Photographing the Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights with DSLR Digital Camera
“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer.” – Philip Pullman
How to Capture the Aurora Borealis on DSLR
Preparing for the Picture
Capturing the elusive Aurora Borealis on a camera requires careful planning, execution, and processing. You can prepare from home by purchasing a few pieces of equipment.
Tripod – Unless you are a statue there is no way that you will be capturing a perfect photograph with several seconds of exposure. So you need a sturdy tripod as you may not be on flat and level terrain, but more than likely be on unstable snow and ice.
Remote Shutter Release
This is needed for photographers who want to go all the way to capture the perfect image with absolutely no disturbance. Even just pressing the shutter button on your camera can jostle it, so invest in a remote shutter release that allows you to trigger your camera without touching it – and it is also great for taking photos of yourself.
Alternatively, the self-timer function in the camera can be used. The 2-second self-time does just fine and gives the camera enough time after you hit the shutter button.
Several charged batteries
It’s going to be cold, which can drain all your battery life in no time. Because of this make sure you bring enough batteries to last you the full period that you want to be capturing your photographs.
You don’t need an expensive camera as long as you can adjust the settings manually.
Full Frame / 35mm Camera with Manual Mode Functionality and high ISO capability. Cameras that handle ISO up to 3000-5000 without producing much noise are recommended.
Wide angle lens with a fast aperture. A minimum speed aperture of f/2.8 – f/4 is recommended for photographing the Northern Lights. For full-frame cameras, it’s preferred to have lenses in the range of 14-24mm to capture a wide angle of the landscape and night sky.
Camera Settings & Set Up
Pre-Focus – Your camera probably won’t be able to focus at night, so you will need to manually focus the lens by picking out the furthest thing your camera will focus on, it may be that house in the distance with a light on or even the moon.
You can also use day time to set up your camera. Use the autofocus mode to focus at a distant point in the sky. Capture some photographs at different apertures to find the best one and also to ensure that your photo will come out nice and clear. Once you are happy with your focus you must now mark the focus ring and the barrel of the lens.
Set your image format to RAW instead of JPEG as RAW contains unprocessed data, which can be made more visible in post production of your photographs.
2800 – 4000
The smaller the f-number the more light the lens lets in, this is key for capturing the northern lights. Set the aperture as wide as possible and the number as low as possible (usually around f 2.8).
Begin at a level of 800 or less, and if there is not enough light then increase the ISO values.
The amount of exposure time depends on the speed at which the lights are moving, if they are moving rapidly a shorter exposure time is required (<10sec). If it is moving slowly then try setting the exposure time >10sec.
Composing the image
When possible, include a foreground. Try to capture the Northern Lights reflecting on a lake, frame them with trees, mountains or another interesting subject. Scout the area around you during the daytime, so when you finish dinner and run outside and see the lights dancing around you know exactly the location you want to set-up in.
Keep light pollution to a minimum. Keep in mind that light sources such as your LCD screen, accidental flash, and even smartphone screens can damage your exposure. Set your camera on the proper settings before heading out on your tour.
For more tips on how to capture the Northern lights with a camera, we recommend the following videos: