begins with the sun emitting a stream of charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, known as the solar wind. These particles travel through space and when they reach the Earth, they are drawn towards the polar regions by the planet’s magnetic field. As the charged particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they interact with the gases present, such as oxygen and nitrogen, causing them to emit light of various colors.

The colors displayed in the Aurora Borealis are a result of the different gases involved and the altitude at which the collisions occur. Oxygen typically produces green and red lights, while nitrogen produces blue and purple lights. The altitude at which the collisions occur determines the shape and movement of the lights, creating mesmerizing patterns and curtains of color.

To capture this awe-inspiring phenomenon in all its glory, it is crucial to have a solid understanding of the Aurora Borealis and its behavior. Knowing the best time and location to witness it is essential. The Northern Lights are most commonly seen in regions closer to the Earth’s magnetic poles, such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Additionally, the lights are more likely to appear during periods of increased solar activity, such as during the peak of the solar cycle.

Planning your trip: Choosing the right location and time

Choosing the right location and time plays a pivotal role in maximizing your chances of witnessing this breathtaking phenomenon.

First and foremost, research is key. Familiarize yourself with the areas renowned for their visibility of the Northern Lights. Countries such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Finland are famous for offering prime viewing opportunities. Explore their specific regions and find the ones with the highest chances of clear skies and minimal light pollution.

Consider the time of year as well. The Aurora Borealis is most commonly seen during the winter months when the nights are longest and darker. However, weather conditions can greatly affect visibility, so it’s essential to check the aurora forecast before planning your trip. Websites and apps dedicated to tracking aurora activity can provide valuable insights into the probability of witnessing the lights during your chosen dates.

Moreover, keep in mind that the Northern Lights are notoriously elusive, and patience is key. Planning to stay in one location for at least a few nights increases the likelihood of catching a mesmerizing display. This allows you to adapt to changing weather conditions and increases the chances of capturing the Aurora Borealis at its peak.

Additionally, embrace the concept of “golden hour” photography. This refers to the period shortly after sunset or before sunrise when the natural light is soft and warm, adding a touch of magic to your Aurora Borealis photographs. Researching the best times for golden hour in your chosen location will greatly enhance the aesthetic appeal of your images.

Essential gear for photographing the Aurora Borealis

Here are some essential items that every photographer should consider bringing along:

1. Camera with Manual Settings:
To capture the vibrant colors and intricate details of the Northern Lights, a camera with manual settings is a must. This will allow you to adjust the exposure, shutter speed, and aperture to best capture the dancing lights in the night sky.

2. Wide-Angle Lens:
The Aurora Borealis often covers a large portion of the sky, so a wide-angle lens is ideal for capturing the expansive beauty of this celestial display. Look for a lens with a focal length of around 14-24mm to capture the full scale of the aurora.

3. Sturdy Tripod:
Since long exposures are often required to capture the faint lights of the Aurora Borealis, a sturdy tripod is essential to keep your camera steady. This will help prevent any blurriness or camera shake, resulting in sharp and clear images.

4. Remote Shutter Release:
Using a remote shutter release or cable release will further minimize any camera shake and allow you to capture long exposures without physically touching the camera. This is especially useful when photographing the Aurora Borealis in cold weather conditions.

5. Extra Batteries and Memory Cards:
Shooting the Aurora Borealis can be a time-consuming process, and you don’t want to run out of battery power or storage space just as the lights are at their peak. Always carry extra fully charged batteries and ample memory cards to ensure you don’t miss any unforgettable moments.

6. Lens Cleaning Kit:
Shooting outdoors can subject your gear to dust, moisture, and condensation. Having a lens cleaning kit handy will help you keep your equipment in top shape and ensure your photos are free from any unwanted blemishes.

Camera settings for capturing the Northern Lights

Capturing the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis requires careful consideration of your camera settings. By adjusting these settings to the unique conditions of the Northern Lights, you can ensure that your photographs truly capture the magic of this natural phenomenon.

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

First and foremost, set your camera to manual mode. This allows you to have full control over all the settings and make adjustments as needed. Start by setting the ISO to a high value, typically between 800 and 3200. This will help capture the faint light of the Aurora and reduce noise in your images.

Next, adjust the aperture to a wide setting, such as f/2.8 or f/4. This will allow more light to enter the camera and create a sharp focus on the dancing lights in the sky. Keep in mind that a wider aperture may result in a shallower depth of field, so make sure to focus on a specific point in the frame, such as a foreground subject or a distant landscape.

When it comes to the shutter speed, experimentation is key. Start with a longer exposure time, around 10 to 30 seconds, and evaluate the results. You want to capture the movement and dynamic nature of the Aurora, so a longer exposure can help achieve this. However, be mindful of any foreground subjects or elements in your composition, as they may appear blurry with a longer exposure. Adjust the shutter speed accordingly to strike the right balance.

