Equipment for Northern Lights Photography
First of all, let’s take a look at the equipment that you need for Northern Lights photography.
- Best camera: digital SLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lens.
- Alternative camera: any camera with manual settings (but you get less good results).
- Best lens: you need a fast lens. This means that it needs to catch as much light as possible. This is indicated by the f number of the lens, which should be as small as possible. Ideally, we want to use f/1.4 or f/1.8 but those lens are quite pricey. F/2.8 is more standard and also good.
- Alternative lens: you can also achieve nice photos with f/3.5 or f/4 but you’ll need to increase the ISO. These lenses correspond to most lenses from the basic kits that are often sold with cameras.
- Tripod: a solid tripod is essential for Northern Lights photography. You will be doing long exposures, so you really want the camera to be as stable as possible. If you can, avoid plastic tripods, as in the cold temperatures, plastic has a tendency to break quite easily.
- Remote control: this will help minimise vibrations when you release the shutter. I personally prefer cable remote controls. Some photographers complain that the cables freeze and become inflexible in very cold temperatures. This does indeed happen, but I never felt any hinder from this. For timelapse shots, you need to use an intervalometer.
- Batteries: in cold conditions, batteries get drained much faster and therefore are losing very quickly their capacity. Therefore you should always travel with at least one spare battery. I recommend travelling with many spares. Imagine the disappointment if the aurora shows up and you don’t have power in your camera!
Before you even travel
Before we move to explaining all the camera settings for capturing Northern Lights, I have one important piece of advice. I try to repeat this to all my customers because it is the key for a successful photoshoot.
Learn night photography at home. You need to know your equipment before going on a trip to photograph the aurora.
If you have to figure out what all the buttons and dials of your camera do when the aurora is starting, not only will it be very stressful for you, but you will also not enjoy the show as you should.
There are sufficient sources on the Internet to help you discover your own camera. A good way to start is of course to read the user’s manual of your own device.
Focusing is probably the hardest thing to achieve when you attempt to take pictures of the Northern Lights. The goal of a precise focusing is that the stars in your photos look pinpoint sharp.
It is too dark at night to be able to count on the autofocus mode of your camera and lens unless you use extra light sources. If the Moon is shining, you can try using the autofocus on it. When it doesn’t, you can use the headlights of a car, or a headlamp to light up a tree. You just need to make sure that you are at least 30 meters away from the object that you are focusing on. Set the focus (usually by pressing halfway the shutter release button of your camera). When this is done, switch back your camera to manual focus mode, and don’t touch it anymore!
Some lenses have an infinity sign on their focus ring. Unfortunately, more often than not, this infinity sign is not accurate. I highly recommend checking before your trip that this infinity setting produces sharp images of distant objects.
Alternatively, you can keep your camera in manual focus mode, and use the live view function at maximum magnification. Try to find some bright stars, and very gently turn your focus ring until the stars look very sharp. This is quite an advanced technique, that requires a really stable tripod, otherwise it is almost impossible to see the stars properly.
My focusing tip
I use adhesive tape to tape together the focus ring and lens barrel to make sure that I will not inadvertently turn the ring at night in the dark. It is such a relief to be able not to worry about this at all during the entire night. Try it!
The ISO setting corresponds to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. The higher the number, the more light is collected by the sensor.
Even the brightest auroras require a higher ISO value. After all, don’t forget that you are taking pictures in the middle of the night. However, too high ISO values tend to produce digital noise on photos. You should therefore use the highest possible ISO value that does not deteriorate too much the quality of your images. This is something that you need to check for yourself depending on your own camera. As a general rule, I would recommend using the following maximum values:
- 1600 ISO for compact and system cameras. These cameras have a smaller sensor, which tends to produce grainy pictures above this setting.
- 1600 ISO – 3200 ISO for APS-C reflex cameras. Their sensor is larger than the above mentioned cameras, but still tend to produce noise. The older your camera, the lower the maximum ISO value.
- 3200 ISO (or more) for the most recent full-frame reflex cameras.
My basic setting is 3200 ISO unless:
- The Aurora is very bright and as a result, I will go as low as 1600 ISO
- The Aurora is very faint and as a result, I will push as high as 6400 ISO
I use a high-end full frame reflex camera that is extremely tolerant with digital noise until 6400 ISO. So this is my maximum value.
