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10 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Though the northern lights are a celestial wonder best experienced first-hand, they also represent some of the most amazing photographic opportunities in the Arctic. Here are a few tips to help you get the best images out of the auroras.
10 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

Regionen: Arktis

Reiseziele: Grönland, Spitzbergen, Nordnorwegen

Aktivitäten: Nordlichter

10 tips for taking pictures of the northern lights

Though the northern lights are a celestial wonder best experienced first-hand, they also make for some of the finest photographs in the Arctic.

Even the most endearing up-close shot of a prowling polar bear or breaching humpback whale or fluffy clump of kittiwake chicks is challenged (if not outshined, so to speak) by the eerie undulations of the aurora borealis. But if you want to take the perfect picture of the northern lights, it helps to come equipped with a few pieces of polar know-how.

Here are ten of our personal favorites, all of them helpful whether you're on a northern lights tour to Greenland, Northern Norway, or Svalbard.

Image by Jurriaan Hodzelmans

1. Prepare yourself for the weather of northern lights photos

Sometimes travelers put so much thought into packing their photography equipment they overlook a far more important item: their body.

Taking pictures of the northern lights usually involves long periods of being outside, keeping an eye on the sky, waiting for that perfect shot. Not only can the sedentary nature of this wait make the cold worse, but northern lights cruises also take place during the coldest months of the Arctic year. 

This means you'll want to be prepped not just for long hours, but also the chill of the long Arctic night. (Sometimes north-of-the-Wall cold.)

During Svalbard trips, temperatures can drop down to -40°C (-40°F). Make sure you have enough layers to deal with the cold, as well as some coffee or hot chocolate - and a good deal of patience, because Arctic weather doesn't always cooperate with clear skies.

2. Frame your pictures of the northern lights

We don't mean the kind of frame you put around your northern lights pictures once you get them back home. We mean framing in the sense of putting something other than auroras in the photo to give the northern lights contrast and scale.

Snowy hills and mountains do the trick, and open water can give you some great reflections. You might want to use water with snowy rock or land in it, however, so it doesn't look like merely a continuation of the night sky.

Man-made objects also help with scale. A tent, building, Zodiac boat, or one of our cruise ships provides scale people can relate to.

Lastly, sticking a person in your northern lights picture never hurts. At the very least, it can add a human touch to pictures that might get repetitive if they merely capture the same natural phenomenon over and over. 

3. Get a “still” northern lights picture 

When it comes to shooting the northern lights, you'll probably want to capture a single moment in time instead of a time-lapse. Time-lapse pictures look great with star trails, but they can muddy the edges of the “waves” of the northern lights. 

Make sure your shutter opens long enough to capture the light, since you'll be shooting at night. How long your shutter should remain open depends on your focal length: The wider the shot, the shorter your lens (the lower the number) should be.

There's a general rule of thumb, known as the “500 Rule,” for night photography. If you're working with a lens of 50 mm, your shutter can be open a maximum of 10 seconds per shot (500 ÷ 50 = 10). If you’re working with a lens of 18 mm, your shutter time should be no more than 27.8 seconds.

Also, it's best to round down and not up.

Extra note: If you intend to print your pictures of the northern lights, be pepared to see light trails. Trails are difficult to avoid, but they often don't show up to the naked eye until a picture is enlarged. Watch out for these before committing to a print.

Image by Johan Vesters

4. Take some remote pictures of the northern lights 

If your camera comes with a remote control, use it to take most of your northern lights pictures. Pressing the button manually can often cause just enough movement in the camera to make the stars blur.

In other words, a remote is a great way to avoid those aforementioned light trails.

Image by Jurriaan Hodzelmans

5. Experiment with your ISO

Unfortunately, there's no rule when it comes to the ISO setting of your camera. You want to set your ISO in that sweet spot between letting in enough light to get an image but not letting in so much light so that you get noise.

What you do want to make sure of is that if you're shooting RAW pictures, your camera's version of Long Exposure Noise Reduction is turned on. Not all cameras give the option to turn this off, however.

If you're shooting .jpg pictures (RAW is preferred), you’ll want both Long Exposure Noise Reduction and High ISO Noise Reduction on.

6. Take most of your pictures of the northern lights on land

Our expedition cruise ships anchor in bays where there are relatively calm waters, but there's still going to be some motion on board.

You can avoid the blurring this will cause by shooting the majority of your northern lights pictures on good solid Earth - even if it is covered with snow. This will be better for stability whether you're shooting with a tripod and remote or snapping pictures of the northern lights the old-fashioned way.

Image by Tobias Brehm

7. Take a tripod for truly crisp northern lights pictures

This northern lights photography tip goes hand-in-hand with a few we've already mentioned, but it bears over-mentioning. Taking pictures of the northern lights by hand is certainly enjoyable, making you feel connected to what you're capturing in a way that a remote-and-tripod system just can't.

So please know that we're not convincing you to give it up, at least not entirely.

But if you want truly crisp northern lights pictures, consider incorporating a tripod into your act. This will reduce the blue that is a necessary part of hand-held camera work.

Image by Jan Belgers

8. Keep your batteries warm in the Arctic

Once you've mastered keeping your body warm in the Arctic environment, be sure to keep your camera's batteries warm too.

Batteries tend to act up when cold, or more likely not act at all. If you keep your extra batteries in an inside pocket so your body keeps them warm, you'll have plenty of reliable backups in case your camera's primary battery takes a dump.

This happens all too often.

Image by Johan Vesters 

9. Take off your filters to get pictures of the northern lights without rings

We don't recommend using filters on your lenses when taking northern lights pictures.

Your subject is colored light itself, which interacts with the filter in such a way that annoying rings are often caused when you take pictures of the northern lights. As mentioned, the best aurora photography tech is a good tripod and remote.

Image by Lothar Kurtze

10. Pre-focus your lens for that perfect northern lights picture

It can be tricky to get a sharp focus at night for your pictures of the northern lights. A lot of cameras have auto-focus features, but they tend to malfunction when cold. 

If your auto-focus isn't working and there's still daylight, switch your camera to manual focus and zoom all the way in on an object in the distance (like a feature of the cruise ship if you’re on shore, or maybe the top of a mountain). 

From there you can try the infinity focus on your lens (marked with “∞”). You can also switch to the live view on your camera, focus on a distant object, and manually work your focus until the image looks sharp.

Just make sure to turn your live view off when taking your northern lights picture, as the light from your camera's monitor may be visible otherwise.

Image by Tobias Brehm

And as always, practice your northern lights photography

This is just a starter's guide to taking pictures of the northern lights. There are many more technical steps that can be learned along the way, and in fact we even offer photo workshops that will teach you many of them, but the best way to get the most out of your particular camera is to just start snapping.

Play with the settings, discover how you like to frame shots, and remember to lower the lens once in awhile and simply enjoy the magical play of the northern lights.

Image by Jurriaan Hodzelmans

Title image from Shutterstock

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