Protons to Pixels: How to Photograph the Northern Lights



It all sounds very technical doesn’t it? All those protons and electrons, sunspots and solar flares, solar maximums, magnetic fields – it’s enough to make your head spin. But add a whole load of photography jargon into the mix – f-stops, maximum apertures, long exposures, ISO this, ISO that, and it’s perhaps not surprising that a lot of people simply want to stop and stare. And perhaps go ‘oooh’ and ‘aaaah’.

Don’t become so obsessed with trying to capture an image of the Northern Lights that you spend so long wrestling with your tripod, fiddling with camera controls and staring at LCDs that you forget to just stop and stare and wonder. Filling the memory card in your head is just as important as filling the one in your camera!

The key to capturing the Northern Lights with your camera is to be prepared. And that means being in the right place, at the right time, with the right gear and the right camera settings. Typically, of course, what actually happens is that the Northern Lights appear when you are standing in your pyjamas in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning your teeth after a five-hour stint of fruitless sky gazing.


Clothing for Northern Lights photographers

No matter. As a well-prepared aurora hunter, you leap into action. Clothes first please. Don’t sprint into the arctic night with only your PJs on. Even cameras with the most advanced image stabilization systems cannot compensate for violently shivering photographers on the verge of hypothermia. Wrap up warm. Wear lots of layers. If anything, overdress. You can always shed layers in the heat of the moment when the aurora is blazing above you.

For photographers, warming up numb fingers takes time and could cost you that perfect photo. Big, thick gloves or arctic-grade mitts don’t go well with fiddly camera buttons and dials. So, think about wearing some silk liner gloves inside your mitts – that way you can slip the mitts off and still keep your hands warm while adjusting camera controls, but have the outer mitts to hand for the periods when you’re waiting for the aurora to show.

Camera gear for photographing the Northern Lights

What else do you need to photograph the Northern Lights? Well, of course, you will need a camera. It has to be said that the lights are much harder to capture on film than in digital format. The sensors in digital cameras are incredibly sensitive to light. And the other real advantage of digital cameras is that you can review your pictures straight away and make any necessary tweaks to things like exposure settings or composition. With a little bit of technique, there really is no excuse for returning home with a botched set of Northern Lights photos!

What type of camera is best? The answer is simple: it’s the one you are most familiar with. Don’t rush out and buy a brand new camera the day before you travel. I’ve seen people with headtorches, reading camera manual instructions while the Northern Lights are flickering overhead. Remember that torches not only cast a harsh light and can ruin the atmosphere for other watchers, but they also make your eyes far less sensitive to the subtleties of the night sky. If you do use a torch, make sure it has a red bulb, or red film over the front, to preserve your night vision. Ideally, you need to know your camera so well that you can tweak its settings by starlight and touch alone.

If you are buying a new camera for your trip to (hopefully) see the Northern Lights and have time to get to know it before you leave, then I’d recommend you get a digital SLR camera. Don’t get too hung up over the camera body. The lens that you put on it is far more important – especially when it comes to photographing the lights. Yes, digital cameras are very light sensitive, but you still need to be able to channel the elusive, subtle light of the aurora through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor. And to help it do that you ideally need a lens with a fast maximum aperture.

Basically all this means is how big a hole you can get to open up at the camera end of the lens when you take a picture. A lens with a small maximum aperture of, say f8, has a small hole and lets in a relatively small amount of light, so you need a longer exposure to allow something like the Northern Lights to make any kind of impression on the camera’s sensor. A lens with a large maximum aperture of around f1.4 or f2.8 can open up much wider, and gather more light and so you need shorter exposures.

Why does all this matter? Well, the longer your camera spends taking a picture – the longer the exposure – the more prone it is to movement. Even the slightest tremor from a breeze or from someone scrunching past in the snow nearby can cause camera shake and ruin your photo.


So, to recap on camera gear, your priorities are:

  • DSLR body

  • Wide-angle lens of at least 24 or 28mm - wide enough to take in a broad swathe of the heavens – and with as large a maximum aperture as you can afford, ideally f2.8 or f1.4

Other essential bits and pieces include:

  • A tripod. A sturdy tripod. Don’t skimp on this or think you can leave it at home because it’s too heavy to carry and that you’ll be able to wedge your camera in a tree or rest it on a snowman’s head. You will need a tripod to keep your camera as still as possible when photographing the Northern Lights.

  • A remote release is also important. It attaches to the side of your camera and allows you to take a picture without having to press the shutter button on the top of the camera – because even that can cause camera shake and ruin your photos with the kind of long exposures you’ll be dealing with.

  • Spare batteries. Long exposures drain batteries fast. Freezing temperatures drain batteries fast. So keep a spare or two, nice and snug in your coat pocket, ready to whip into your camera. Practice this lots beforehand, preferably with your eyes closed.

Now, some of you might be thinking: good grief, what a lot of gear and hassle – can’t I just take my compact camera and snap away with that. Well, you can try, but there are certain features common to most SLR cameras that you won’t find on your average digital compact. Has it got somewhere to attach a cable release? Can you adjust the ISO (or camera’s light sensitivity) so that it’s more suited to capturing the Northern Lights? Can the shutter speed be manually adjusted to enable those all-important long exposures? And is it possible to switch to manual focus?