As we saw above, you need a lens with a large aperture, which converts to a small aperture value. When photographing the aurora, with your camera in manual mode (often indicated as M on a selection wheel or in a menu) just use the smallest value available.
My usual aperture setting
Until recently, I was taking all my photos with a f/2.8 lens, which was my fastest available lens. In the winter 2017-2018, I started using the magnificent Sigma 14mm f/1.8 ART lens. With a f/1.8 aperture, my lens is now 1 1/3 stop faster, so it captures more than twice as much light as my previous one.
Out of all the DSLR camera settings for Northern Lights photography, the shutter speed is in my opinion the most important. Because the aurora is often moving quite fast across the sky, it is better to try and shorten the exposure time. Of course this will depend on the intensity of the aurora. The brighter auroras will require a “short” exposure time while for the fainter ones you will need additional time.
My usual aperture setting
I usually have 3 ranges of shutter speeds for my Aurora pictures, assuming 1600-2500 ISO and f/2.8-3.5:
- Faint Auroras (barely visible with the naked eye): 10 to 20 seconds
- “Average” Auroras (visible most nights north of the Arctic Circle): 5 to 10 seconds
- Bright Auroras (usually also very fast): 0.5 to 5 seconds.
Of course, higher ISO allows you faster shutter speed. But to preserve good image quality, the ISO value should not be too high. You just need to find the right trade-off. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your own camera equipment and your experience with it. That’s why I always recommend to train first at home to take night pictures. You don’t need Aurora in the sky to find what is the “sweet spot” for your own camera in terms of ISO.
Check your exposure
I have noticed that a lot of people set the brightness of their camera’s screen to a very high level. This can lead to believing that your photos are well exposed, when in reality, they are widely under-exposed. This is valid all the time but even more so at night. Again, it depends on your own camera, but I recommend setting the brightness not higher than 50% of the maximum.
You can also check the levels histogram if your camera displays it. Ideally, the curve should not be concentrated too much to the left. However, I don’t believe that you should aim at having it covering the entire width, unlike when you are shooting daytime landscapes.
All digital reflex cameras allow you saving your photos in the RAW format. This format is an uncompressed version of your photos. It gives you much more flexibility in post-processing because the image contains much more “invisible” information than a regular compressed Jpeg file.
I do not see any reason why shooting photos in the Jpeg format except for saving space. But with the current low costs of memory, this does not sound like a good reason either.
If you save your photos in your camera’s RAW format, then you do not need to worry too much about the white balance. You can always set it up to your liking afterwards in a photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom. However, so that the pictures on your camera screen look a bit realistic, I recommend setting the white balance manually between 3500 and 4000 K.
For those who still save their photos in Jpeg format, do not use the automatic white balance! Because the lights and colours always change, your camera will not be able to properly analyse the scene to define the white balance. As a result you will not have the same colour temperature on all photos. Moreover, I noticed that very often, automatic white balance produces much to “warm” Aurora photos. The green there turns too much towards yellow.
So if you really insist in shooting in Jpeg, I find that the “fluorescent” white balance setting comes the closest to reality in most cases. Unfortunately there is no general rule, hence again the recommendation for RAW files. Otherwise, set it to something comprised between 3500 and 4000 K as we saw just above.
I am talking more about white balance in the following tutorial: how to edit your aurora photos.
As we noted earlier, higher ISO settings often lead to grainy photos. In other terms, digital noise appears. Most recent cameras have a “long exposure noise reduction” option. I turn this option off and use noise reduction in post-processing software. I find that this allows to preserve much more detail in the photos. The software lets you really fine-tune the settings, while when done within the cameras it is mostly “on” or “off” with nothing in between.
But again here, if you shoot in Jpeg, and don’t plan to edit your photos afterwards, then you may want to find this setting and turn it on.
Filters: no, no and no!
NEVER use a filter on your lens when photographing the auroras. I know that you may want to use a neutral UV filter to protect the front glass of your precious expensive lens, and I can understand that. However, filters will produce a series of concentric circles in the centre of your image, which will be consequently be ruined. It is extremely hard if not impossible to erase those circles in post processing.
With this example you can understand why it will be impossible to edit these circles out of the pictures.
Practice your camera settings for the northern lights with me!
After you have taken your amazing aurora photos, learn with me how to edit them! Or maybe you want to join me on one of my upcoming photo trips? During the winter trips in high latitude regions, we focus on night photography and have a chance to apply all these trips. Of course, I always stand near you to help.