Photography - Knowledge

Northern Lights Photography - A Quick Guide to Learn The Basics

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Northern lights photography is every photographer's dream. It’s the best part of winters when the sky is lit up incredibly. You must have either witnessed or heard stories about these dancing lights in the north end of our planet. The aurora that emits is perceived as static streaks of light, however, in reality, the lights dance and move throughout the sky much like the ocean waves. It is indeed a breath-taking moment when you are watching this spectacle for the first time. But, if you are a photographer who wants to capture this beautiful process, you need to know the best way to capture the northern lights. However, before we get into that you must know what exactly are northern lights and where do they originate from. Let’s answer that first.

What are Northern Lights

Northern lights are also known as Aurora Borealis which is actually solar wind (array of discharged particles) originating from the sun. The sun is the main reason behind these beautiful light shows. The sun releases charged solar particles into the space that infiltrate through the Earth’s magnetic cover and converts into light when mixed with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen while getting into our atmosphere. This leads to small explosions of lights that are known as photons. This also helps us realize when a solar storm may occur on the Earth. 

Northern Lights Photography
Dance of Nature- The Northern Lights

Do you want to know how far do these discharged particles travel?

Before colliding with the earth, the released particles travel about 90 million miles over the space and towards the Earth. The discharged light particles are attracted by Earth’s magnetic force towards the Polar Regions. 

The best about these charged particles is that these do not come in contact with human as the collision with the planet’s magnetic field occurs in the upper part of the atmosphere. 

What is the Best Time to View the Northern Lights

Winter months are considered to be the best time of the year when you can travel to watch the spectacle of the lights. This is due to the fact that winters usually have low light pollution and clear weather. For better chances to view the solar wind you must travel towards far north of the Arctic Circle during autumn and winter months.

During the time of high pressure, the view is even better. You can also have improved chances of viewing if you avoid the urban locations or during the new moon cycles. As a photographer, you should know about the golden hour to click the Northern lights.

Livingit Tip
For best clicks visit the Northen lights region between 10 pm to 3 am

What are the Best Locations to See the Northern Lights

If you want to get the best view of the northern lights, then you must go from 68 degrees to 74 degrees of the latitude in Arctic Circle.

Russia, Finland, Canada, Iceland, Sweden Greenland, and Norway are some of the countries that are known to offer some of the best chances of viewing this amazing nature’s activities. What’s important to know that you can view the aurora towards further South if the solar storm is considerably larger. 

What is the KP Rating System

KP index or the planetary K-index was established to gauge the strength of the geomagnetic storms generating from the sun moving towards the earth. The size of the storms is measured by this system after which a KP rating is applied to it which starts from no activity to the insanity that is, from 0 to 9. Therefore, the greater the KP value or the storm the more the Northern lights are visible towards the further south. 

Northern Lights Photography – Planning

You must have a proper planning before you are out to shoot the northern lights. This will help avoid wastage of time. 

Northern Lights Photography
Planning for Northern Lights Photography(Source)

1. Look for Dark Skies

Check the blue marble light pollution map (a Google & Nasa association) to find a zone with dark skies. These dark areas are minus the light pollution, while the areas with white and grey are full of light pollution. So, if you want best results with more colours and details, shoot in the dark areas. 

2. Look for Clear Skies

While you can shoot the aurora on nights with partial clouds, shooting in clear skies gives you perfect results. Find information on the local weather and shoot on a night that has cloud cover between the range of 0 to 20%. 

Use IR satellite via MeteoStar Weather Satellite Imagery Maps of the Northern Hemisphere that helps identify the exact cloud cover on a macro level. While the VIS satellite images can help you view cloud cover during the daylight, IR satellite helps you view the cloud cover and movement using the cloud temperature readings 

3. Look for Aurora Activity

Checking for the aurora activity is the next most important step for a perfect night shoot. There are many ways using which you can check the activity and that’s all based on your location. The aurora activity index or the KP-index ranges between 0 and 9 with 9 being the highest. While for a perfect night shot KP-index 2 or more is preferable, KP-index 5 or more calls for a storm. 