To further enhance your images, consider shooting in RAW format. This allows for greater flexibility in post-processing, giving you the ability to adjust the white balance, exposure, and other elements without sacrificing image quality. Additionally, using a tripod is essential to keep your camera steady during longer exposures and prevent any unwanted camera shake.

Composition tips for stunning Aurora Borealis photos

Here are some composition tips to help you create stunning photos of this captivating natural phenomenon.

1. Find an Interesting Foreground:
Including an interesting foreground element in your composition adds depth and visual interest to your Aurora Borealis photos. Look for elements such as trees, mountains, or bodies of water that can serve as a compelling anchor to complement the dancing lights in the sky.

2. Utilize the Rule of Thirds:
The rule of thirds is a classic compositional technique that can enhance the visual impact of your Aurora Borealis images. Imagine dividing your frame into a grid of nine equal parts with two horizontal and two vertical lines. Position the most captivating part of the Aurora Borealis display along these gridlines or at their intersections to create a balanced and visually pleasing composition.

3. Frame the Aurora:
Consider framing the Aurora Borealis within the natural surroundings to provide a sense of scale and context. This can be achieved by capturing the lights through the branches of trees, arches, or other natural structures. Framing adds depth and helps draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject.

4. Experiment with Different Perspectives:
Don’t be afraid to explore various angles and perspectives when photographing the Aurora Borealis. Get low to the ground or find an elevated position to create unique compositions. Changing your viewpoint can offer fresh and unexpected perspectives, resulting in more captivating and dynamic images.

5. Incorporate Leading Lines:
Leading lines are powerful compositional elements that can guide the viewer’s eye through the image. Look for natural lines such as roads, rivers, or shorelines that can lead towards the Aurora Borealis. This technique adds a sense of depth and enhances the overall composition.

Dealing with challenging lighting conditions

One of the main challenges photographers face is the extreme contrast between the vibrant streaks of the Northern Lights and the dark night sky. This stark contrast can make it difficult to properly expose your photographs. To tackle this, it is crucial to experiment with different exposure settings to find the right balance. Start with a longer exposure time to capture the intricate details and colors of the Aurora, but be mindful of potential overexposure. Adjust the aperture and ISO settings accordingly to achieve the desired results.

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

Another hurdle to overcome is the ever-changing nature of the Aurora Borealis. The lights can vary in intensity, movement, and shape within a matter of seconds. To capture the best shots, it is essential to be patient and observant. Keep your camera at the ready, continuously scanning the sky for any changes. This will allow you to react quickly and capture those fleeting moments of vibrant hues and mesmerizing patterns.

Additionally, consider using a tripod to stabilize your camera. The long exposure times required for photographing the Northern Lights can lead to camera shake and blurry images if not properly supported. A sturdy tripod will help eliminate these issues, allowing you to achieve crisp and sharp photographs.

Lastly, don’t forget about the importance of white balance. The colorful nature of the Aurora Borealis can sometimes result in a color cast on your photographs. Experiment with different white balance settings to accurately represent the true colors of the lights. You may find that using the “Daylight” or “Custom” white balance settings produces the most authentic and captivating results.

Techniques for long-exposure photography

Long-exposure photography allows you to create stunning images that showcase the ethereal dance of colors in the night sky.

One technique to consider is using a sturdy tripod to keep your camera steady throughout the long exposure. This ensures that your images will be sharp and free from any unwanted blur. Additionally, using a remote shutter release or the camera’s built-in timer will eliminate any camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button.

Another important factor to consider is the aperture setting. By choosing a smaller aperture (larger f-number), such as f/8 or higher, you can achieve a larger depth of field and ensure that both the foreground and the Aurora Borealis are in focus. However, be cautious not to choose an aperture that is too small, as it may introduce diffraction and reduce image sharpness.

In terms of exposure time, longer exposures are generally preferred to capture the subtle movements and intricate details of the Aurora. Experiment with exposure times ranging from a few seconds to several minutes to find the perfect balance that brings out the vibrant colors while maintaining good exposure.

To avoid overexposure in your images, it is advisable to shoot in manual mode and keep a close eye on your camera’s histogram. The histogram provides a visual representation of the distribution of light in your image, helping you to adjust the exposure accordingly.

Lastly, consider shooting in RAW format. RAW files preserve more detail and offer greater flexibility in post-processing, allowing you to enhance the colors and make adjustments to achieve the desired final result.

Editing tips to enhance your Aurora Borealis photos

Once you have captured those breathtaking shots of the Aurora Borealis, it’s time to take them to the next level through editing. With the right techniques, you can enhance the colors, contrast, and overall magic of your Aurora Borealis photos. Here are some editing tips to help you create truly mesmerizing images:

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

1. Adjust the white balance:
The colors of the Northern Lights can vary from green to purple, and sometimes even red or blue. Experiment with the white balance settings in your editing software to find the most accurate representation of the colors you witnessed. This will ensure that the vibrant hues of the auroras are properly showcased.

