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How to Photograph the Northern Lights

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights season has now drawn to a close. However, the next couple of seasons could be very special indeed for auroras chasers. Join me as I discuss the beauty of the Northern Lights, some of the science behind them, and how I capture this magical experience.

Back in October last year, I visited Iceland for 10 magical days, travelling around the country in a camper van, chasing the auroras. Out of the 10 days, I saw the auroras seven nights, which for Iceland, is quite special. The weather in Iceland can be pretty unpredictable, but I had amazing fortune on my journey.

What Are the Auroras?

The auroras are caused by collisions of electrically charged particles from the sun with the Earth's atmosphere. Depending on what gasses the particles collide with, this can determine the colors we see in the night sky, such as oxygen causing the green color and nitrogen producing reds and blues. Particles from the sun collide with our planet all the time. However, sometimes, we are hit by massive swathes of particles, usually caused by a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) or solar flares, which are smaller. When we are hit by CMEs or solar flares, it can cause geomagnetic storms, and sometimes, although rare, you can see the auroras from more mid-latitudes if we have a direct hit. Earlier this year, during a large geomagnetic storm, the auroras were seen in countries such as France and Germany, which is rare.

Don't forget to also photograph directly above you.

Be Prepared

When chasing the auroras, the two most important things first and foremost are good weather for clear skies and good space weather. After those two steps, you can begin to look at other conditions, such as the moon phase. Are you away from light pollution? Those two points, however, are not paramount in seeking the auroras. You can still see the auroras in the middle of Reykjavik when they are dancing away, and even with a full moon, you can still have an incredible experience. Some photographers prefer to photograph the auroras or film the auroras during a full moon or earlier phases, as it can really help expose the foreground for a cleaner image.

Many apps that you can download focus on the KP Index, which is a score from 0 to 9, 0 being quiet and 9 being extreme geomagnetic storm. The KP Index, however, is not a reliable method of chasing the auroras, as the data delay is incredibly slow, typically three hours, whereas a storm of activity can take place in minutes. The best data we have for chasing is auroras is from The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite and can be found by searching "Space Weather" on Google. The DSCOVR satellite records valuable information such as solar wind speed, density and other incredible information.

My go-to app is the Glendale app (not available on app stores, but you can find it on Google search). The Glendale app has a wide range of excellent information from the DISCOVR satellite and its data to help you in your hunt, as well as a live check-in system to show where the auroras are being seen by people all over the world.

Solar Maximum

Solar Maximum is when the solar cycle reaches its peak and can cause significantly increased activity, such as flares and eruptions, which for us on Earth, can cause stronger aurora displays and brighter shows at different latitudes. Solar cycles usually last around 11 years, and the last Solar Maximum was around 2013, which takes place during the middle of the cycle. The current cycle we are in now began in 2019, which means we are fast approaching the Solar Maximum, predicted to take place between 2023 and 2026. 

We cannot predict the exact moment of when the Maximum is reached, but what we can see is as we get closer to it, the solar activity continues to grow stronger. We are currently having much stronger aurora displays, so it is now becoming a great time to plan your trips to Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, etc. in the winter over the next few years. For most locations within the Auroral Oval, September to early April is a great time to chase the auroras. Just make sure you wrap up warm!

Aurora Church Iceland


When preparing to photograph the auroras, the gear you choose is very important if you want to get the most out of your images. The basic equipment will be your camera, lens, and tripod, so let's break these items down in more detail.

You can photograph the auroras with almost any camera, and even newer phones are now very capable of getting nice images of the auroras. I currently shoot with a Sony a7 IV, which has great noise performance for a 33-megapixel sensor. Typically, the higher the number of megapixels, the noisier the images at higher ISOs can get. The Sony a7S III is more designed for low-light shooting due to its low megapixel count and sensitivity. The Sony a7S III is absolutely on my wishlist, as it is a low-light beast! 

The lens you choose is very important, and while you are still fine using a kit lens, you will want to let in as much light as possible. On this basis, I would recommend lenses with an f/2.8 aperture or wider. For Sony users, I loved shooting with the 20mm f/1.8 G lens, and on my next trip I plan on using the Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM, which will allow me to capture more of the sky. Other brands will have equivalent lenses available to you.

Lastly, we have a good, sturdy tripod. I have shot auroras ranging from 1 second in shutter speed up to 30 seconds, so a tripod is a very valuable piece of equipment. When visiting countries such as Iceland, it can get very windy, and as you will be there in winter, the sturdier, the better.

Additional items for photographing the auroras that are not strictly necessary are an intervalometer (some cameras have this function built in), lens heater to stop your lens from icing up in very cold temperatures, and gloves for yourself.

Photographing the Auroras

Now that we have the most important gear items out of the way, let's talk camera settings. The auroras, when active and dancing, can move very quickly. This is where you will want to limit your shutter speed to perhaps between 1 and 5 seconds, as anything longer than that could cause the sky to just look like a green blob. The auroras can show beautiful coronas and curtains in movement, so you definitely want you want to go with a faster shutter speed. If the auroras are moving more slowly or are quite static like an arc in the sky, you can opt for longer shutter speeds like 10 seconds and over.

For ISO, this can really depend on your scene, such as if the moon is out and how bright and fast the auroras are moving. For bright and fast auroras, I aim for between ISO 800 and 3,200. For weaker auroras or if you have a lens which is slower than an f/2.8, you may need to go higher than that. 

Aperture will usually be as wide as it can go, such as f/1.4, f/1.8 and so on, though sometimes, it is preferable to stop the aperture down a bit, so if you have an f/1.4 lens, maybe shoot the auroras at f/2.0 instead so you can capture more sharpness in your stars and foreground.

Composition is just as key for an excellent auroras image, plan ahead and look for an interesting foreground subject before you go out chasing. Find a nice waterfall, tree, lighthouse, etc. and use that as your foreground so you can combine a beautiful landscape with a beautiful auroras. I see many images of auroras where the foreground hasn't been considered, so this is what can separate you from the rest. I recommend using tools such as Google Street View or Google Earth to find nice foreground subjects.

Holmsberg Lighthouse near Reykjavík

Have Fun

The last and most important part of auroras photography is to just have fun. The auroras are a majestic and beautiful experience to witness. Whilst capturing them is very special, just being able to leave the camera running and then watch them with your own eyes is something else. Here is a video of auroras footage I captured last year:

Happy hunting!

Greg Sheard's picture

Greg Sheard is a Scottish based photographer, focusing on wildlife, landscape and portrait work. Greg's mission in life is too help those who suffer with mental health issues and be a voice for the millions of people around the world who need that care, attention and awareness.

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