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How to Take Pictures of the Northern Lights

A Beginner's Guide to Northern Lights Photography

|September 13, 2019
Kristina has been writing for the internet of things since 2010. She enjoys writing about adventures in nature just as much as embarking upon them herself.

The Northern Lights top many travelers’ bucket lists. Stargazers from all over the world travel north for that rare glimpse of the phenomenon — and to snap a picture or two. So read on and find out how to take pictures of the Northern Lights with a digital camera or even your smartphone!

Sadly, many travelers get home and realize that their carefully planned Aurora Borealis photos are too blurry and don't do it justice. 

This ultimate beginner’s guide will help you plan, prepare, and nail Northern Lights photography on your first try. Find out where and when it’s best to see the Northern Lights, read up on equipment, and discover tips and tricks on setting up the shot. 

Best Places to see the Northern Lights

very bright green northern lights in iceland at winter

The Northern Lights are only visible in Earth’s northernmost regions. This is because Earth’s magnetic field sends solar particles towards the North Pole. Those solar particles then collide with molecules in the atmosphere, and bam! A magnificent light show.

The best places to see the Northern Lights are anywhere between 66°N and 69°N latitude, also called the Aurora Zone. This includes Iceland and northern Canada - the most magical places to visit during the winter!

For total darkness, get away from the city lights. Luckily, the more north you go, the less light pollution there is. 

Reykjavik is one of the very few cities and the only capital in the world where you can observe Northern Lights in the city center.

It's also a great base to park your suitcase while you head out on a Northern Lights tour in the countryside. 

Best Time to See Northern Lights

panoramic view of vestrahorn mountain in winter

Did you know that the Northern Lights are present year-round? We don’t see them during summer because of the long daylight hours. The best time to see the Northern Lights is between September and April, when the sun sinks into the horizon and the nights are dark and long with clear skies.

The light show lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours and may show up once or a few times during the night. 

Can I take pictures of the Northern Lights with my Smartphone?

Yes! Great Northern Lights photos can be also snapped with your smartphone! To get those aurora shots perfect, follow these few easy steps:

  • Turn off the apps and take the load off your phone. I’m sure you have plenty of apps running in the background, turn them off for better performance.
  • Full battery power - on! Make sure your phone isn’t on battery saving mode. 
  • Use tripod and landscape mode. Yes, there are tripods for smartphones too, so buy one, it’s worth it. Then, mount your phone on it and rotate it to landscape mode.
  • Set to manual. Your smartphone camera has a manual mode, set it to that and adjust all the settings as mentioned above.

Don’t listen to those naysayers who swear by using only digital cameras. Your smartphone can work too and, on top of that, you can edit and share your magical Northern Lights photos in a blink of an eye.

People Looking At Northern Lights In Iceland

Top 3 Best Northern Lights photo apps

1. Cortex Camera (Apple iOS / Android). This camera app is fantastic for low light. It combines 100 frames of video to create one high-quality still photo. All photos are aligned perfectly in mere seconds, so you don't really even need a tripod!

2. NightCap Pro (Apple iOS). This app specializes in time lapse photos, a gold mine for low light and night pictures. Its virtual slow shutter function is ideal for capturing wind, moving people, and yes - those Northern Lights.

3. Northern Lights Photo Taker App (Apple iOS). Though just for iOS, this app does one thing and one thing only -- help you take better photos of the aurora!

Digital Cameras

camera bag packed with gear for photographers

If you still feel like the smartphone won't cut it, investing in some top-notch gear can go a long way.

High-quality equipment is key to your Aurora photography trip. A better camera means better photographs. 

Here’s the essential gear:

  • Any camera with ‘manual’ mode works. DSLR or SLR are fine as long as you can manually change the settings. 
  • Use a tripod. You don’t want blurry pictures, which is likely to happen if you hold the camera in your hands. 
  • Wide-angle lenses are best. They allow you to take in as much of the activity as possible.
  • Remotely controlled shutter. Your finger on the shutter will cause blurry pictures. Set the self-timer function and step back. 
  • Flashlight. Turn off the flash - it's useless. Shine a flashlight only if you're taking pictures of people in front of the Northern Lights. 