Northern Lights Camera Equipment

The minimum equipment required to shoot the northern lights are the best tripods, northern light cameras, and lenses. 

1. Tripod

A tripod is a must to hold your camera right in the position. Make sure that you get a strong one that’s not shaky or does not slip when capturing a 10 to 20-second exposure. 

2. Quality Camera

Make sure that you invest in a quality camera and that has a manual mode option that offers settings for shutter speed, ISO, and F-stop making it ideal to shoot in low lights. 

3. Wide Angle Lens

If you are looking to capture a wider area or landscapes below the northern lights then using wide angle lens is your best bet. Make sure that the minimum f-stop value is between f-2.8 and f/4 while selecting a wide-angle lens. This helps in creating a wide opening at the aperture that allows added light to reach the camera sensor. 

4. Full Frame Camera

Invest in a full frame camera to ensure better quality images and noise reduction. 

5. Batteries and memory Card

To be on safer side get extra batteries memory cards

6. Remote Sensor

This is a must have for the perfect photos! A remote sensor will prevent any camera shake alas capturing a flawless Northen Lights photos!

Northern Lights Photography
Camera Equipment(Source)

How to Focus Your Lens at Night

We answer the biggest query of every photographer!

It’s extremely important to learn the skills of how to focus your lens during nights and capture the best northern lights shot effectively. 

Given that the Northern Lights are quite far off relative to the place where we stand on Earth, it’s easier for us to focus on infinity or something close to it. 

This will help capture excellent photos of the northern lights. Look for the “∞” sign on your camera using which you can indicate the rough estimate of the infinity point. However, you need to adjust the lenses a bit more to get a perfect sharp click. 

Which lens could be taken to shoot Northern lights? 

You need a lens that’s fast and offers wide angle, for instance, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S ED or something in the similar lines for Canon. With the help of this lens, you can capture enough night sky with proper scale and contrast. 

Camera Settings for Northern Lights 

Now that you have met the basic requirements, it’s time to learn how to capture the aurora using a mirrorless camera or a DSLR.

Your camera settings that include the ISO and the Exposure Time Only needs to be dynamic and change with time, considering that the aurora is also dynamic and keeps moving across the sky. But, before even you modify the shutter speed, ISO, and the aperture, you must setup your camera with these basic settings for Northern Lights Photography.

For ultimate control and margin, you use RAW image format for all your captures. 

If your camera has the metering mode, make use of it for northern lights photography and see the difference. 

If shooting in RAW image format, it’s always easier to change the white balance settings while you are editing your shots. Shooting in Kelvin mode (K) between the value range 2800 and 4000 for northern lights will offer some great results.

Northern Lights Photography
Camera Settings(Source)

What Settings are Required for Aurora Borealis Photography

This is it!

Although there is no perfect way to capture the aurora because all it matters is the exposure that depends on the light, there are a few aurora borealis camera settings that you can do to make sure that you capture the best shot. 

Full Manual Mode

While shooting, it will be pretty dark around as the bright northern lights start appearing in the sky. Considering this situation, you must use a camera with a manual mode that lets you select the aperture, shutter speed, and the ISO of the photos, manually. 

Check this-

Make use of the Live View setting of the camera screen to make sure that you get a sharp focus to infinity or a bit lower depending on the camera lens. 

Wide Angle Lens

Capturing the northern lights with wide angle lens will ensure that you get large sections of the surrounding into your clicks. This will help display both the aspects that are, the sense of location and scale. 

No doubt about this!

If you are using a wide angle fast lens like f/2.8, you will allow more light to approach the camera’s sensor thereby, brightening up a darkened surrounding. 

ISO sensitivity

You definitely know this-

Proper ISO setting is extremely crucial at this point, as we usually tend to change the ISO settings to get enough light the camera’s sensor to capture images in the dark environment. 

Shutterbugs check this:

Remember, that setting the ISO too high can result in losing the colour quality and the details of your images. 

How to Photograph the Northern Lights with a Point and Shoot Camera

So what should the ISO range be?

Your ISO should be set anywhere between 800 and 3200, shutter speed between 15 and 30 seconds, and the aperture should be between the range of f/2.8 and f/5.6. 

