Photographing the Northern Lights

  • Tripod: To photograph the northern lights, a tripod is a must.
  • Exposure Time: Typically 2-to-20 seconds, depending on the lens speed and ISO setting. Use a cable release or set the self-timer to 2-seconds. Hands off to reduce vibrations.
  • Lens: A wide-angle lens (14mm-35mm) is preferred.
  • Aperture: An f-stop of f2.8 or faster (f2.8, f2.0, f1.8, f1.4) is best for nighttime photography. I prefer to shoot with a “wide open” aperture (lowest f-stop). If your lens is f3.5 or slower set the ISO higher to compensate.
  • ISO: With today's digital technology my preferred ISO is around 1600-2500. Sensors in the high-end full-frame cameras allow the ISO to be set even higher like 6400 and beyond.
  • General: A black picture means that it is under-exposed. If you have a digital camera just keep lengthening the exposure time or raising the ISO setting until something shows up on the LCD display. If you are shooting film, bracket the heck out of the exposure times for insurance. A ballpark setting for a fairly bright aurora would be: 3 or 4-second exposure, 28mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600.
  • Headlamp: A headlamp frees up your hands. A red headlamp saves your night vision.

Practice your nighttime photography at home shooting the stars or the neighborhood streetlights. If you get lucky with the aurora you don't want to be stressing out on a camera. You want to be able to breathe deep and take in the whole experience. Patience and warm cloths help, too. The aurora is not related to air temperature, but clear skies usually mean chilly nights. Dress for success.

Good Luck & Happy Aurora Hunting!

Here is a list of the equipment I use:

Camera Bodies

  • Nikon D850 (FX-full frame for still images)
  • Sony a7S-III (full frame for real-time aurora video)

Lens

  • Sony 14mm/f1.8 GM lens
  • Sigma 14mm/f1.8 Art lens
  • Sigma 20mm/f1.4 Art lens
  • Sigma 35mm/f1.4 Art lens
  • Nikon 16mm/f2.8 fish-eye lens
  • Nikon 24mm/f1.4 lens
  • Nikon 28mm/f1.4 lens
  • Nikon 17-35mm/2.8 wide-angle zoom lens
  • Nikon 28-300mm/f3.5 VR lens (for daytime use)
  • Tamron 150-600mm/f4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom lens

Todd with his camera


Related Northern Lights Pages