ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Photographing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

by Murray Lundberg

      When people who live in temperate climes think of the North, what images come to mind? Igloos, polar bears, reindeer, Santa Claus possibly - but almost always, somewhere on the short list will be the Northern Lights. Even for people who see them year after year, the magic never ends, and many of those who live in well-lit cities will seek out dark spots to get a better view of them.

      For hundreds of years, artists have attempted to capture the Aurora in watercolours, oils, woodcuts, etchings and almost any other medium you can imagine. Although the development of photography now allows anybody to create beautiful images, relatively few people have good photographs of the aurora - here are some techniques to help you capture them.

      With film cameras, contrary to popular opinion, it didn't require a huge investment in equipment to get quality images of the Aurora - a 30-year-old Pentax Spotmatic bought from a garage sale for $75 would be able to get you results that would match those from outfits costing 20 times that much. With digital cameras, though, it takes a fairly good camera to get the amount of control you need in very low light. The "secrets" are simply finding out some basic information, setting your camera up properly, and then having good luck, and probably some late lights!

      A tripod for your camera, while not mandatory, certainly makes life easier. Your camera has to be held absolutely still during the long exposures required to record the lights, but an effective replacement for a tripod can be as simple as a bag full of beans, which you then nestle the camera down into. If you are using a tripod, a simple way to prevent getting 'burned' by the cold metal is to tape a piece of water-pipe insulation around the legs where you normally carry the tripod.

      Some of the basics:

  • If you have a camera with lots of automatic features, turn everything possible to manual. In particular, turn off auto-focus, as it doesn't work in night-sky photography - set the focus at infinity;
  • A mid-range ISO (ASA for the oldtimers) such as 800 works well. Going to high ISOs such as 3200 may result in grainy photos which seldom look good with this subject;
  • Use a cable release, timer, or some other method to prevent jarring the camera when you trip the shutter;
  • Play with your exposure settings - it takes some experimentation to find the right exposure under widely-varying light conditions. Writing them down may help, so you're not back to square 1 every time. I generally begin with 30-second exposures;
  • Including a foreground can make for more unique images - frame the Lights with trees, get them reflecting in a lake, the possibilities are endless.

      I find that there are no advantages, and several disadvantages, to having any kind of filter on your lens. To put one of the disadvantages in scientific terms, Dick Hutchinson reports that:

With my Nikon lenses I have found that long exposures result in concentric circles showing up in the middle of the images when I use a filter of any kind. Nikon says this is due to the high reflectivity of the aurora. Thanks to the University of Alaska forecaster, the explanation follows. "These are interference fringes due to the parallel faces of the filter and to the narrow spectral emission at 5577 Angstroms in the aurora. That green, atomic oxygen emission line is the strongest emission in the aurora near our film and eye peak sensitivity, so it shows up first when there is any device in the optical path which sorts out the spectral emissions." So, don't use filters!

      For many more Aurora Borealis resources and photographs on the Internet, see my Aurora Borealis links page. In particular, some of the photograph albums are tremendous sources of both information and inspiration (links to some of my photojournals from aurora-shooting outings can be found below). Have fun shooting!

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway (December 21, 2015)

A Night of Lights - Christmas and Aurora Borealis (December 15, 2015)

Last Aurora Night of the Season? (April 18, 2015)

A Spring Night of Aurora Photography (April 16, 2015)

Driving to an Incredible Aurora Borealis Display (March 19, 2015)

Another Aurora Borealis Night (March 2, 2015)

A Spectacular Aurora Borealis Morning (February 23, 2015)

To Kluane Lake for Aurora Borealis Viewing (November 18, 2014)

The Elusive Aurora Borealis (April 25, 2012)