How to Photograph Northern Lights

Northern lights in the Boundary Waters (BWCA)

It’s two in the morning, the northern lights are dancing across the sky and having to remember how to set a camera to record the blazing greens and reds is made easier with a simple cheat sheet. Clip this article, laminate it and stick it in your camera bag, so it’ll be handy next time the Aurora Borealis are lighting up the sky.

Digital photography makes capturing pictures of the northern lights effortless. You’ll need a digital camera that can take long exposures and has noise reduction. A tripod is a must and a remote release or self-timer is helpful. Follow these steps and you’re sure to come away with good images:

  1. Northern lights in Minnesota.The first step is to set-up the camera. Select a higher ISO of around 400. Anything higher on compact digitals results in poor image quality and lower isn’t sensitive enough to capture the color in the sky. With DSLRs, an ISO of 800 is fine.
  2. After setting the ISO, turn on in-camera noise reduction, which helps save image quality during long exposures. Figure out how this works on your camera right now and write it in the margin. If you can’t find a description in your manual on how to do this, the camera probably does it automatically.
  3. If you have a manual mode on your camera, set up your camera with the f/stop wide open, a setting of f2.8 or f4 is common. Then try a setting of 15 seconds for the shutter speed. Without a manual mode, try either a Night Scene or a Firework mode.
  4. Connect the camera to a tripod, and plug-in the remote release or set a self-timer to 2 seconds. These later two steps will stop your hand from creating camera shake and blurring the picture when you press the shutter release button.
  5. Aim the camera at the northern lights and press the shutter button. When the image appears on the screen, check the brightness. If too dark, increase the shutter speed to 20 or 30 seconds. If it is too bright, decrease the shutter speed to 5 or 7 seconds. Take a couple more pictures to refine the brightness of the image. On point-and-shoot scene modes, use exposure compensation (read the manual) to increase or decrease the shutter speed.
  6. Once you have the correct brightness, frame your picture and set your focus. Always try to include the ground, trees, a lake, or something interesting in the bottom third of your picture. The top two thirds should be northern lights. Focus so that the foreground (the bottom third) of the image is in sharp focus.
  7. Take pictures. A couple of fun items to have with are an off-camera flash or a million candle power spot light. These can be used while the camera is taking a picture to light up the foreground or can be used to paint items into your picture.
  8. A final note is that white balance can be used to change the colors of the Aurora. A Fluorescent setting is the most natural, but others are nice also. Adjust to taste.

Next time the northern lights are out, don’t just go out to enjoy them, go out to capture images of them. Following this simple cheat sheet, you’ll capture great images and be able to share your enjoyment of the dancing colors of light with your friends and family.

Good Northern Light Resources Space weather provide Aurora predictions, links to the NOAA aurora oval map, and even a serves that will call you when the northern lights are out.

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