Photographing Northern Lights

If you’ve never photographed the northern lights but you want to, there are some things worth knowing before setting out so you can get your best shot.

The first thing you need to do is make sure you’re prepped with the right equipment - mainly, a tripod, a shutter release, and wide lenses. I mostly used my 14mm and my 28-70mm.

Another thing to know is that the lights move, and they can move FAST. Unlike other compositional elements of night photography that are predictable, like the moon and stars, there is no way to predict where exactly in the sky the lights will appear or when. This means that you want to get outside early so you don’t miss them, and be prepared to spend time watching them come and go. 

Because the lights are always moving, you’ll only be able to plan so much of the composition of your photograph. If you go location scouting and decide that the perfect photograph would be to catch the lights over the ocean, there’s nothing you can do if you go back to that location at night and see the lights behind you instead of where you wanted them. This also means you want to be ready to change up your composition quickly. 

The last thing worth knowing is that you can get different types of light shows.

The first type is for lights that appear hazy, almost like thin clouds in the sky. They don’t have much color to the naked eye, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t photograph them - your camera can pick up the color and you can easily enhance that color in post.

The second is for lights that move across the sky as if a painter was painting each individual stroke of light - this is incredibly beautiful to watch, so make sure you take some time to enjoy watching the lights, even if it means taking a break from your camera.

You can make different photographic choices with these lights - if you want to capture the strata in your photograph, generally you want to do a shorter exposure. If you want to maximize the amount of light in your photograph, you want to do a long exposure, but then you could lose the sharp lines of the strata due to light movement. You also don’t want to overexpose the lights.

The two photos below were taken 20 seconds apart - the only difference between them is shutter speed. With five extra seconds in the first photo, the strata are still visible but blend. 

The third category of lights are those that just show up and snake through the sky, getting brighter and darker as if someone is turning them on with a dimmer switch. With these lights, you’ll get some really big and beautiful shapes in the sky, and sometimes you can see bands of light above you that move in and out and cross over each other as if dancing. I got to see this once on my first night - it lasted for seconds, but it was truly magical!

And that’s it! You never know what you’re going to get when you go out light-hunting, making the journey that much more fun!

Using Format