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The Ultimate Guide to doing Aurora Borealis Photography 2022

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

northern lights Pinehouse Lake Saskatchewan
Sometimes you just have to brave the elements alone to get a good shot of the northern lights

You don't have to look much further if you're a photographer. Here you'll find the most up-to-date northern lights photography techniques for 2022.

Many travelers' bucket lists include seeing the Northern Lights. Stargazers from all over the world go to the region to catch a sight of the phenomena — and to take a few photos. So keep reading to learn how to photograph the Aurora Borealis with a DSLR camera or even your smartphone!

  1. Camera Equipment

  2. Planning Your Shoot

  3. Focusing Your Lens at Night

  4. Camera Setup & Settings:

  5. F-Stop Settings

  6. Shutter Speed & ISO Settings

  7. Final Words of Advice

This guide covers everything you’ll need including camera settings, equipment recommendations, and tips for planning your shoot. Scroll down & start learning!

1. Camera Equipment It is not necessary to spend a lot of money to shoot the northern lights. Most modern phones can now take decent-looking aurora shots without any additional equipment.

If you're anything like me, however, a DSLR will give you far crisper and more detailed photographs, which you can often expand and print.

Northern light photography 2022
The northern lights Dancing over the point, in Pinehouse Lake Saskatchewan

As for a DSLR camera, any camera with manual mode is required for northern lights photography. You must be able to control f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO, each manually to get decent looking pictures.

Photography lessons Saskatchewan aurora
Try to use manual mode and a full frame camera if you can

Full-frame cameras, such as the Nikon D850, are what I use and suggest (but in all honesty, the lens might even be more important then the body itself).

In comparison to a crop sensor camera, a full-frame camera will provide significantly higher quality images with less noise.

If you wish to make huge prints, you can still use a crop sensor camera, but the image quality will be substantially worse. When I initially started, I utilized the Nikon d5500, and the results were actually rather nice.

Aurora borealis Photography in northern Saskatchewan
Image taken of the aurora borealis using my old Nikon d5500 crop sensor

It's also a good idea to have a portable battery charger with you; keep it in your vehicle, and I recommend having at least 3-4 fully charged batteries ready to go for your shoot!

The Best Lens for Photographing the Northern Lights:

With a wide-angle lens, you may snap enormous landscapes when the northern lights are visible overhead.

For northern lights photography, I recommend using minimum f-stop values of f/1.8 to f/2.8.

  • Full frame focal lengths between 14mm and 30mm are recommended.

  • Crop sensor focal lengths between 10mm and 25mm are recommended.

Shooting at f/2.8 produces a very wide aperture opening, in turn, allowing more light to hit the image sensor over a standard exposure time. This is taught below. You’ll learn why this is so important, below. Currently, I shoot with the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 for all my night sky images.

Best Tripod for Northern Lights Photography: A carbon fiber tripod, with sturdy legs and adjustable ball head is great for northern lights photography. Cheaper tripods will also work but usually nowhere near as well - often most photographers will say that the best piece of equipment they have is their tripod - so dont cheap out. Carbon fiber tripods reduce vibration in the legs providing sharper images. It’s also essential to use a tripod head that does not move at all over the long exposures required for northern lights photography.

aurora borealis photography lessons
A sturdy Tripod is KEY, to good aurora borealis photography!

To reduce camera shake and create sharper images I use the Exposure Delay Mode on my camera. Set a 5-10 second timer to wait 5 seconds before taking each shot - that way there is no shake or blur. This will remove any camera shake from pushing the shutter button.

2. Planning Your Shoot

Step 1: Go to areas you plan to shoot from during the day. Find the ideal locations first!

Step 2: Find Dark Skies The easiest way to find an area with dark skies is to check the Dark Sky preserve: in Canada you can check it out here.

Map which is a Google / NASA collaboration. The black areas are free of light pollution, while white and grey areas have high light pollution. Shooting in dark areas will provide the best results, most vivid colors & detail. Step 3: Find Clear Skies You don’t need perfectly clear skies to get some great shots. I usually aim for sky cover percentages between 0%-30%, which you can see on the blue line in the graphic below. We recommend downloading the Windy App from Google play store.

