A Beginning Photographer’s Guide to Photographing The Northern Lights

Dean J. Tatooles specializes in fine art panoramic landscape photography, wildlife photography, and indigenous portraiture from remote locations around the world. He also works with top-rated travel companies and fellow professional photographers to lead photographic safaris in Iceland, India, Kenya, and more. Fresh off a trip in Iceland, Tatooles and colleague Tim Vollmer answer some common questions about the eerie natural anomaly known as the Aurora Borealis. If shooting the Northern Lights is on your photographic bucket list, be sure to check out their tips below, which have been gathered from years of experience.

What are the Northern Lights

At some point in our lives, each of us has either heard stories about or seen images of dancing lights in the far north of our planet. Undoubtedly, this spectacle is beautiful but what exactly are the “Northern Lights” and where do they come from? The “Northern Lights”, or Aurora Borealis, are a series of discharged particles (or solar wind) emanating from our sun that penetrate Earth’s magnetic shield and create light when combined with atoms and molecules (such as nitrogen and oxygen) when entering our atmosphere.


How far do these particles travel before colliding with Earth?

The discharged particles travel over 150 million kilometers, or about 90 million miles, through space toward Earth before being drawn in to the Polar Regions by our planet’s magnetic force. Amazingly, solar wind only takes about 2 to 3 days to travel this staggering distance.

Are they harmful to us or our planet?

No, solar wind collisions with Earth’s magnetic field occurs in the upper atmosphere and the charged particles and do not come close to humans. At best, a high dose of solar wind may disturb radio communications, induce voltage surges in power lines, or create a minor overload in orbiting satellites.


What colors are found as part of the Northern Lights?

The short answer: it depends on what types of gasses the discharged particles collide with. Collisions with oxygen typically produce green and yellow lights while contact with nitrogen results in reds, violets, and blues.

What kinds of shapes can the Northern Lights take on?

Light shapes can be both static and dynamic in the night sky. During periods of minimal solar flares, shapes are less prominent and do not vary in definition or color. On the other hand, during periods of strong flares, the Northern Lights swirl, dance, and even race in column formations sporadically throughout the night sky.


Where and when should one see the Northern Lights?

The best place to view the lights firsthand is to visit a location in latitudes in the Arctic Circle from 68 degrees to 74 degrees. The best time of year to travel to see the lights is in the winter months due to low light pollution and clear atmospheric conditions.

What are my chances of seeing the Northern Lights?

During autumn and winter months north of the Arctic Circle chances are very good, especially when periods of high pressure are present. Avoiding urban areas and coordinating your viewing during new moon cycles can improve your chances as well.


What kind of gear should one take to photograph the Northern Lights?

First and foremost, you must use a tripod and cable release to capture the Aurora properly. Gear you should bring along is fairly straight forward. We recommend a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S ED, or similar for Canon users. A fixed focal length lens like a 24mm Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide-Angle Lens (also in Canon mount) was also a nice addition on our recent Iceland winter photo workshop. Longer lenses, such as a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, or similar for Canon, may come in handy for tighter compositions. Remember to take all filters off the lenses prior to shooting, including a UV filter, or you will end up with an undesirable aberration on all your images.

What kind of settings should one use to capture the Northern Lights?

There is no perfect recipe for capturing the northern lights because, as in any situation, your exposure will largely depend on the light. However, that being said, try setting you camera on full manual mode. Use the Live View setting on your camera’s display to ensure you get a sharp focus at infinity (or slightly less, depending on the lens). Set your ISO between 800 and 3200, your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6, and your shutter speed at between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Note that shutter speeds of above 15 seconds will result in slight star movement. You’re ready. Lock you mirror up, compose, and shoot. If you end up with a slightly overexposed or underexposed image, play with a combinations of these settings until you get the exposure to where you want it.


How does one protect their gear in such cold conditions?

It goes without saying that the proper care, treatment, and safe storage of your camera gear is essential in protecting it from the elements and while traveling. However, an added concern a photographer has in maintaining camera gear in operational condition in extreme cold weather is a result of a sudden change in temperature. You can avoid any issues by gradually acclimating your camera gear to the temperature change slowly and to keep your gear at the same temperature while shooting. Try to avoid taking your camera in and out of your warm bag or vehicle during a cold shooting session. This may result in condensation inside the lens, which is usually harmless to the equipment, but annoying and problematic when trying to capture images. If this happens to you, place the lens near (and not on) a heating source like a vent inside your room. It will act like a car defroster and fix the problem in short order.


If only 1 lens could be taken to shoot the Northern Lights, which lens should it be and why?

If you could only take one lens to shoot the Northern Lights we would recommend taking a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S ED, or similar for Canon users. You want a fast, wide angle lens. This lens will provide you with the ability to incorporate enough of the dark night sky in your image for contrast and scale.

What are some problems a photographer might encounter when trying to shoot the Northern Lights?

