How to Photograph the Northern Lights

You'll be jumping for joy if you get a glimpse of the elusive colourful lights display on your winter holiday in Iceland
You'll be jumping for joy if you get a glimpse of the elusive colourful lights display on your winter holiday in Iceland

Capturing the Northern Lights on camera can be as tricky as getting a glimpse of them in the first place. We consulted our in-house photography expert for technical advice on how to photograph the Northern Lights so you can be the envy of all your friends when you return from your once-in-a-lifetime Northern Lights experience.

Northern Lights in IcelandThe Northern Lights are predominately seen in high latitude regions like Iceland and Sweden

Smartphones

Smartphone cameras get better and better with every passing year. An advanced smartphone camera today is more capable than about 85% of all the cameras ever produced. The biggest obstacles you will encounter when trying to take photos of the Northern Lights on your smartphone are keeping the phone steady and camera exposure, if long exposure modes aren’t a standard feature. The first obstacle can be overcome by using a tripod and a smartphone tripod attachment, or a dedicated smartphone tripod if you can find one that’s not too low to the ground. The second problem of not being able to keep the camera open long enough can be fixed with an app. Some good options are Long Exposure 2 for Android or Slow Shutter for iOS. 
 
Watching the Northern Lights in IcelandMaximise your chance of viewing the Aurora Borealis by staying in hotels in the middle of nowhere

Camera basics

So, you’ve decided to go all out and buy yourself an SLR camera for your Northern Lights adventure, or you’ve dug your old point-and-shoot camera out of storage. Before you set off for Iceland or Sweden, make sure you’ve got these basics down pat.
  • Unless you’re skilled at balancing things on jagged rocks, tripods are essential it you want to get some good shots of the Aurora Borealis. While they might seem cumbersome, there are so many light and inexpensive options available these days. This is what happens when you don't use a tripod:
  
Blurry example of Northern LightsNo tripod? Don't even think about it!
  • To prevent blurry photos, you will need to use a cable release, which is an accessory attachment that fires the shutter without you having to touch the camera. Set the delay timer to take a picture 2, 5 or 10 seconds after the shutter is triggered for non-blurry masterpieces. Alternatively, you can use a wireless remote shutter release and timer remote.
  • It will be pitch black when you set off in search of the Northern Lights. If you use a headlamp, be courteous to other photographers and bear in mind that too much light in the foreground can ruin the multi-second exposures. Most headlamps have a red LED for use at night time, so make sure this mode is switched on. 

Camera modes

To capture the Northern Lights, you will need to use manual settings and stay clear of autofocus. Once your camera is in manual mode, set the focus to ‘infinity’. If you are using a wide angle lens, adjust the focus pin to the middle of the lemniscate (∞), which will ensure that the dancing lights, which are an unfathomable distance away, are in focus. A professional tip is to use tape to lock the pin in position so that it doesn’t get knocked out of place in transit or while you’re in the dark. 
 
Group mesmerised by the Aurora in IcelandThe dancing lights appear in many forms, from patches to arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky

ISO

The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor to incoming light. When photographing the Northern Lights, you will need a higher ISO than you would during the day. Start with 800 and increase from there if necessary. Don’t increase it more than you need to because this decreases the quality of your images.

Aperture

The aperture is the hole your lens makes so that light can reach the sensor. The key to capturing the Northern Lights is set the aperture to the smallest possible number, which will make this hole as wide as possible.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed controls how much time your camera stays open to allow light to reach the sensor. When it’s dark, the shutter needs to be left open longer so it can collect more light. To capture the Northern Lights, the shutter speed needs to be set to low, so that it is open for at least 15 seconds.

Focal Length

You will need a focal length somewhere in the region of 18mm to 35mm. In general, a wide angle lens is best for photographing the Northern Lights. This will enable you to fit more into the frame, from ground level up to the sky where the dancing lights are hopefully being on their best behaviour for you. Once you know how to photograph the Northern Lights, experiment with longer focal lengths to zoom in on shapes or patterns in the sky. You have to be quick – once you’ve adjusted the focal length, you’ll need to pivot the camera on the tripod, find the composite, lock the tripod in then take your desired photo.   
Jumping for joy in the foreground of the Northern LightsYou'll be jumping for joy if you get a glimpse of the elusive colourful lights display on your winter holiday 
 
Maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights on a UTracks trip: 
 
>> Iceland Northern Lights | 3 Days | Guided Walk 
>> Sweden Northern Lights and Ice Hotel | 7 Days | Multi Activity 
>> Sweden Winter Family Adventure | 6 Days | Multi Activity
  
Iceland, Northern Lights, Sweden, winter, winter walking

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