Be prepared for night photography
Night photography means being prepared and knowing your surroundings

Some websites call this cloud cover percentage. You can use your local weather website to find the cloud cover percentages. Step 4: Check the Aurora Activity Download a few different aurora forecast apps from the Play store and watch them all

Most countries in the Far North have their own Northern Lights activity service. The northern lights activity index ( Kp-index ) ranges from 0-9 with 0 being the lowest amount of activity and 9 being the greatest. Kp-index ratings of 5 or great are considered a storm. I prefer to shoot on nights with a KP index of 4 or greater. You can get some great shots even with a KP index of 2. Here is a list of the forecasting websites I have used in the past. Space Weather Live OVATION Auroral Forecast: A really nice visual website that provides the current aurora forecast as well as other interesting facts which will help you to capture a photo of the Northern Lights. Space Weather Aurora Forecast: Another great website with a broad overview of the aurora forecast for a multi-day time frame. Space Weather’s website is worth spending some time visiting!

Just remember, it sometimes doesn't mean anything to just look at an app - often you just need to get outside and wait. 3. Focusing Your Lens at Night

Because the sky and northern lights are so far away from where we are on the planet, concentrating at or near infinity will produce sharp photographs. I've tried a variety of methods and watched numerous videos on how to do it the simplest way.

The "" symbol on most lenses is used to indicate the near infinity focus position.

night photography Canada Saskatchewan aurora hunters
Find the brightest star and manually focus on it

Focusing on this symbol doesn’t always produce the sharpest images. It’s better to test first using the method below to ensure sharp focus for your shoot.

Experimentation and practice are key to finding out what works and what doesn’t! There are many different options for focusing your lens at night. But when it comes down to it, I use the simple technique of using live view and focusing on a star until it is the smallest and sharpest it can be - that's it. Other options include: setting your focus during the day If it’s your first time out shooting at night, this method works really well to cut down on the confusion that can happen when it gets dark. Step 1: Get your camera & lens set up during the day. You will want to use the same lens, focal length, and f-stop that you will use to shoot at night. You can do this at your house, outside a hotel, or anywhere that’s easy. Open the f-stop to f/2.8 or f/4. Use the widest focal length possible. I recommend 14-25mm.

Step 2: Focus on something in the distance, approximately 50 feet out in front of your camera. Pick any object in this area and focus on it. Step 3: Verify you have sharp focus by taking a couple of practice shots and zooming in to make sure the focus point is sharp. Next, verify that the horizon in the image is also sharp, or whatever the furthest object in your composition happens to be. Step 4: Use a piece of tape to mark this spot on your lens, or tape it down so the focal ring does not move. White tape is easy to see in the dark. This is the focal point and focal length you will use to shoot the northern lights. I always shoot at my widest focal length for all night sky shots and crop down if required.

B as I mentioned earlier, I only use live view at night to focus and I often refocus every 30 mins or just - just in case I might of bumped it or something. Last thing you want is to go home to edit your pictures to find out they are all out of focus - it has happened to me before!

Patience is key to getting good northern lights pictures
Aurora Borealis can be an amazing opportunity - just have patience!

4. Camera Setup & Settings:

Shooting Mode Preferences: Manual Mode allows you to manually adjust the ISO, Aperture, and shutter speed by hand. Image Settings RAW Format will produce the best results for northern lights photography. Metering Mode The metering mode does not matter since at night your camera meter is not accurate. I use center-weighted average for landscape photography, so leaving it on that works well. Color Balance / White Balance Kelvin Values of 3000-5000 work well for northern lights photography. Use the Kelvin white balance setting on your camera to control this function. My White Balance Shooting Technique Video has detailed info on this topic. The goal is to “neutralize” the color on the camera so it matches exactly what you see with your eyes. The colors of a successful image should be very close to what you see in front of you, in the sky. Lens Focal Length Full Frame Focal Lengths: 14-50mm work great for northern lights photography. Crop Focal Lengths: 10-40mm will work well for northern lights photography. F-Stop / Aperture Settings I recommend f-stop settings of f/2.8 for northern lights photography. Shutter Speed / Exposure Time I recommend shutter speeds of 1 second to 15 seconds for northern lights photography. This will really depend on how quickly the aurora is moving through the sky. ISO Settings ISO settings of 500-2000 work well for northern lights photography. Sometimes you can go higher depending on the camera. This will all depend on how bright the lights are in the sky. In-Camera Noise Reduction Settings Some cameras have settings to apply noise reduction, in the camera. If you have these settings, turn them OFF.

