The northern lights or the aurora borealis are natural light displays seen in the polar regions, created by interactions between solar winds coming from the sun and the earth’s magnetic field. Sometimes like colourful, shiny smoke dancing in the sky, other times like massive mid-air light explosions, the northern lights truly demonstrate the power of nature.
For the lucky few who live at high latitude, seeing the northern lights may be as easy as laying in the park on a clear night and staring at the sky. But for the rest of us, the chase for these magnificent lights is not straight forward, especially for those who want to capture this awe-inspiring lighting show on camera. But don’t worry, this guide is going to tell you all you need to know to take the perfect northern lights photo that would make your expedition all the more worthwhile.
To get a glimpse of a magnificent northern lights show and capture it on camera actually requires a lot of luck. The sky needs to be clear – an overcast sky would obviously block any northern lights that might be there. In addition, the intensity and colour of the northern lights depends on the sun’s activity, which affects the solar wind. So even though on most clear days, a band of green, faint polar light can usually be seen in the polar region, one would require a lot of luck to see a colourful and dynamic lighting display.
Even still, with proper planning, preparing and patience, taking the perfect aurora picture is far from impossible. To begin, you must first travel to the polar region. The closer you are to the North Pole, the more likely that you will see the northern lights. Some good choices include Minnesota, North Dakota, Canada, and northern parts of Scandinavia. To maximize your chances to see a worthwhile northern lights show, take as much time off as you can. That way, not only you will increase the chance of encountering a clear night with strong solar activity, you will also have more time to relax and make the trip more enjoyable. The timing is also important. In the polar region, daylight hours vary substantially between seasons. So it is better to plan your trip in September to February to get the most out of the long winter nights. You would also want to be somewhere with low light pollution, either by staying in a remote area or in a town where wilderness can easily be reached. This is very important, as any light pollution would not only make the northern lights less visible, but also affect the colour and the contrast of your photos.
Once your trip is planned, the next thing is to take care of gear and equipment. You will be braving the cold, so warm and comfortable clothing is essential. A beanie, a jacket and warm shoes are essentials, and remember to bring a pair of open-fingered gloves so your fingers can fiddle with the buttons on your camera. Your camera, although not afraid of the cold, is prone to condensation when you get back into your car or your room where it is nice and warm. Condensation can seriously damage your sensors and your lenses. To avoid this, you can bring a large zip-lock bag, put your camera in it and squeeze all the air out before you go inside. That way, any condensation would happen on the bag and not the camera.
Since the intensity of the northern light is relatively weak compared to the camera’s sensitivity, the best result would be to use a long exposure time which requires both a sturdy tripod and a camera which allows you to change the shutter speed. The northern lights do not wait for you, so make sure you know how to use your camera, specifically for long exposure, before your trip to avoid disappointment. Of course, don’t forget your memory cards. Bring some extra batteries too, as camera batteries tend to run out faster in the cold (if you ever find yourself stuck on flat batteries, try to warm the batteries with your body and the batteries may magically come back into life). A remote control shutter would also help to reduce camera shakes and enhance the picture quality.
It’s time to head out and hunt for these dancing lights. Once you are at a spot with clear sky and low light pollution, you can start setting up your tripod. Interestingly, it is most likely that the northern light zone is to your north, so it helps to point your camera towards the north and keep watch. Of course, you can’t predict exactly where the lights will appear, so have it setup so that it is easy to move the camera around. Be prepared for a long night, as you will never know when the northern lights will come. The longer you stay out there, the more chances that you will see something so be patient and stay for as long as you can. If you don’t see anything spectacular, don’t be disheartened! Come back another night and eventually you will see something worthwhile.
Once you spot a worthy light show, start pressing the shutter! Depending on the brightness of the lights, you need around 2 s – 10 s shutter time. Remember to check the first few to make sure the exposure is correct. If the exposure is too short, nothing will be captured. On the other hand, if the exposure is too long, the contrast and the sharpness of the lights will be reduced as the northern lights are constantly moving like the wind. A burst of northern lights generally lasts for 2 – 3 min so if your camera is all set to go, you shouldn’t have too much problem getting what you want. In terms of composition, remember that while your subject is the actual lights, in most cases you need some sense of scale, such as mountains, trees or tents to make the northern lights stand out. Try to compose your shot near a body of water such as the sea or a lake, or even an ice covered path, as the addition of reflections into your composition would really enhance the photo. In some rare instances, the northern lights would appear like a mid-air explosion with bright and intense colour spreading out from a centre point. If that happens, try to zoom right into that centre point and take a close up shot. Such a different prospective of the lights would guarantee to give you a truly amazing picture.
No matter how your pictures turn out, the fact that you have just witnessed this great artwork created by nature is simply sublime. While one can capture the beauty of northern lights on a photo if you follow the above, there is nothing more magical than watching these glorious, colourful lights dancing in the sky in the dark of the night. You will get tired, you will get cold, but the experience will warm your heart for a lifetime!
Date posted: 28th February, 2012Home > Articles > How to Photograph the Northern Lights