Capturing the Magic

A Photographer’s Guide to Shooting the Northern Lights

Northern Lights are a landscape photographer’s dream.

And rightfully so.

Not only is it a very special physical phenomenon to witness that only occurs on certain parts of the earth, but it is also never the same.

The combination you may get with shapes, colors, intensity, and direction gives infinite possibilities to create images that are never repeatable.

And so in today’s letter, I am sharing with you what you need to know to capture the best auroras with some of the things I learned when I went chasing them less than a month ago.

Understanding the Northern Lights

What are the Northern Lights?

The Auroras are a result of interactions between the Earth's atmosphere and charged particles from the sun.

These particles are carried towards the poles by the Earth's magnetic field and when they collide with gases in the atmosphere, they light up, creating beautiful displays of color in the sky.

This natural light show can be seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres, but in this letter, I will focus on the northern one.

Shot on the parking lot of Flakstad

When and Where to Find Them?

The best places to view the Northern Lights are typically near the Arctic regions, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Canada.

The ideal time to witness this spectacle is during the winter months, from September to March when the nights are the longest.

I stretched my stay there until the beginning of April, which I admit made it more difficult to catch the Auroras early evening because there was already a lot of light until 9.30 p.m.

But the advantage was that the tourist season was already over and I got to enjoy the landscapes of Norway with no one else in sight every single day.

Clear, dark skies away from city lights are also crucial for the best visibility.

The Science Behind and What Metrics to Pay Attention To (when you’re a beginner)

Without getting too much into the details, and because I am not knowledgeable enough anyway to give you a full course on the sun, there are still a few things I learned that you need to pay attention to when predicting Auroras.

As a general disclaimer, my understanding of the indicators I will mention below is very limited. However, I know the range and numbers they should have to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights and so this is what I will be sharing.

Because if you’re “simply” a photographer who wants to capture this phenomenon, you don’t have to understand all of it, but rather where the indicators should be.

So here it is.

To witness the Northern Lights, specific solar and atmospheric conditions must align.

The KP index, which ranges from 0 to 9, measures geomagnetic activity and is a significant indicator for predicting aurora visibility. A KP index of 5 or higher indicates a strong geomagnetic storm, making it more likely to observe Auroras even at lower latitudes.

The higher the better but if you are in the polar circle you may still see Auroras with a KP of 2 or 3.

However, one of the most critical factors is the Bz component of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). For optimal aurora viewing, the Bz should be negative, which means the IMF is oriented southward, enhancing the interaction with Earth’s magnetosphere and increasing the intensity and frequency of auroral activity.

The red line you see here should be under the dotted line - Source: AuroraAlerts

Something to monitor as well is the evolution of the Auroral Oval throughout the night - Source: AuroraAlerts

Additionally, clear, dark skies away from light pollution and during the new moon phase greatly improve visibility.

Monitoring these conditions through reliable forecasting websites or apps can significantly enhance your chances of experiencing the phenomenon.

I juggled between several sources:

  • Aurora Pro for Aurora Map & Forecasts (App)

  • AuroraAlerts for monitoring the Auroral Oval, the Bz, long-term forecasts (several days in advance) & KP Index (App)

  • Night Lights Films for live alerts and forecasts (membership of the scientist Adrien Mauduit

  • Clear Outside for cloud coverage forecasts (App)

  • YR for local weather forecast (Website & App)

What About the Colours?

The different colors of the Northern Lights are due to the presence of different gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Oxygen emits yellow, green, and red light, while nitrogen produces blue and purple hues.

The type of gas and its altitude determine the colors that appear during an auroral display.

Note that the reds are only visible with an astro-modified camera. Here is an example below:

Preparing for Your Aurora Adventure

What to pack

For a successful aurora shooting, you need:

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of manual mode

  • A wide-angle lens with a large maximum aperture (f/2.8 or wider)

  • A sturdy tripod (and I know what I am talking about because mine is not)

  • Extras batteries since they deplete faster in cold weather

  • Warm clothes to handle the Arctic's freezing conditions (I had battery-powered heating socks and gloves, on top of up to 7 layers of clothes)

Basic camera settings

The challenge with shooting Auroras is the speed at which you may have to change your settings.

I assumed that they don’t change that fast, allowing you to adjust your settings gradually.

The truth is I had nights when it was so fast that even under a minute you may miss the best part of the show.

Yes, it can be THAT fast.

Generally speaking, start with:

  • A high ISO setting (1600 to 3200)

  • A wide aperture (f/2.8 or even 1.8 is ideal)

  • A shutter speed of between 5 to 15 seconds (when auroras are very bright, I would recommend sticking around 1-2 seconds, sometimes even lower, to get all the textures)

Don’t forget to adjust settings based on the aurora's intensity and the desired clarity of stars in the sky.

Focusing in the dark

Just as you would do with astrophotography:

  • Switch your lens to manual focus.

  • Use a bright star or distant light to set your focus to infinity. Use red peak-focusing if you have the option to enable this on your camera

  • Check your camera’s LCD screen to ensure sharpness and adjust as needed.

  • Make sure you bring your camera screen brightness down to avoid under-exposing all your images

Editing Your Aurora Images

The cool thing with Northern Lights is that you can create so many things in a single night.

The more equipment or camera at hand the more things you can do.

This includes:

  • Single shots with a great composition

  • Sky images to compose yourself later (which is what I mostly do)

  • Full panoramas

  • Videos if the lights are moving fast enough

  • Timelapses to create cool accelerated videos

Use your usual editing software for those images. For example LR or PS for the single shots/panoramas, Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro for videos and timelapses.

The main thing you will notice is that when doing the color grading for videos or simply working on the colors on the images, it is tricky. There are so many subtle colors that are close to each other in the Auroras that working individually on them will look off very quickly.

Here is a new image I just finished editing this week:

That’s all for today.

If you read that far, thank you for your time.

You’re always welcome to share feedback on the letters if you wish.

See you in the next one,