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Where and how to photograph the aurora

How to photograph the aurora
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Anyone with a camera and a keen sense of adventure has probably dreamed of photographing the aurora. The elusive Northern Lights create a dramatic visual display in the sky, but the phenomenon is usually found in remote, cold places that are far away from busy, populated towns. It's tricky enough just tracking down the aurora, but capturing it on camera poses an additional challenge. 

To help maximise your chances of finding the lights – and getting some great images once you find them – we've compiled this beginner's guide. Below, you'll find advice on the best places to photograph the aurora, along with tips on the best camera settings for aurora photography and what you should take with you. 

For more detailed advice, check out our guide to the best equipment for aurora photography, which includes our recommendations for cameras, lenses and tripods. Or more generally, our best cameras for astrophotography. If you're just getting to grips with capturing the night sky, have a look through our beginner's guide to astrophotography. You might need some of the the best photo editing apps too.

Equipment Check List

Camera with wide angle lens

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Camera

To capture the northern lights, you'll be taking long exposure photographs to allow as much light into the sensor as possible using a DSLR or mirrorless camera in manual or bulb mode (more on that below.) Both full frame and modern crop-sensor cameras are excellent for capturing the northern lights. The Canon EOS Ra used to be the go-to camera for astrophotography, but that's just been discontinued. Excellent alternatives include the Nikon Z6 and Sony's A7 III

Lens

You'll also want to pack either a wide or super-wide angle fast lens, which are the best lenses for aurora photography. 10-35mm is preferred, as these focal lengths allow you to capture the whole landscape and sky. A fast lens is one with an aperture of f stop 2.8 or lower, which allows lots of light in the camera. The SIGMA 14mm f1.8 DG HSM Art is a great lens for aurora photography

Tripod

In addition to the above, you will definitely need a tripod. You will be taking long exposures, so your camera needs to be still and on something sturdy. We'd recommend something like the Manfrotto BeFree carbon fibre travel tripod, which only weighs 1.1kg. Useful if you're traveling overseas and need to keep luggage weight to a minimum.

Phone

Phones are useful for accessing aurora forecasting apps, dark sky maps, and for use as a camera trigger switch when you want to take an aurora selfie or reduce camera shake. They're also very useful if you need to make an emergency call. Don't leave it at home.

Head torch

A head torch frees up your hands. And a red-light head torch saves your night vision for seeing in the dark. Try and avoid bright/white lights when stargazing or looking for the northern lights, as they make seeing the aurora more difficult.

Best camera settings for aurora photography

Camera Pointing at Night Sky

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Bulb or manual

For full control of the settings you will want to shoot in bulb mode or with manual aperture. Open your aperture to the lowest f stop your lens allows to let as much light into the sensor as possible. f3.5, f2.8, f2.0, f1.8, 1.4 are best for night photography. The lower the f stop, the  more light is captured during your long exposure. 

ISO

This depends on the brightness of the northern lights, but an ISO between 800-2500 is usually best. Go for 800 if the aurora is extremely bright, then up it to allow more light in as needed. The higher the ISO, the more your camera sensor will amplify the light. As you up the ISO, noise is created, which you will see in the image as a grainy digital degradation. Avoid shooting as high as 3200 at night if you don't want this noise. And shoot RAW so you can capture the maximum data per shot then later adjust any noise or other issues in post processing. (For more tips on this issue, read our guide on how to reduce noise in astrophotography.)

White balance

This is really a personal choice, in line with the photographer’s style. As a rough guide, daylight setting will produce pics with more yellowy greens, while tungsten settings appear to reduce light pollution glow and give a cooler blue/green scene. Both can be cooled down or warmed up in post processing

Camera tripod aurora photography

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Exposure time

Shutter speed is variable in aurora photography. It depends on how active and bright it is – you don’t want to wash out the whole scene by overexposing a shot. Try shorter exposures of 3-8 seconds for brighter, fast-moving displays and longer exposures, around 8-20 seconds, for not-so-bright, slow moving, auroral arcs.

