Northern lights photography is not like other night photography; it has challenges that go way beyond normal night photography challenges – namely…the cold! You only get northern lights in the winter when you have those gorgeous dark skies, so that means you are going to be waiting out in the cold for the perfect shot of the aurora.
What are the Northern Lights?
I’m no scientist – but I can tell you aurora borealis is a recipe of the sun, solar bursts, solar wind, the earth’s magnetic fields, and our atmosphere. If you want an in-depth proper explanation, check out this Northern Lights Defined article.
In addition to the scientific explanation, we also heard some Native explanations too. It is believed by the Alaskan Native people and Inuit, the Northern lights are the spirits of their ancestors hunting in the night sky and that’s why they are active and moving. Another version is it’s the spirits of the ancestors watching over their loved ones on earth. In fact, the spirits are so friendly, it is said you can invite them for a ‘dance’. When you dance, they will join you dancing and you can essentially ‘dance them out’. At this point when Miriam tells me this I consider if the Hokie Pokie dance would work. At least if you choose to ‘dance them out’, it’s also a great way to stay warm at the same time!
Northern Lights Photography and Camera Tips
You have to be prepared for cold weather photography else you may loose your opportunity to get photos of this spectacular event.
Once Your Camera is Outside, Leave It Outside
This is the first thing to know and follow religiously. Your body can go in and out of the cold with little dire impact besides being uncomfortable; however, your camera cannot. Don’t subject it to the massive temperature swings of outside and inside, as it leads to condensation inside your camera, not to mention it’s just damn tough on the camera in general. Set your camera up on the tripod, and situate it outside in the area where you want to shoot, and then leave it there until you are done shooting completely for the night. You’ll have to acclimate when you come back outside, but your camera won’t and that will ensure you are able to get the northern lights photography you are hoping for.
Pro Tip: “If you must take your camera inside from the cold, place it back in your camera bag or backpack before you go back onto the warm area. Keep it in the closed bag, which is filled with the same cold air that was surrounding your camera outside until you go back outside. This will prevent condensation. If you stay inside for a long period of time, eventually, it will warm up gradually, and everything will be fine. If you do experience condensation, your only remedy is to keep the camera in a relatively warm, dry room until it completely dries out. Only then can you take it outside again.” –Dan Bailey Alaska Photographer
Take Your Batteries Out of Your Camera
But wait! Before you just leave your camera sitting outside on the tripod, take the batteries out of it take them inside with you. If you leave them in the camera outside – they will most definitely drain and be of no use to you.
Bring Extra Batteries
My rule is bring double the batteries than what you think you may need. Battery life is short in the cold, so be prepared with lots of extra batteries. I had 5 with me and there were nights where I practically went through all of them.
Keep Your Batteries Warm
Often cold batteries are just a big tease. They tell you they are empty, but really they aren’t. Just warm them up again in an inside pocket close to your body. Or better yet, put them in a pocket with hand warmers to get them nice and toasty again. Suddenly you’ll find that they come back to life. When you put them back in your camera it will show they aren’t empty. See…a giant battery tease.
Point the Lens Downward
Hold on! I know, I know, you have left your camera sitting on the tripod with the batteries taken out and stored safely in your warm pocket – great. But there is one more key thing to do before you go have that hot toddy inside. Adjust your tripod head and point the lens down towards the ground. This will ensure the glass on the lens doesn’t get frosted over.
I learned this awesome tip from Frank at the Aurora Bear Photography Workshop. On the coldest night we were shooting (around -15F), I left my camera pointing down towards the snow on my tripod as I waited in a yurt trying to warm up. When I came back out to look for aurora periodically, I noticed my whole camera was frosted over! However the lens pointing at the ground was not. This way when the aurora did come out suddenly – I was ready! I just popped the battery back in, readjusted the tripod head and got my shots even though my camera was completely frosty!
Remove Your Filters
Frank at Aurora Bear also taught me to remove my filters on my lenses as they can produce a series of dark concentric circles in the center of your photo. Plus, some filters will also reduce your available light. You are already challenged with low light conditions when shooting the northern lights; don’t make it worse!
Use a Wide Angle Fast Lens
Any lens will work, however the wider the angle the better. Northern lights can take up a big area of sky and you want to capture as much of the show as you can in addition to the foreground. To do this you need a wide angle lens. I shot with a 10mm most of the time. However a 24 mm also works.