Livingit Tip
The camera sensor should receive maxium light in the shortest time frame! This will help noise reduction and lower ISO range!

What about the shutter speed?

Shutter speed above 15 seconds will lead to minor star movement and there you go! Check the cheat sheet that will help you work well with shutter speed!

This is a creative way to control the amount of light that you want to capture ensuring that the foreground is not too dark and the aurora borealis is captured with all the colours and the details. 

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Now that you are clear about your camera settings and lens focus details. Let's find out how to capture the iconic northern lights!

To start with: 

You need a tripod along with a cable release that will help you click photos of the northern lights in a proper manner. Having a proper gear for this kind of photography is extremely important and so, you must get a reasonably simple gear like the DSLR or the mirrorless camera. 

For dedicated Nikon fans, a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S ED or something in the similar lines does the job. While you can use a camera with a fixed focal lens, you can also use Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II with longer lenses for compact formations. 

Livingit Tip:
If you do not want to end up with unwanted deformities in all your images, make sure that you remove all the filters along with the UV filter, before shooting.

In fact, there are a few things you must look at when choosing the right camera or the accessories for this type of shot. 

After you have captured the best shots of the northern lights you should edit them in Photoshop and Lightroom/Adobe camera RAW. If you love nature photography then you would love to shoot star trails!

Facts about Northern Lights 

Let's dive into some facts about Northen Lights that will help you click the best photo!

What Colours are Found as Part of the Northern Lights?

Did you know it's due to oxygen the northern lights appear green! When the discharged particles collide with oxygen it reflects green light with a dash of yellow streaks! 

If you notice red blue or violet streaks then it's due to nitrogen gas in the atmosphere.

Northern Lights Photography
Hues of Northen Lights(Source)

What Kinds of Shapes can the Northern Lights Take On? 

The shape of the lights can be both static and dynamic in the sky during the nights. Shapes are not much prominent during the minimal solar flares and do not differ in color or definition.

The ultimate treat to your eyes-

During the strong solar flares, you will see the aurora dancing, swirling, and even racing in columns across the night sky. It’s magical and definitely worth clicking.

Problems while Shooting and How to Overcome Them

Sad news- While a cloudy sky is a definite hindrance for northern lights photographers, unnecessary random atmospheric lights can also affect the quality of your images. 

What can you do about this!

Make sure that there are no man-made lights around and you the location should be dark with a cordial foreground. 

Livingit Tip-
You can also try adding some light painting to enhance the image quality. 

Northern Lights Photography
Northern Lights on a Cloudy Day(Source)

Care for Your Gear

Time for some gear guide care tips:

It’s imperative to keep your camera gear protected to keep its elements safe and while you are travelling. 

However, an extremely cold climate is a major concern when it’s about maintaining the camera gear in functional condition. 

You need to expose your camera to the extreme weather conditions slowly and gradually to get it acclimatized with the climate. It should be at the same temperature while you are taking the shots. 

During a cold shooting session, make sure that you do not take your camera in and out from your warm bag frequently. This helps avoid the formation of condensation inside the camera lens and can result in blurry images. If you find condensation in your lens place the camera near a heated equipment that will work as a defroster and will fix the issue in minutes. 

Which to Choose - Going Solo vs a Tour/Workshop

Confused about going solo or in a group? 

Now that you are all prepared with the right gear, perfects settings and how to go about it, it’s time you take a call whether you want to go solo or with a tour/workshop. 

If you are comfortable alone, you can simply book the flights any of the countries where the northern lights appear and get all lodging and transportation sorted.

How easy is that? 

If you love socializing and are interested in learning more then go join a group! You can accompany a group on tour, or with a workshop where you can get to know more on how to shoot the aurora borealis. 

Whether you go solo or in a group, having the basic idea on the camera settings, the type of gear, and how to photograph the dancing lights is extremely important before you capture the beautiful northern lights. So, follow the guide above, and make a mark in photography with these tips. 

If you have clicked Northern lights then do share your views tips and tricks below!

Loved reading about northern light? Then also check how to photography Lightning!

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