Shutter speeds are also affected by the lens and camera sensor. In astrophotography, you usually want to avoid the stars looking blurry and 'trailing'. We can achieve this by using the rule of 500 as a guideline to measure the maximum exposure time for the lens focal length. 

For full frame sensors, we use the following rule: 500 ÷ by the lens focal length = ideal shutter speed. With a cropped sensor, you need to multiply the focal length by the crop factor before doing the division, so the rule is: 500 ÷ (crop factor x focal length) = ideal shutter speed. For example, a Canon APS-C camera 80D has a crop sensor factor of 1.6, so if we had a lens focal length of 14mm it would work out as follows: 500 ÷ (1.6 x 14mm) = 22 seconds. 

Familiarize yourself with these settings, by practicing with your camera and handling it after dark. You should also practice manual focusing in the dark – try using the camera's live screen if you have one and focus on a star, planet or distant streetlight to check the crispness of your focus.

Extra tips for extreme temperatures

Silica gel packs tucked under elastic bands wrapped around your lens make a good cheap anti-fog/ anti-frost system for shooting in damp or cold conditions, as the packs draw the moisture away from the glass lens 

You may wish to keep your camera battery in an inside pocket until you are set up. Extreme cold causes battery life to dwindle very quickly. The same applies with your mobile phone for aurora apps and any chocolate bars! Keep them close to your body warmth to protect from cold – there’s nothing worse than a frozen chocolate bar when you really fancy an astro snack.

Don’t touch the metal of your tripod or kit with bare skin if in arctic conditions, as it will burn you. And don’t wear water-based moisturizer in extreme cold, as it could lead to frostbite.

Have patience. It may take a while for the show to kick off, the northern lights don’t run on a schedule, and you may be standing around in the cold for a while – but it’s always worth the wait.

Best places for aurora photography

On an active night the aurora can be thousands of miles long, so we’ve made a list of the best places to photograph the northern lights, to give you the greatest chance of spotting this natural phenomenon. These areas offer dark skies, with minimal light pollution, but they’re also conveniently close to transport links and cosy accommodation. 

Iceland

Iceland Aurora Photography

(Image credit: Hannahbella Nel)

The land of fire and ice is famed for its breath-taking displays of the northern lights. With regular flights and a good quality ring road around the whole country you have a huge choice of awe-inspiring landscapes to watch the lights dance above, be it with a tour guide or on your own. Iceland boasts magical dark skies when away from city lights and offers a wide range of affordable to luxury places to stay and various activities to try out from spa days at the thermal pools, waterfall hikes, husky sledding and guided tours to fill your days before chasing the lights at night.

Norway

Aurora Photography

(Image credit: Hannahbella Nel)

Northern Norway is famous for its reliable aurora watching possibilities. Located pretty much directly in the auroral zone, Tromso boasts great transport links, regular flights, and the most northerly brewery in the world! With a milder climate due to the gulf stream, Norway is a more accessible part of the arctic circle as temperatures rarely plummet lower than -15c. You can fill your days with snowmobiling adventures, museum visits and trips on the Fjellheisen cable car which offers views over Tromso island. Lofoten and Senja are fast becoming as famous as Tromso for their Aurora displays, with astounding fjords for boat trips and mountainous scenery scattered with reindeer herds.

Finnish Lapland

Aurora Photography

(Image credit: Hannahbella Nel)

In the north of Finland, you can find the snow-covered city, Rovaniemi, where you can cross the arctic circle, meet reindeer and dance under the northern lights on the same day! Yes, on the same day, because polar night means the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon in winter and the aurora can be visible as soon as 3pm. Pastel pink daylight turns to icy blue twilight, the stars come out and the ethereal green glow ribbons and twirls across the sky. Head further north into Finnish Lapland to the town of Inari, sparsely populated with its vast frozen lake, known for Its extensive subarctic wilderness, dog sled tours, snowmobiles and the indigenous Saami people. The skies here are dark and some of the most magical in the world but also some of the coldest places accessible for tourism with temperatures reaching -40c.