In addition, the fastest (lowest F stop number such as f1.8 or f2.8) lens you can use the better. This allows you to work with more light – something that is in short supply during night photography. Without a fast lens, exposures will need to be longer, and that will tend to blur the aurora more. My fastest, widest lens only went to f4, and I was still able to shoot at shutters of 10 seconds without too much of a problem. Use what you have of course – because anything is better than nothing!
A Tripod Is a Must
I never normally travel with a tripod, but in the case of night photography it is a must. Have a good sturdy one that can deal with wind. Plus – make sure that it isn’t metal as metal tripods can get incredibly cold and you don’t want to touch freezing cold metal, even with gloves. You may want to try LensCoat Legcovers.
Pro tip: “Also, watch bare noses on ice cold metal and plastic camera bodies. If it’s cold enough, you can easily frost nip the end of your nose when you press your face up to the camera to take photos. I know because I’ve done it. Either try to hold your face slightly away from the back of the camera or else use some kind of nose shield or face mask. Your skin will thank you.” Alaska photographer Dan Bailey
Other Things that Will Improve the Experience of Your Northern Lights Photography
Have a Place to Wait Inside
The northern lights are unpredictable, and warmth is essential in Fairbanks as you wait. If you can do a Northern Lights Trip that has an indoor options where you can wait inside – this is much preferred. And if it has food and drink…even better! If you are simply waiting in a car – just make sure you have enough gas and keep the car running and the heat on!
Scared of the cold weather in Fairbanks in the Winter? Don’t Be!
Check out my Alaska Winter Packing List and go prepared!
Bring a Flashlight or Headlamp
Not only will you need some sort of light so you can light up the camera controls and make adjustments on your camera. You’ll also want a powerful light to help you light up the foreground, check your focus, and make your northern lights photo even more picturesque.
It’s important to note a full moon doesn’t obscure the light of the aurora, in fact the full moon often enhances the contrast between the scenery, snow, and the aurora providing a nice natural light on the foreground.
Know Your Directions
After talking with physicist Peter Delemere at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, we learned when you are armed with a little knowledge, you can have a better experience. Peter suggested to know your directions ( n/s/e/w ), and know where the aurora oval is so you are looking in the right direction. In Fairbanks the aurora oval normally sits just to the north. So when you get to your shooting location, set up your gear pointing north and watch the northern horizon for the first signs of the aurora.
Take a Workshop!
Of course the fastest and easiest way to improve your northern lights photography is to take a workshop the first night you go out! We went to Aurora Bear Photography Workshop and had a one-on-one experience with Frank Stelges who set us up for our future nights of aurora chasing!
Northern Lights Photography Settings
I have a little checklist I keep on my Evernote phone app so I can always refer to it, but I have since committed it to memory!
1. Turn on your Manual Mode – that’s right…northern lights photography means it’s necessary to get out of auto. No auto exposures, no auto focus, no auto iso. This is where the rubber hits the road in photography and you are going to have to understand manual settings. If you are currently wondering what manual settings are, then I suggest you take a class BEFORE your northern lights trip so you know how to use your camera’s manual settings and how to adjust them and why.
2. Turn on manual focus – sadly your camera, no matter how fancy it is cannot auto focus in the dark. It’s manual all the way baby!
3. Set focus to infinity. If you don’t have an infinity setting, then you’ll want to potentially take your camera out in the daylight and focus it on the most distant object you can see and make a mark on your camera as to what that focus spot is. Or leave it out there and don’t touch it. But honestly, most DSLR’s and lenses have infinity settings these days. They aren’t all perfect though so it still may be a little trial and error.
4. Turn off auto iso and start with a setting around 1600 and adjust from there.
5. Turn on your timer setting if you don’t have a remote shutter release
6. Set aperture to the lowest f stop number you can get to on your lens.
7. Shutter Speed – this is one to play around with depending on what other light sources are around you, including moonlight. Longer exposures will result in brighter images, but stars will streak and the aurora will soften. Short exposures may have sharper details but dimmer images requiring more post processing. Start at 15 seconds and adjust. If you want super sharp stars though, then you will want to play around with your other settings (like ISO) to have a shutter that is slower – like 8 seconds.
8. Focal Length – zoom out to the widest you can on your lens – this ensures you will capture all of that beautiful display in the sky.
Now all you have to do is hope the northern lights show up for you and put on a show!
I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks on this trip however all opinions expressed here are my own.
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