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How To Photograph the Northern Lights

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Moyan Brenn  Follow Aurora Borealis  Iceland, Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon during a night with aurora borealis seen from east beach
Moyan Brenn/aigle_dore/flickr.com Creative Commons License
To photograph the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), follow these instructions and tips to get the best photos. Try different settings shown here and learn what's best for taking pictures of the Northern Lights in all their nightly beauty.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Varies.

Here's How:

  1. BASIC EQUIPMENT: A tripod first of all, preferably used with a remote trigger so you don't have to touch the camera. The camera should be a 35mm SLR camera with manual focus (set to "infinity"), which works well for Northern Lights photography. Digital cameras will need to have manually adjustable ISO and zoom settings.
  2. RECOMMENDED PHOTO GEAR: Beyond the basic photography equipment, you should bring the following gear for great results: A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights. A wireless trigger is also very nice, so you don't nudge the camera at all. If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it.
  3. TAKING A PICTURE: You will not be able to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with short exposure times. Good exposure times for this are 20-40 seconds per picture (the tripod will help you eliminate shaking of the camera - you can't hold the camera by hand.) A sample exposure time for ISO 800 film with f/2.8 would be 30 seconds.
  4. LOCATIONS & TIMES: It can be hard to predict the Northern Lights so you may be in for a few hours of waiting during a cold night. Take a look at the profile of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) to learn more about the best locations and times to find and photograph the Northern Lights! Also, learn more about what kind of weather in Scandinavia photographers can expect and how you can best survive cold weather photography!

Tips:

  1. Batteries don't last as long in cold nights. Bring spare batteries.
  2. Try lots of different exposure settings; night photography is challenging. Test your setup first.
  3. Include a part of the landscape to make the photos more attractive and as a visual reference for size.
  4. Do not use any filters, as they tend to distort the beauty of the Northern Lights and degrade the image.
  5. Turn on "noise reduction" and the white balance to "AUTO" on digital cameras.

What You Need

  • Digital camera with interchangeable lenses
  • Wide angle zoom lens (f/2.8 max)
  • Sturdy tripod, preferably with remote trigger
  • ISO 400 or ISO 800 setting
  • Spare batteries and warm, comfortable clothing
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