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How to Take Pictures of the Northern Lights

A Beginner’s Guide to Aurora Borealis Photography

|August 3, 2023
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 photograph 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 photographing Northern Lights on your first try. Find out where and when it’s best to see the Northern Lights, read up on camera settings, and discover tips and tricks on setting up the shot.

Northern Lights Tours

Tip 1: Choose the Right Location

very bright green northern lights in iceland at winter

A magnificent light show

The Northern Lights are only visible in Earth’s northernmost regions. This is because Earth’s magnetic field sends solar particles toward 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 the 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. 

Tip 2: Pick the Right Time

panoramic view of vestrahorn mountain in winter

Mirrored reflection of the Aurora Borealis

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.

Tip 3: Follow Aurora Forecast

flashing light towards sky and northern lights

Bright Green 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 predictions 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.

Tip 4: Use Your Smartphone

Snapping a Great Pictures with a 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 in 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 photography results in a blink of an eye.

People Looking At Northern Lights In Iceland

People Watching Northern Lights

Tip 5: Use the Right 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!

Tip 6: Use a Digital Camera

camera bag packed with gear for photographers

Digital Camera Equipment

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 is 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.

Tip 7: Master the Camera Settings

tourist taking pictures of northern lights in winter

A Woman Taking Picture of Northern Lights with Her Camera

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 photography you need to master:

1. Switch to Manual Mode

The first step is to set your camera and lens to manual mode. This gives you full control over your camera's settings, allowing you to adjust them according to the lighting conditions. Remember to turn off the flash and image stabilization as you won't need them for Northern Lights photography.

2. Adjust the ISO

The ISO setting controls your camera's sensitivity to light. Since you'll be taking photos of the Aurora Borealis at night when there isn't much light available, you should set your ISO to 1600 or above. However, be aware that a higher ISO can lead to more noise or grain in your Northern Lights photography, so you may need to experiment to find the best balance.

3. Set the Aperture

The aperture, or f-stop, controls how open the lens is. A wider aperture allows more light to enter the camera, which is crucial when photographing the Northern Lights. Set the aperture to f-2.8 or even lower if your lens allows it. Remember, the lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture.

4. Control the Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the amount of time that your lens is open and absorbing light. You'll need to adjust this setting based on the brightness and movement of the lights. If the colors of the aurora are bright and fast-moving, 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.

5. White Balance Adjustment

While photographing the Northern Lights, it's crucial to manually set your white balance. A good starting point is to set your white balance around 3500 Kelvin, which is when the Northern Lights show a more natural color. For faster editing, aim for color consistency in your Aurora photography. This is crucial for Northern Lights panoramas and saves time in post-processing.

6. Focus Properly

Focusing can be tricky at night. One trick is to zoom in on a star or the moon, set your focus, and then zoom out. This ensures that your camera is focused at infinity, which is ideal for capturing the vast night sky. If your camera has a manual focus option, use it and set your focus to infinity.

Remember, these settings are just a starting point. The Northern Lights can vary greatly in brightness and speed, so you'll need to adjust your settings as needed throughout the night. Don't be afraid to experiment and make adjustments until you get the perfect shot!

Tip 8: Edit Your Photos

solheimasandur plane wreck aurora borealis in iceland

Plane Wreck on The Beach

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 Northern Lights photography will enhance the lines of the Aurora. They will look more defined and less fluid.

Tip 9: Pack the Right Gear

packing camera bag with gear

Packing a Bag With A Gear

Weather conditions in and around the Arctic can be harsh and unpredictable, especially in winter. Whether you're heading out for a regular Northern Lights hunt or planning to capture the spectacle through your lens, it's crucial to pack the right gear. Here's a checklist of essentials to pack:

For All Northern Lights Enthusiasts:

  • Warm Clothing & Base Layer

  • Insulated Winter Boots

  • Warm Socks

  • Gloves and Mittens

  • Hat

  • Hot Drinks and Snacks

Additional Essentials for Northern Lights Photography:

  • Camera and Lenses: Your camera should have manual settings and be capable of long exposures. A wide-angle lens is ideal for capturing the vastness of the night sky.

  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod is essential for keeping your camera stable during long exposures.

  • Extra Batteries: Cold temperatures can drain your camera batteries quickly, so bring extras. Keep them close to your body to keep them warm.

  • Memory Cards: Bring enough memory cards with large storage capacity. You don't want to run out of space in the middle of a shoot.

  • Lens Cleaning Equipment: A lens cleaning kit will help you keep your lens free from dust and moisture.

  • Remote Shutter Release: This allows you to take photos without touching your camera, reducing the risk of camera shaking during long exposures.

  • Headlamp: A headlamp with a red light setting will help you see your camera settings without ruining your night vision.

  • Portable Chair or Mat: Standing for long periods can be tiring. A portable chair or mat can make your night-time Northern Lights photography session more comfortable.

Tip 10: Join a Northern Lights Tour

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

People Standing and 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

Aurora Borealis above the Forest

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 for maximizing 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

Mountain Kirkjufell and Aurora Borealis

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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