Piunehouse Lake Sask Northern lights
Northern Lights in Pinehouse Lake, Saskatchewan

5. F-Stop Settings

In my opinion, f/2.8 is the best aperture setting for aurora photography. The wide lens opening allows your camera’s sensor to collect a lot of light from the scene while keeping your ISO and image noise, low. You can still keep the foreground acceptably sharp while shooting at f/2.8, but can also experiment with f/3.5 or f/4. I don’t recommend opening your aperture any wider than f/2.8. With very wide apertures it becomes hard to focus at night, over the entire depth of field. The key is allowing the most amount of light to hit your camera’s sensor in the least amount of time, in turn maintaining a lower ISO, inducing less image noise.

6. Shutter Speed & ISO Settings

I grouped shutter speed & ISO together due to the fact that you’ll need to change them both at the same time since they directly reflect on one another. After a few hours of photographing the Northern Lights, using the skill sets provided below, you will easily be able to adjust both of these settings simultaneously, obtaining great results. Ask yourself the following questions to determine the camera shutter speed and ISO settings for northern lights photography. Question 1: How Quickly is the Aurora Moving Through the Sky? With high-level aurora activity, the Northern lights can move through the sky very quickly. To capture all of the nice color and detail in this scene, without your photo looking like a “blob of color”, you’ll need to shoot at a much shorter exposure time than if the aurora was moving slowly through the sky.

Think about it this way… If the aurora is moving very quickly through the sky, and you take a photo at a 30-second exposure, instead of seeing the instantaneous view that your eyes see, your camera will actually pick up the entire movement of the aurora through the sky over that 30-second time frame. The details and colors will become the average of the 30-second exposure for each pixel. As seen with long exposures of water or cloud scenes, all of the color and movement mixes together. This is not the goal for photographing the Northern Lights, we want, vivid color and nice detail. Keeping your shutter speed between 3-25 seconds will work very well for shooting the northern lights. When the aurora is moving quickly, try 3-7 second exposures. When it’s moving slower, or it’s not as bright, try 10-25 seconds. You can increase or decrease these times as you see fit, they are just rules of thumb! Experimenting and taking as many shots as possible, at different shutters speeds will help you to learn what works best!

Question 2: How Bright is the Aurora in the Sky? All of the other settings have now be adjusted. It’s time to select an ISO value. Since the northern lights changes color, speed, and brightness all throughout the night, you’ll also need to constantly adjust your camera settings to match this dynamic situation. The goal is to keep your ISO low as possible, while still shooting at the correct f-stop and shutter speed to correctly expose the scene. Here are the steps to adjust ISO: Steps 1: Start out shooting with an ISO of 400-800 and take a practice shot. Step 2: If your practice shot wasn’t bright enough, increase your ISO to approximately 1200 and take a practice shot. Step 3: If the photo still isn’t bright enough, continue to increase your ISO until it is. I usually shoot in the ISO range of 800-4000. Always keep in mind that your image should not be (in terms of the histogram ) correctly exposed, you are shooting at night, so the image can also be dark. You can bring out nearly all of this dark detail in photo editing. Always watch your histogram to make sure you’re not losing any dark detail off of the left-hand side. You will also want to make sure that you’re not “blowing out” any highlights, meaning the histogram isn’t dropping off the right-hand side.

Tips for learning how to take pictures of the northern lights
Avoid under or over exposing pictures

After a few nights practicing the provided skills under the night sky you will easily grasp all of the concepts. Always remember you should never increase the ISO to obtain a brighter image prior to opening your aperture to the widest possible value ( f/2.8 works great ), and dialing in the maximum exposure time while still maintaining nice detail in the Northern Lights.

Aurora borealis photography lessons and education Sask Aurora Hunters | Pinehouse Lake
Often, the northern lights only get really bright and active for just a few minutes at a time. be patient and have fun!

To summarise, anyone can take pictures of the northern lights, and it can often be done without spending a lot of money.

Don't believe the sceptics who insist on solely utilizing digital cameras. Your smartphone can also be used, and you can edit and share your aurora photographs in a matter of seconds.

Refocus frequently!

After you've taken your pictures, you shouldn't need to do much editing, so practice with trial and error to get your settings right.

This guide should have answered some of your questions.

Go out and have a good time!

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