Besides clouds, unwanted ambient light can really affect your images. Avoid man-made light sources and highly populated areas, such as cities, if at all possible. Find a nice, dark field with a nice foreground, such as large pine trees, for your shoot or try some light painting, as we did in the image below. We came across an old WWII airplane in the West Fjords in Iceland.


What is the biggest mistake a photographer could make when embarking on a trip to see the Northern Lights?

Not bringing a sturdy tripod or shutter release mechanism. Leave some clothes at home if you have to!

Do the Northern Lights appear consistently or is there a chance that a photographer only has 1 opportunity to capture them?

The Aurora is sporadic and completely dependent on the frequency and strength of solar flares that come in contact with Earth. That and taking the high probability of cloud cover in the winter months, a photographer has to be ready every night and assume that his/her first encounter with the Aurora may be his/her last of a trip. While in Iceland, a good website to monitor is the Icelandic Met Office Weather Forecast. This site will show you the strength of the solar activity and cloud cover in real time. It is very handy!

About the authors: A big thank you to both Dean J. Tatooles and Tim Vollmer for putting this very informative and helpful piece together, and letting us republish it here. Sign up for one of their photo safaris, which take place in Iceland, Western Canada, East Africa, Nepal, and more. This article originally appeared on the BorrowLenses blog.

  • Roberto Quaintance

    The time of night is something to consider. During a geomagnetic storm it can start as early 9pm, normal levels around midnight. Any level of activity can occur very late in the morning. I’ve seen a strong storm last until the light blue of sunrise. Most people give up at midnight. Good shows don’t start until 1am.

    Often times when they are weak the northern lights will be confused for smog because your eyes see in black and white when in that much darkness. A quick test shot will tell you if your looking at a cloud or not.

    Knowing when they are out here in Alaska is done three ways. Find a local group on Facebook. Somebody is out there looking for clear skies on most nights. We work as storm spotters chiming in when weak – see above – with “green on camera” or when it’s good – with “visible overhead, dancing, columns, and/or seeing reds.” One can also learn the ins and outs of – live raw data that can give you a 1/2 hour to hour prediction. It has a steep learning curve but, look for the link to the ovation model. It is quite accurate to let you know if you have a chance or if you should stay out. Last there are dedicated webcams set up for night shots. They tend to be seasonal running during astronomical twilight only – something we lack from late April to late August. Those Facebook groups can help you find them.

  • Michael

    Worst Aurora shots I ever saw !

  • Jim E

    Worst? Wow, harsh. I disagree, but we all have a right to our opinion. :-)

  • TheFella

    These aren’t great examples of aurora photography to be honest. I don’t usually leave disagreeable comments on these articles, but I’d expect better content on Petapixel.

    Also the statement, “…your shutter speed at between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Note that shutter speeds of above 15 seconds will result in slight star movement”, seems to be contradictory advice. Anyway, you’re not shooting wide enough if above 15 seconds causes movement; I’ll often shoot at 25-30 seconds.

    Foreground subject matters just as much in aurora photography as it does in any other.

    The photo under the “What are my chances of seeing the Northern Lights” section isn’t *too* bad.

  • rara

    I thought that top of that picture had bad dodging going on. But I could be wrong.

  • Michelle Harris

    Michael..I’d love to see some of your shots. Worst shots of the Aurora ever?? Dean and Tim are phenomenal photographers. The images used here were to illustrate points and were not meant to be the best pictures of the aurora found on the web…however, I have seen their photos in person, in galleries, and can assure you that they are amazing. These low resolution images do not give their work justice. Guess Jim’s comment is correct, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion…” even though some of those people are undoubtedly angry by nature and should be kept quiet.

  • MuskokaDan

    Thanks for the great article! I didn’t get great “lights ” my last trip to Iceland, but be ready next time. Also couldn’t find the plane on the beach near Vik.

  • TheFella

    Although not shining examples, I’ve seen far worse shots from other people!

  • TheFella

    The plane is pretty tricky to find. I had to use my GPS and it was still hard to see until you were on top of it.

  • MuskokaDan

    Thanks. I’ll take a Gps for sure next time; found the coordinates online. Cheers

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    The plane in Tim’s image is up in the Western Fjords and not near Vik. Feel free to contact me @MuskokaDan and I will let you know where. Not sure what plane “TheFella” is talking about. My best, Dean

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    No dodging used on that photo @rara. I don’t dodge and burn. It’s too drastic of a correction. @thefella:disqus even if you are wide open at f2.8… if your shutter speed is 25-30 seconds you will likely encounter star movement. The aperture has no affect on whether there is stellar movement or not… it is how long your shutter is open. I think you might be confused. I’d be happy to discuss this further with you. Feel free to message me. My best, Dean

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    @Michael sorry you didn’t like our photos. Like @ Michelle said below, they were included to illustrate certain points and not meant to be the best images of the Aurora on the Web. Maybe you will like some of Tim’s other images? Google Tim Vollmer. He is one of the foremost Aurora Photographers in the world. When the likes of Art Wolfe and others go to Iceland they go with him. My best, Dean

  • MuskokaDan

    Thanks Dean! Appreciate the offer; just need to schedule my next trip. I’d love to see the Western Fjords. The plane I referenced I found a link to here:

  • TheFella

    The plane on the beach near Vik; the one that @MuskokaDan was asking about. The DC-3 US Navy plane that crashed in 1973.