With high-spec compact cameras, some of these things are possible, but you might still be struggling with a built-in lens that’s not exactly great for nighttime photography.

Whatever, you do, don’t go aurora hunting with a digital compact (or SLR for that matter) set to automatic. There is nothing more annoying or soul destroying than having the aurora borealis blasted to oblivion by the auto flashes of compact cameras. You won’t capture the lights this way. At best, you’ll get a patch of brightly lit snow that’s within the 5m range of your flash. At worst you’ll blind everyone else and be banished to the nearest sauna.

Some compacts have a nighttime setting, which turns the autoflash off and switches the camera to its most sensitive ISO setting, longest exposure and widest maximum aperture. You could try this, but you’ll still need to secure the camera on a tripod and fire it using a cable release. If you don’t have a cable release, a handy trick is to activate the self-timer instead. That way, your fingers should be well away from the camera by the time it fires.


Techniques for photographing the Northern Lights

So, where were we before all this technical diversion? Ah yes, standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth. Clothes on. Lots of layers. Spare camera batteries in coat pocket. Grab camera gear. You don’t need to stop and fiddle with anything because you’ve already got it set up perfectly for photographing the aurora. How?

  • It’s screwed firmly to a tripod

  • A cable release is already attached

  • The ISO, the measure of how responsive your camera’s sensor is to light, is set to between ISO 400 and ISO 1000

  • The aperture is set as wide as your lens allows: you want the smallest number, ideally f2.8 or f1.4

  • The shutter speed is set to 30 seconds

  • Autofocus is switched to manual.

You step outside. Wow! The Northern Lights are really going for it. Great ribbons of luminescent green are swirling through curtains of crimson and purple; the stars are dazzling; the air is crisp. Everything seems so vibrant. This is it. This is the moment you’ve waited for. Nature’s greatest show is happening right now, above your head. So what do you do?

You panic.

Out go the legs on the tripod, off comes the lens cap, pinging into a snowdrift never to be seen again; you tilt the camera up, and fire.

That’s OK. You’ve now got 30 seconds while the exposure lasts, to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the spectacle.

As with all great photography moments – whether it’s zooming in on Mt Everest or panning across the Serengeti Migration – your experience, your feelings, your awareness are so much more heightened at the time of taking the actual photographs – often to the point of elation – that you find yourself carried along on a great wave of emotion. Yeah, the Northern Lights! Click! I’ve waited all my life for this! Click! It’s just mind-blowing! Click!

It seems that every photo you’re taking is amazing. But, of course, it’s not. And it’s only when you get home, when the euphoria has past, and you’re staring at your computer with the rain rattling on the window outside, that you think to yourself: “Hmm, if only I’d composed that better…” or “I don’t remember that person’s arm in the shot…”

So, take that first shot. Then take a more careful, considered approach.

The first thing you need to pay attention to is focus. Remember, you’ve got your lens set to manual focus so that your camera is not constantly hunting back and forth trying to latch onto something in the middle of the night. Wide apertures (like f2.8) mean very little depth of field (in other words, how much is sharp either side of the point of focus), so what you manually focus on is very important.

It might be the moon. It might be the lights of a log cabin. Or the silhouettes of a line of fir trees standing out against the aurora. Take time to set this carefully and keep checking it after each shot.

You also want to keep a careful eye on exposure. I suggested starting with the ISO set to between 400 and 1000, an aperture of f2.8 and a shutter speed of 30 seconds. If you’re photographing a very subtle, quite faint aurora, you might need to increase the ISO to 1250 or set a longer exposure, perhaps 45 seconds.

On the other hand, you might review your first few images and find that the colours are burning out, it’s just too bright. It’s over exposed. So, dial in a lower ISO, cut the shutter speed down until the colours of the aurora are richer, more saturated, and the night sky hasn’t washed out to a murky grey.

The key thing is to keep checking and keep tweaking. The aurora is not a constant. Its intensity ebbs and flows and you need to adjust exposure accordingly.

At the end of the day – or night in this case – a large part of the success of a Northern Lights photo is down to composition and some good old-fashioned rules of photography.

A shot of the sky full of pretty green lights is fine. But show it in context to where you’re standing and you suddenly add a whole new dimension. Tilt your camera down slightly to include a forest, a mountain range, a lake, a log cabin, an Icehotel and you’ll immediately give scale and depth to the image.

Suddenly, the full magnitude of the aurora will be apparent as it towers over the little slither of landscape you’ve included at the bottom of the frame.

In daytime photography, you would probably apply the rule of thirds, positioning your horizon about a third of the way up the frame, but when it comes to shooting the Northern Lights I think that’s often too generous. Keep the sky big; the land beneath almost cowering under this stupendous light display.

Forests and mountains will usually turn out as silhouettes when photographed against the lights – although snow on the tree or slopes can give them a pleasing, almost eerie glow when catching the soft light of the moon, stars and aurora.