Best Camera Settings for Northern Lights

tourist taking pictures of northern lights in winter

To shoot the Northern Lights might seem easy, yet it’s challenging even to the best hunters out there. So let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the basic camera settings for Northern Lights you need to master:

  • Manual. Set your camera and lens to manual mode. Turn off flash and image stabilization — you won’t need them.
  • ISO. ISO controls light sensitivity. You’ll take Aurora Borealis photos at night when there won’t be much light available, so ISO setting should be 1600 and above.
  • Aperture, or f-stop. Aperture controls how open the lens is. You'll want it as wide as possible - set the aperture to f-2.8 or even lower. 
  • Shutter speed. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time that your lens is open and absorbs light. Adjust this setting based on the lights. If the colors of the aurora are bright, your shutter speed should be set to 1-5 seconds. If the lights are slow and dim, set your shutter speed to 20-30 seconds. 
  • Focus. Can be tricky at night. One trick: zoom in on a star or moon, set your focus and zoom out. 

Editing Tips & Tricks

solheimasandur plane wreck aurora borealis in iceland

Now that you’ve snapped great shots of the Aurora, it’s time to enhance them with editing tools.

The proper editing techniques heavily depend on the quality of the picture. If you think the picture is perfect without any edits, just leave it as it is!

Here are a few tips and tricks to enhance your Northern Lights pictures:

  • Crop it. You were shooting at night and maybe couldn’t compose your photos perfectly. Readjust the balance of the shot and crop. 
  • White Balance. Apply warm or cold tones to darker objects in the picture. Adjusting the white balance will create a more dramatic look.
  • Contrast. Adjusting contrast in your picture will enhance the lines of the Aurora. They will look more defined and less fluid.

Northern Lights Forecast

flashing light towards sky and northern lights

The Northern Lights are one of the world’s most unpredictable natural wonders. It’s pretty much impossible to know when and where the aurora will appear, but a few websites have mastered it quite well. 

Your best bet is to browse local Northern Lights forecast websites for the country you’re in. Those websites list the exact location and strength of the Northern Lights predicted at least a few hours in advance. 

For general prediction and information on the Northern Lights in the Arctic region, visit the University of Alaska Aurora Forecast website

If you’re in Iceland, check out this local Northern Lights information website.

What to Pack for Aurora Photography Tour?

packing camera bag with gear

Weather conditions in and around the Arctic can be harsh and unpredictable, especially in winter. Warm, woolen base layers, a fleece or sweater and softshell pants are always a good idea. 

  • A windproof jacket and trousers will come in handy during rainy days and windy nights.
  • Warm winter gloves, a scarf, and a hat are must-have items in the Arctic at all times.
  • Of course, don’t forget to pack your Aurora photography gear!
  • Pro Tip! The cold tends to eat up battery life, so if you're staying outside for a while, bring an extra set of batteries. 

Best Northern Lights Tours

Photographers love Northern Lights hunting tours. The tours take you directly to the best spots to view and photograph the light show. 

Our Northern Lights tours in Iceland and Canada can be a single evening experience or a multi-day adventure. Our tour guides are also kick-ass photographers and will capture a free photo of you with the aurora in the background.

Northern Lights Tour from Reykjavik

Head out on our Northern Lights hunt just outside of Reykjavik. The tour will take you into the rural Icelandic wilderness, away from the city lights.

Drive off the beaten path to hunt the green auroras. Join our expert guides in a minibus or super jeep for a night you'll remember forever. 

People watching Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis Viewing from a Wilderness Lodge

In Canada, admire the Aurora Borealis from a private wilderness lodge in the Northern Territories. Venture deep into the Arctic Circle at Yellowknife. 

Sometimes it's best to cozy up in a lodge with a cup of hot cocoa under the Northern Lights. The forested wilds of northern Canada are prime real estate for viewing away from light pollution. 

Colorful Northern Lights

5 Day South Coast, Snaefellsnes & Northern Lights

Or combine the search with a South Coast and Snaefellsnes sightseeing tour.

These multi-day tours are great to maximize your time and chances of viewing. Every night, we put you up in a hotel in the countryside, so you have multiple chances to spot the aurora. 

Northern lights over Mt. Kirkjufell

Hooked and ready to snap that perfect Northern Lights shot? Pick a Northern Lights tour in Iceland and cross this magical light show off your bucket list!

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