  • TheFella

    Not confused in the slightest and didn’t mention aperture at any point. I’m talking about focal length. You can shoot at 14mm (wide) for 25-30 seconds and not get any noticeable star movement. I think when I said ‘wide’ you assumed I meant ‘wide open’. Easy mistake to make, I should have maybe been a bit more clear. Sorry about that Dean!


  • Southern Cross Galleries

    Focal length has nothing to do with stellar movement. It is how long your shutter is open. This is like saying if you shoot a waterfall with a 14mm lens as opposed to 24mm at 25 to 30 seconds you will not get movement in the water. Simply not true. I guess keep doing what works for you @theFella. Just not a good tip to pass along to a beginner trying to capture the Aurora for the first time, which is the point of the article. I’d like to see some of your Aurora images. Where can we find them? Best, Dean

  • Greg Annandale

    Hi Dean,

    The focal length actually does have an immense effect on the movement of stars in an image. Essentially, the wider the field of view the smaller the stars, thus each star is projected onto less pixels on the sensor. The sky moves around

  • TheFella

    Thanks for the reply Dean. I’m well aware that focal length has nothing to do with stellar movement, but it has everything to do with *capturing* stellar movement.

    A wider focal length will capture more of the night sky than a normal or telephoto will. This means that when shooting with say, a 14mm lens, each individual star will take longer to traverse the frame, allowing you to have a longer exposure time. Conversely, by zooming in on the stars, they will move across your field of view in a much shorter time, therefore requiring a faster shutter speed to ‘freeze’.

    This is quite possibly the most basic rule of astrophotography and I’m not sure how you have missed it. If you look up things like the 500/600 rule there are plenty of tutorials about it. In fact, by good friend Dave Morrow posted an article on Petapixel with a useful table last month –

    There is a plethora of articles about this from people such as Ben Canales and David Kingham; I’ll be happy to send you the links if you want.

    Try shooting the same night sky scene at 20 seconds with a 50mm and a 14mm and see the difference for yourself.

  • TheFella

    You beat me to it Greg! I’ve just mentioned the 600 rule in my reply that Petapixel are moderating (possibly as it contains links).

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    That may be true because star movement at 14mm may be unnoticable with that wide of lens. That does not mean there isn’t star movement. Stars don’t slow down for different types of lenses. In any case my point was that when using a 24mm lens or similar, a 15 to 30 second shutter speed may create star movement. That is true. @thefella said that was incorrect. It is simply not true. But I digress. @thefella where can we see some of your aurora images? Best, Dean

  • Greg Annandale

    Also, if shooting a waterfall, as mentioned above, you do actually get the exact same effect. Let’s say that you shoot at a shutter speed that captures 1 metre of water movement (let’s take water as moving at 10m/s, which is near enough right, so a shutter speed of 0.1 sec) at a wide enough angle so that a given point of water covers 10px vertically on the sensor. Then we shoot at a narrower field of view, say 10x that magnification, the same point of water falling vertically now covers 100px vertically, this results in a larger movement being captured (relative to sensor size).

    And yes, you’ve made my point! This IS true because a wider field of view essentially hides the movement of the stars relative to the sensor (/ earth), I’m not claiming to change the velocity of the earth’s rotation by the movement of my lens’ focal length ring ;)

    Please note that I did say “The focal length actually does have an immense effect on the movement of stars in an image”, “in an image” being the key point. “No movement” in this context means there is no visible movement in the frame captured; I’m not going to state that a runner wasn’t moving at the time I took a sharp shot of them simply because there’s no motion blur.

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    I understand you clearly and your point is well taken @gregannandale:disqus : ) We’re just trying to get the beginner out there with some helpful tips to catch the Aurora. I would say that this might be a more advanced lesson for them. My best, Dean

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    Cool @muskokadan:disqus! Tim Vollmer is a great guy to travel with up there. He runs about 52 private tours a year in Iceland. Look him up and safe travels. My best, Dean

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    Very good point @Roberto. In February we had crazy activity at 830 pm and then not again until early morning hours around 3am. A website like the one we include in our article and the one you provide are great tools to have in ones arsenal. Thanks for the post!

  • Southern Cross Galleries

    Thanks for your continued guidance @thefella. Tough to include every aspect of astrophotography in one article and, as the title reads, it is an article to help a beginner go out and capture some northern lights images. You should write something up to educate the public. Seems you know a lot about the subject.

    Can’t really tell from the thumbnail you posted, but the image seems to have some stellar movement in there. Either that or its a soft capture. Again, hard to tell. Also, it looks like there is a color imbalance in the image. Try checking your black and white points.

    All my best, Dean