Photographing the aurora is not that difficult, but there are some ground rules, and the environment where you are waiting is usually dark and cold, with big Norwegian moose lurking around. The northern lights are also very unpredictable, and even on days where the forecast and sky are both working on your side, you might end up spending 6 hours outside with nothing else than frostbite and a lot of fresh air to bring back home.
The advice given here are based on practical experience photographing the northern lights above the arctic circle, and dealing with a lot of guests and different cameras over the last couple of years. If you need some good tips on how to dress while up here, you should also read this post.
Get a tripod. You are going to do long exposure photography and the camera needs to be fixed. If you do not have a tripod, put the camera on the ground, on the car hood, on a backpack etc. Some even bring a bag for rice. It is nice for support, and when you leave Norway you can just throw the rice.
A lot of the guests that we take out during the northern lights season have nice and expensive cameras that they don’t know how to use.
Practice with the camera. A lot of the guests that we take out during the northern lights season have nice and expensive cameras that they don’t know how to use. You do not even need a high end camera, but be able to put it in manual mode (M), and know how to tweak the ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings (explained further down). Practice outdoors just after the sun have settled or at night, that should give you an idea on how your camera is working and where all the buttons are. If you want to go all the way, practice with gloves or mittens.
Focus. The focus is easily forgotten, and getting focus in the dark can be difficult. We usually use the moon, streetlights or a headlight/friend to get the focus. Just ask your buddy to move about 20 meters away, and focus on the phone/head/light. Once focused, turn the focus to manual (MF) to avoid the focus to start working again on the dark sky. The most common mistake when doing photos in the dark is having the focus set to auto (AF) - the problem is that the camera just has nothing to focus on, and therefore won't take a picture.
If you are really eager or do not need the camera during the remainder of the day, you can set your focus when it is daylight outside and leave it there for when it gets dark.
If you are really eager or do not need the camera during the remainder of the day, you can set your focus when it is daylight outside and leave it there for when it gets dark. Find something in the distance, a mountain for example. Set your focus point between the mountains ridge and the blue sky, and you should be good to go later in the evening. If you are also travelling with white marker it is always a good idea to mark your endless focus on the lense itself, just in case you should bump into something between setting your camera and nighttime.
As do your pictures, be sure to zoom in on the photos in your camera's review mode to see if your shots are coming out clear - something that is very easy to see if there are stars (they should be round and "crisp"). There's no worse feeling than taking photos in the cold for hours, only to realise the next morning that they are all blurry and out of focus.
Cold weather and battery. The cold weather normally do not have any influence on the camera. The battery however is another story.
If you got more than one battery, keep a spear one on your body. Another strategy is to keep the battery on your body when the sky is calm, and put it in the camera when the lights appear. I have seen many photographers waiting for hours on lights, to find that they have enough battery for a few pictures – if any at all.
Some might tell you to bring 5-7 batteries to get through the night. Normally 2-3 will be enough, and for my Nikon D750 2 batteries are sufficient even on the coldest nights. In fact, one of the batteries lasted a whole week at 78 degrees north during the winter - it got to stay in my sleeping bag during the night.
Temperature change. If you find yourself in a situation where it is possible to stay in a warm and cosy cabin, tent, lavvo etc. you are lucky. At the same time the camera and lenses do not like temperature change and will fog up and freeze. The best is to leave your camera outside, and bring the battery inside with you, close to your body heat.
Basic settings. The northern lights are never the same, meaning you can almost never use the same settings from one evening to the next. Strong lights require short exposures, and weak lights the opposite. Than again you have fast lights, big lights, very colourful lights, and so on.
Shutter speed. This is the amount of time you take the picture, the time the shutter is open. A "normal" shutter speed can be anywhere between 1 - 30 sec; depending on what you are trying to achieve.
Aperture. In general, you want your aperture to be as open as possible (meaning the lowest number possible) for Northern Lights photos. Most kit-lenses (the one sold with the camera) will go as low as f3.5 - 5.6, and the best lenses will go even further down to anywhere from f0.95 - 2-8. Fixed lenses are usually sharper than zoom lenses. To get clear pictures it can sometimes be an idea to go one stop up from your lowest setting, but that depends a bit on the lense.
