How to Photograph The Northern Lights


For those of us on the East Coast of Canada, there aren’t too many chances to see the Northern Lights. Sometimes there are solar flares and other activity that make it possible. The first time I saw them, I was trying to photograph some meteors and instead got treated to the Aurora Borealis! Thought I’d share tips on how to shoot them if you are fortunate enough to see them.

So I went over to Gorham’s Bluff for a nice dark spot to shoot the Draconid Meteor Shower last December…and all my photos were ruined by this stupid red and green light in the sky…

Oh wait, that’s the Northern Lights!
Something I have never seen before, and something that is a bit rare in my part of Canada (New Brunswick, on the East coast. Next to Maine for my American visitors who may have never heard of it)

So needless to say, I forgot all about the meteors and started shooting the sky!



MANUAL MODE (M) is best
WHITE BALANCE: Try DAYLIGHT, or shoot RAW so you can adjust later if needed
ISO:400 (you might need a higher ISO if you lens aperture isn’t very wide)
SHUTTER SPEED: Anywhere from 15-30 seconds is usually good, but you can go longer if you like. To do longer than 30 seconds, you will need to switch to BULB mode and hold down the shutter as long as you want it to be open.
APERTURE: Widest possible (smallest number) 2.8, 3.5
LENS: Wide angle!
FOCUS: Manual focus will be best, since the camera probably won’t be able to focus on the dark sky.

TRIPOD IS A MUST due to the long exposure, and I would also consider using a remote or your 2 second timer to elimindate any possibility of camera shake.


You really need to find a nice dark place to shoot them. Get out of the city, as far away from the light pollution as possible.  If you have a location with a big lake, or mountains, that would provide some nice possibilites.
Most likely they will occur later in the evening, 11pm-midnight. But keep checking the skies to see!
You can also keep tabs on the activity by following the Aurora Alerts twitter account.

As I was shooting, I heard a car coming, so I recomposed to get more of the road and was able to get the taillights of the car (although they are a bit too bright…but usually I shoot them at F16/F22, which would have meant no Northern Lights most likely)




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Then I thought it might be fun to play with an LED lantern I had, so I walked down the road with it during the exposure. By this time, the reds in the sky are fading, but the greens are still growing strong. There are lots of ways to be creative with this. You could do neat things using a flash and firing it off camera on a person or yourself…maybe try some sparklers, flashlights, etc.


Then it sort of dissipated completely…so I focused on my original task of meteors.


As you can see, there was still lots of ambient light left over from the Northern Lights, so it kind of colored the horizon. And like what happened the last meteor shower…no meteors came through where I had the camera pointed. Ugh. Saw lots of em though.


Just to break things up a bit, I thought I’d try some long exposures with a nearby house.
5 minutes, F3.5 gave me the interior light and some of the ambient on the house, along with some blurring of the stars. No wacky horizon color, as I have switched directions, now facing East.


To end off, I did a nice 20 minutes shot of the stars…but no meteor came though…

Why not try some of your own night sky images?

Start with ISO 400, smallest aperture number (F3.5 or lower) and use BULB and do long exposures of the stars.


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Noel Chenier
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18 thoughts on “How to Photograph The Northern Lights”

  1. Hi Arimenthe.<br />You&#39;ll want to use your 18-55 lens, probably at the widest setting to get as much sky as possible. Use Manual mode and the settings I list in the blog post above. <br />Don&#39;t forget the TRIPOD!

  2. I saw the Northern Lights in Central Oregon in about 1958, it was amazing! Sure hope to see it again someday. Won&#39;t be in the best place for this one, but will sure be looking anyway! I we get lucky &amp; it happens again the next night, I might have a chance, will be camping in Central Oregon, not far from where I saw them before

  3. My camera only seems to go to a 30 second shutter speed. Am I maybe missing something? I&#39;m using a Canon Rebel, older model. Also when I point to the night sky my camera has nothing to focus on and so won&#39;t let me take a photo. Is there a trick to this? Thanks!

  4. Hi Becky<br />You need to be in manual mode and then you can select BULB mode, which will leave the shutter open as long as you hold down the button.<br /><br />Also, to focus, you will probably need to switch to MANUAL focus as the camera can&#39;t focus on the dark sky.

  5. Woohoo! This is going to be a lot of fun! My wife, daughter and I will be going to the Utah/Idaho border tonight to check out the Aurora Borealis. Thanks for putting up the map of North America because it shows that we are right in the midst of a green section. KOA here we come!<br /><br />Warm Regards,<br /><br />J, A and J

  6. Noel, <br />These pictures are beautiful! I&#39;m in Ogden, Utah and a photography student but it&#39;s been a few years since I&#39;ve really used digital, so this refresher was perfect for me! As the map shows, we may be able to see the lights all the way down here and I REALLY hope I can! So we&#39;re going to go hike and I&#39;m going to get out my trusty camera and pray for clear skies!

  7. Hi Becky<br />It depends on your model. Some cameras will do bulb mode with a wireless remote where pushing the button starts the bulb exposure, pushing it again stops it. <br />Wired ones usually have a lock on them.<br />Noel


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