If you frame a lake in the foreground, then you can get the bonus of the Northern Lights reflected on the surface – sometimes to stunning effect.

Buildings can also lift an aurora photo above the ordinary, especially if it’s a rustic log cabin lit from within. The long exposure of night photography gives each window a rich amber glow, with patches of warmth spilling onto the snow outside. Just watch your exposure though – it’s easy to overcook the lights in a cabin in order to get the correct exposure on the aurora.

Also take care where you position the building – or any focal point for that matter – within the frame. Study the aurora carefully. Spend a few minutes watching how it behaves. Keep moving, walking around, exploring new angles until your log cabin complements the composition, rather than jars with it. Long sinuous ribbons of the Northern Lights that draw your eye down to a cosy-looking cabin works better than plonking the building dead centre where it has no relation, or connection, to what’s going on above it.

Use a road or a river to draw your eye into the picture, leading you to a point where the Northern Lights erupts above the horizon.

Using people as foreground interest is also tempting – just make sure they can stand dead still for the full length of your exposure, otherwise they’ll turn out rather blurred and ghostly. Yes, you could zap them with a burst of flash during your exposure, or play a torch across their faces, but the resulting image often turns out looking very unnatural.


Common problems when photographing the Northern Lights

Very long exposures will record stars trails, so if you want to keep the Milky Way pin-prick sharp, reduce your shutter speed and increase the ISO setting to compensate.

That’s all well and good I hear you cry, but what about image noise – a grainy appearance that can blight photographs taken with very high ISO settings. Well, cameras are getting increasingly more sophisticated when it comes to reducing noise. On many SLR cameras, you can push ISO settings way over the 1000 mark with very little increase in noise. You will notice it more on a compact camera because one of the main factors contributing to noise is the size of the camera’s sensor. Compacts have smaller sensors than SLRs.

There are also ways of ‘smoothing out’ noise using Photoshop and other image editing software once you’ve downloaded your photos onto a computer.

Other potential problems… We’ve covered battery life and the importance of keeping spares nice and snug in your jacket pocket. Another more common problem relating to the challenges of photographing in freezing conditions is lens fogging.

There’s nothing more frustrating than grabbing your camera and marching outside into a night pulsing with the Northern Lights only to find that when you put your eye to the viewfinder all you can see is a pale green blur. What’s happened, of course, is you’ve taken your camera from a warm interior to a cold exterior – the lens immediately mists over or, even worse, globules of condensation form on the front element… or, worse still, condensation forms on the rear element and your camera’s mirror… and then, to cap it all, it freezes solid.

The Northern Lights don’t look their best in soft focus, so try to avoid this happening by keeping your camera gear at an outdoor temperature. That might mean leaving it outside. But if that’s not possible or desirable, before you go inside, zip your camera up tightly in a good quality camera bag – well-padded pouches work well – and place that inside a cooler or freezer bag. Hopefully, that will keep your gear at a low enough temperature to beat the dreaded fogging when you venture back outside.

JPEG or RAW files?

So, you’ve done all the hard work – the planning, the waiting, the shivering – the Northern Lights have shown and you’ve caught them on camera. Job done? Not quite. A little bit of post processing (or fiddling about on the computer back home) can really make your aurora photos shine.

Generally speaking, cameras save images as either JPEG or RAW files. JPEG is a compressed format, which means you can get more pictures on a memory card. But, in order to do that the camera does a bit of processing for you – it applies certain settings for things like exposure, colour saturation, noise reduction and sharpening. In other words, the camera is making decisions for you; it’s deciding what image information to keep, before discarding the rest in order to compress the file and keep it compact.

Now that may be all well and good – as long as you are absolutely certain that the camera is choosing the right settings for your Northern Lights photos. Why? Well, if you decide to tweak your JPEGs in an image-editing programme like Photoshop, it will further degrade the image quality each time you do so. That’s just the way it is with JPEGs.

Typically, your camera will adjust JPEGs to look brighter and punchier – which might suit your Northern Lights pictures fine – but just be aware that you might lose detail in the highlights and shadows.

RAW files, on the other hand, are whopping great things, saving everything that your camera sensor can record. You’ll get less of them on a memory card and you have to edit them on a computer. What are the advantages of this? For one thing, you can rescue poor exposures. The creative process of taking a photograph extends into hours hunched over your computer fine-tuning colour balance, saturation and sharpening. You’re in total control – and you can keep on editing a RAW file without degrading image quality.

If you’ve got the choice, shoot the Northern Lights in RAW. When you take your pictures and look at them on the back of your camera, they’ll actually look quite flat and dull in this format. But it’s amazing what happens with a few simple bits of editing.

Using Photoshop or Lightroom, edit your RAW files by retouching at 100%, adjusting brightness and contrast, levels, curves, hue and saturation and sharpening – preferably in that order. Remember: small adjustments can make a big difference. For example, +10% saturation should be more than enough to add oomph to the aurora. For more detail on processing digital files, Steve Davey’s Travel Photography guide is highly recommended.

#photography #northernlights #auroraborealis