Aperture also control the field of focus, meaning that on a low aperture it is difficult to get both the foreground and the background in focus. This is more a challenge when you learn more, but keep it in mind if you are trying to get your boyfriends face and the northern lights clear in the same picture. An aperture of f5.6 usually does the trick, but then you will get less light on to your sensor. Its a give and take game!
ISO relates to how sensitive your film or digital sensor is to light. On smaller cameras the ISO usually stops around 3200, and on very expensive cameras they exceed an ISO of one million, which has no practical value. A higher ISO will surely pick up on more light, but at the same time make your picture more grainy (digital noise). On full frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras you can usually go higher on the ISO without getting noisy images, within limits. My fyll frame Nikon D750 can go as high as 6400 without to much noise.
RAW and JPEG format. The names might sound a bit cryptic, but are only names on different file formats. The .jpeg or .jpg is the smallest format giving you less data to play with later, but does not take up as much space on your memory card or hard drive. All cameras are able to shoot in this "mode". The RAW format is being used by "professionals" that want more room to play when editing the photos.A picture done in RAW takes up about 4 times as much space as a picture done in .jpeg due to saving more data in each picture file. On some cameras it is possible to do both formats at the same time, giving you a lot of options.
My basic startup settings are (almost) always ISO 1600, aperture f2,8 - 4.0 and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. On small sensor cameras the ISO might have be a bit higher and the shutter speed a bit longer. If you are doing your photos from a moving surface, lets say a ship, you will (or must) always try to push the ISO to get your shutter speed as fast as possible to avoid blurry images. Finding the correct settings for your camera gear is something that requires some practice.
White Balance. Shooting in RAW (the format we usually use) you can always change your white balance in post processing. If you want to get in to details set the Kelvin ( K ) mode at values between 2800 - 4000, it usually works well for night and northern lights photos. On most cameras the “daylight“ white balance settings will be the best if you shoot in the less space consuming .jpg file format.
Self timer. Some photographers use a tether, a cable going from the camera to a remote control (you also get them without the cable). This is to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter. I find that this is usually not necessary as you can use the self timer on most cameras to achieve the same result. Some days I don´t even bother, and the pictures come out nice and crisp anyway. This is of course dependent on your tripod and camera. Most new-ish cameras also have wifi and/or bluetooth, and the camera shutter is possible to control from your phone.
Mobile phones. Some phones are able to capture the lights, for example the Huawei P30 Pro and the iPhone 11Pro, but as already explained they should be fixed on a tripod etc. to deliver reasonable good results. Most phones (this is of course changing by the minute with new technology) will however not be able to give you more than hints of green lights on the memory card, and probably run out of battery during your wait. The advantage with newer smartphones is that it is possible to download applications that let you gain manual control - some even have this function built in.
There is plenty to choose from when it comes to applications (or "apps" for short), just search for ”northern lights” or “slow shutter” and you will get a list with user ratings. On nights with reasonable strong lights it is possible to get pictures that are good enough for an update of your Facebook picture. One application that we use a lot is called „slow shutter“ and you will find it in the app store and on google play.
GoPro. The GoPro is an action camera, and have more or less the same challenge as mobile phones – the ISO is pushed very high in night mode (resulting in noise), and the shutter speed normally very long. I have only worked with the GoPro 3 and 4, and the battery life in cold weather is even less than on most phones. That said I have seen OK results with newer GoPro cameras in night mode. This is on nights with decent lights, and both the quality of the pictures and timelapse sequences has sometimes surprised me.
Forecasting the northern lights. Northern lights forecasting is tracking the activity on the sun, and can with reasonable accuracy give us a 27 day forecast. We have used several different applications for iPhone over the years, and are now using three different ones that show basically the same data in different ways.
The forecasts are surprisingly accurate on most nights. In addition you will need a weather forecast application to track clear sky - we use a Norwegian one called yr.no, together with the more known windy.com.
If you need to check the northern lights forecast online, this is what we use:
At Arctic Moments we always help the guests with their camera settings, and we do some photographing on the excursions, pictures that we share with you as soon as we get home. Still we can’t know every brand and model that exist to detail, and following the above tips before and during the excursion will make our job a lot easier.
Take a look at some of the photos we and others have done at Instagram, or the gallery on the bottom of our webpage – you might get some inspiration. We have also provided you with some photos for sale in our shop. Print a summary in english or german of the most important settings, and bring it with you the first times you go out.
If you still have a question, you are probably not alone - ask them below and we will try to help.