Alberta, Canada

Aurora Photography

(Image credit: Hannahbella Nel)

While most of Northern Canada is a prime location for the northern lights, the province Alberta is home to 8 of Canada’s 17 dark sky preserves (a designated area protected from light pollution). Jasper national park is the second largest dark sky preserve in the world which offers breath-taking dark, unspoilt skies and celebrates this each year with a dark sky festival every October. A townsite nestled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with all the amenities and an abundance of wildlife, Jasper national park offers mountain trails, ice skating and cross-country skiing, a planetarium, tour guide services, accessible infrastructure and a range of cabins, hostels and hotels to stay in.

Alaska

Aurora Photography

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The most accessible place to see Alaska’s northern lights is from Fairbanks, a city with plenty of daytime activities and magnificent scenery. But if you’re looking for a wilder adventure, head further north with a guided tour based in the Alaskan Arctic gateway: Coldfoot. Situated within the aurora zone, Coldfoot is one of the few Alaskan communities above the arctic circle accessible by road. Here you can surround yourself with wilderness under pristine night skies - the neighbouring town is 240km away so there is little to no light pollution. Go snowshoeing, husky mushing or enjoy hot springs under the northern lights with the backdrop of the Brooks Ranges. Due to the remoteness of the area a guided tour is recommended as there are few marked trails and backcountry expertise is needed.

New Zealand – The Southern lights  

Aurora australis

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s also possible to witness something called the Aurora Australis, which are the southern lights. There may be no aurora tours in place in New Zealand or Tasmania but if you find yourself with a clear view south on a dark night between autumn and early spring - and the solar activity is strong enough - you’ll witness the elusive southern lights. 

In most of these countries, you can just go and aurora hunt by yourself, but you should do your research about each place before going, learning about how to get around in the dark and potentially icy areas. Make sure you have the right kit for the environment to protect yourself from extreme cold. Learn how to read aurora forecasting apps as well as checking the local weather, to best find the northern lights. Or you can join a guiding service found locally or through your accommodation, which means you should end up exploring the area someone who already knows the best local places to observe the lights.

Why these places?

The source of this majestic lightshow is our closest star, the sun. At the sun’s core, temperatures of around 27 million degrees Fahrenheit create a constant churning, and immense pressure compresses hydrogen atoms and fuses them into helium. This creates a nuclear fusion reaction which releases huge amounts of energy and light that travels from the core to the surface of the sun. Through an electrical current of charged gases, magnetic fields are created inside the sun, and in some places the magnetic fields push up through the surface and slightly cool, creating sunspots which can be bigger than the size of earth. 

This is where electrically charged gas called plasma bubbles forms and stretches the magnetic field away from the surface, which can break away and release out to space. This process is called a solar storm and when one of these is facing Earth - and reaches the planet’s protective magnetic field - a little bit of magic happens. The charged gases travel along our magnetic field lines to Earth’s magnetic poles and interact with atoms in our atmosphere, which get excited and release photons, and this light display is what we call the aurora.

This is why the best places to photograph the northern lights are at high latitudes, most frequently within the region around the earth’s magnetic poles, where colourful photons wrap around earth’s poles in a ribbon. We call this the Auroral Zone. In the Northern hemisphere this covers Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Scandinavian and Iceland. Within this oval band is where you will have the best chance of witnessing the Aurora on almost every clear night between fall and spring, depending on how much solar activity there is.

For further guidance on places and timings, check out our additional guide on where to see the aurora borealis in 2021

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Hannahbella Nel

Hannahbella Nel lives a split life; half the year she’s an aurora guide in the far north and the other half she’s a conservation gardener and freelance writer based in the south west of England. In between she fills her spare time with being a NASA citizen scientist with Aurorasurus, studying space weather and plasma physics. She unwinds with landscape and astrophotography, paddle boarding and hiking the Welsh mountains.