How to photograph the aurora

Want to take impressive aurora photographs? Even beginners can successfully capture the Northern Lights with these simple tips.

Follow our tips and techniques and you too can capture the spectacle of a beautiful auroral display. Image Credit: Jamie Carter

Taking impressive aurora photos isn’t difficult. If you have a manual camera and you know how to use it, you too can take incredible aurora images.


The basics are:

  • Always use a tripod
  • Shoot in RAW
  • Remove any filters
  • Have a release cable or timer to trigger the shutter.

After that, it’s mostly about finding the right spot and waiting.

When the perfect moment finally arrives, here’s our guide to making the most of the opportunity.


Choose a wide angle lens

The aurora can appear right across the night sky, so the wider angle lens you use, the more impressive your vista will look.

An 18–55mm kit lens is fine, but know that cheaper crop-sensor (APS-C) DSLR cameras and more expensive full-frame models get different results.

For example, a 24mm lens on a full-frame DSLR produces a wide-angle as promised, but the same specification of lens on an APS-C DSLR produces a narrower image equivalent to what you would expect from a 38mm lens on a full-frame DSLR.

Whatever you use, set the aperture as wide open as possible, probably f/2.8 or so.


Keep it sharp

Practice manually focusing on infinity. Take test shots outside at night and check for sharpness to determine exactly where the infinity focus point is on your lens – it may not be where the manufacturer indicates.

Nothing’s worse than taking a spectacular aurora image, only to find that it’s ruined by blurry stars.

You’ll need to shoot fast with a short exposure if the corona passes directly above you. See point 9 below. Image Credit: Jamie Carter

Get to the Arctic Circle

For your best chance of catching a display, head to the Arctic Circle between 64° and 70° North, the closest places to the UK being Iceland and Lapland (the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland).

Northern Russia and Alaska see the aurora too.

Aurora activity is constant throughout the year, though the longer, darker nights between September and March emphasise the aurora’s vivid colours.

It is also possible to see the aurora from the UK, but will require much more luck in getting a good showing.


Think about composition

Photos featuring only ‘green clouds’ are dull. Reflections, rugged foregrounds and even people often feature in the best images.

Scout out locations in daylight looking for interesting trees, buildings or mountains.

But be flexible; the northern lights probably won’t appear where you want them.

A good rule of thumb is to think of the aurora as a backdrop to an already well-composed landscape photograph.


Capture a ‘forest fire’

Photographing the Northern Lights successfully is largely about hunting down clear skies.

Once clear, the most common sighting is of an almost stationary green glow arcing above the northern horizon.

To the human eye it looks greyish and often not much of a spectacle at all.

However, take a long exposure (try 25–30 seconds on ISO 800–1600) in a beautiful snowy landscape and the resulting image can be delightful.


Keep your boots by your bed

The Northern Lights can appear at any time of night, so keep your boots by your bed.

Set an alarm and check the sky every hour or so, or if your hotel has an aurora wake-up service, use it.

Keep an eye on the aurora forecast at too.

If it’s clear at night, sleeping at all may be a mistake.