How to photograph the northern lights - Part 1

Fact of the matter is there’s a lot of techniques to do nightphotography. In this post I’ll go through how I shot the auroras when I was in Iceland.

I’ll break the article into two parts; the technical and the compositional part.

The settings vary as in almost all other situations in photography – especially landscape photography because the amount of light changes. The northern lights vary in lighting intensity, which forces you to vary your camera settings.

If possible, you should always strive to get optimal camera settings. As fast a shutter speed as possible because you want to freeze the moment. The aperture should be as close to the sweetspot of the lens as possible to get maximum sharpness (be sure to get the depth of field you need too, what you want to be in focus obviously should). ISO should be as low as possible to avoid noise.

Photographing at night are rather “extreme” since there’s not much light to do with, so based on my experiences and what I’ve learned over the years in regard to the technical stuff is as follows.

Shutter speed

As a rule of thumb you want to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible because the auroras actually change rather fast and you don’t want them to be one big green smudge.

The aperture

As said, you want the image to be as sharp as possible, but because of the low light you might as well just open up the aperture as much as possible – your shutter speed and ISO settings are more important than the benefits you get from an aperture closed a bit down.


Keep it as low as possible.

White Balance:

THIS should not be underestimated – I don’t like those very green auroras shot at a daylight white balance. I  like bringing down the white balance to around 3500K for the most part.

That’s basically it…

Let’s look at some examples. All the following pictures are made on my Canon EOS 5DmIII with the Canon EF 16-35mm F/2.8L lens.

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This one pointing the camera straight up. 20sec, f/2.8, ISO640. Straight out of Camera it looks a bit “dull” and it wasn’t as I saw it – because my eyes does not have a shutter speed of 20sec. I saw it more like the edited version, yet not as powerful, the final notch I gave it is my artistic version. It’s a simple edit in CameraRaw / Lightroom.

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This picture is actually a blend of two photos shot with different settings. The upper part is shot at 20sec, f/2.8, ISO640 – a setting that really seemed to work for me this night, because the auroras was as strong as they were. The bottom part is shot at 30sec, f/2.8, ISO3200. This is not optimal! I should have made a longer exposure at a lower ISO or stacked multiple images to reduce the amount of noise – sadly I didn’t know as much at that time as I do now. I blended the two shots in Photoshop with some simple masking. And be careful not to overexpose the auroras too! The image furthest to the left – even though shot in raw – is actually overexposed.

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Sometimes when the lights are not as strong you can come away with a single raw file and add some gradients in post.

As mentioned in the beginning these settings may vary from situation to situation and from camerasystem to camerasystem. A lot of nightphotographers have changed to the Sony a7s simply because it’s ISO-handling is as insane as it is (relative to the 5Dm3). They can ofcause shoot with a way bigger ISO value and lower shutterspeed.

This was a bit about the technical aspects of shooting the northern lights. As mentioned there's other methods and better gear, so it's all up to you to find what suits you the best!

Part 2 - Coming soon!