2. Enhance the contrast:
The Aurora Borealis often creates a stark contrast against the night sky. Increase the contrast in your photos to make the colors pop and add depth to the image. Be careful not to overdo it, as excessive contrast can lead to loss of details in the highlights and shadows.

3. Boost the saturation:
To make the colors of the auroras appear more vibrant and intense, selectively increase the saturation. Focus on the specific color channels that dominate the scene, such as green or purple. By enhancing the saturation, you can make your photos look more captivating and true to the awe-inspiring experience of witnessing the Northern Lights.

4. Adjust the exposure:
Depending on the lighting conditions during the aurora display, you may need to fine-tune the exposure of your photos. Pay attention to the histogram and ensure that the highlights are not overexposed while retaining details in the shadows. Balancing the exposure will help bring out the intricate details of the auroras.

5. Remove noise:
When photographing the Aurora Borealis, you may encounter noise in your images, especially when shooting at high ISO settings. Utilize noise reduction tools in your editing software to minimize the graininess and preserve the smoothness of the night sky. However, be cautious not to over-smooth the image, as it can result in loss of fine details.

Safety considerations and etiquette when photographing the Northern Lights

While witnessing this celestial phenomenon can be a breathtaking experience, it is important to prioritize your safety and show respect for the environment and fellow photographers.

First and foremost, research the location thoroughly before embarking on your Aurora Borealis photography expedition. Familiarize yourself with the terrain, weather patterns, and any potential hazards in the area. This will help you plan your trip accordingly, ensuring you are well-prepared for any challenges that may arise.

Dress appropriately for the conditions. Remember that photographing the Northern Lights often involves spending long hours in cold temperatures. Layering your clothing, wearing insulated and waterproof gear, and donning sturdy footwear are essential to keep yourself warm, dry, and comfortable.

When setting up your photography equipment, be mindful of your surroundings. Avoid disturbing the natural environment and do not trample on delicate vegetation or disturb wildlife habitats. It is crucial to leave no trace and preserve the beauty of the location for future visitors.

Respect other photographers who may be present at the site. Keep a respectful distance and avoid obstructing their view or interfering with their equipment. The Aurora Borealis is a shared experience, and practicing good etiquette ensures that everyone can capture their desired shots without any disruptions.

Additionally, be considerate of local communities and their cultural sensitivities. If you are photographing the Northern Lights in a foreign location, familiarize yourself with the local customs and regulations. Seek permission if necessary and always show respect for the land, its people, and their traditions.

Lastly, prioritize your own safety at all times. Pay attention to your surroundings, especially if you are photographing in remote areas. Carry essential safety equipment such as a first aid kit, a flashlight, and a fully charged phone. Inform someone about your plans and estimated return time, and never venture out alone in unfamiliar territories.

Bonus: Tips for capturing the Aurora Borealis with a smartphone

With advancements in smartphone camera technology, you can now capture the beauty of the Northern Lights with just the device in your pocket. Here are some bonus tips to help you capture the Aurora Borealis using your smartphone:

A Guide To Photographing The Aurora Borealis

1. Find a dark location:
The key to capturing the Aurora Borealis is to find a location away from city lights where the night sky is dark and clear. This will ensure that the colors and details of the Northern Lights are not washed out.

2. Use manual mode:
Most smartphone cameras have a manual mode or pro mode that allows you to have more control over the settings. Experiment with adjusting the exposure, ISO, and shutter speed to achieve the best results. Increasing the exposure and ISO can help capture the faint colors of the Aurora Borealis.

3. Use a tripod or stabilizer:
To capture sharp and clear images of the dancing lights, it is important to keep your smartphone steady. Investing in a tripod or using a stabilizer can help eliminate any camera shake and ensure your photos turn out crisp.

4. Turn off the flash:
The flash on your smartphone can be more of a hindrance than a help when photographing the Northern Lights. It can wash out the colors and disturb the natural ambience of the scene. Keep the flash turned off for more authentic and captivating shots.

5. Use a long exposure app:
Many smartphones have built-in long exposure modes, but if yours doesn’t, don’t worry! There are plenty of apps available that allow you to manually control the exposure time. Using a longer exposure can help capture the movement and ethereal quality of the Aurora Borealis.


Capturing the magic of this natural phenomenon can be a truly rewarding experience for any photographer. By following the tips and techniques outlined in this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to create stunning and breathtaking images of the Aurora Borealis. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced photographer, we encourage you to venture out into the night and capture the beauty of this celestial dance. Don’t forget to share your incredible shots with us – we’d love to see the magic you’ve captured through your lens. Happy shooting!

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