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How to photograph the Northern Lights

Simple manual to get the best out from your raw files

The Aurora Borealis is the light that most attracts landscape photographers, both for its beauty and because it’s one of the most difficult lights to see and photograph, for most photographers it’s not enough to leave the house and drive a couple of hours by car reaching the darkest area near home but, it shows in the far North, even better inside the Arctic Circle. Not an everyday destination I can say.

I’ll write an article later explaining what the Aurora Borealis is, why it’s created, why we see those colors and when, how and where it’s possible to see it.

This manual is intended as a practical guide on how you can get the best files when you are in front of such a show.

There are various kind of Aurora situations (speaking in terms of exif)

The photographic technique (speaking in exif data) changes according to various aspects, for example the presence of the moon, which can be full, half moon, quarter, waxing or waning changes the light in the scene, both in the sky and in the foreground.

Another factor is the intensity of the Northern Lights and the speed at which it moves, these two factors also affect the light in the scene and greatly influence the shooting exifs.

Unfortunately, I must say that in order to obtain excellent results in photographs at the Aruroa Boreale, the sensor you are using makes the difference. To make you better understand, I take the Milky Way as an example, with an old sensor we can use various techniques to lower the digital noise and to obtain better details, for example take more shots and then merge them by lowering the noise, or use a star tracker (I’ll then write a specific manual also on how to best photograph the Milky Way).

For the magical green light it is not possible because it moves fast, changing its shape both in the sky and in a possible reflection in the foreground.

You will find the greatest difficulty in photographing it when it moves very fast and there is no moon to illuminate the sky and the scene.

Here, an excellent sensor is essential, it really makes the difference in bringing home an excellent result or a completely underexposed photo where you can only see the Aurora and the rest of the scene almost completely dark and with a lot of digital and chromatic noise.

In addition I want to explain, given that over the years many people have asked me and they continue to have this wrong thought, when the Moon is present in the sky, the Northern Lights can be seen very well with the naked eye and can be photographed at best.

The light that the Aurora produces is much more powerful than that of the Milky Way, so it can be seen and photographed perfectly even with a full moon.

I plan and organize Aurora Borealis hunting tours when at least half moon is in the sky, in addition to making it easier for customers to take photos, more beautiful scenes are obtained with the right exposure of all the elements in the photo, from the deep sky to the foreground and the mountains in the background.

Let’s start studying these situations one by one and see what changes on our camera.

Notes

  • It’s difficult to tell you the exact Exif, because they also depend on the light pollution present in that spot and on the color of your landscape. For example, if there is snow you need shorter times to get a correct exposure of the landscape, if, on the other hand, you have black rocks, longer exposure times are required.
  • Another factor that slightly affects your exif data is your camera’s sensor. If you have a backlit full frame sensor, with the same exif, compared to another non-backlit full frame sensor, you will get a more overexposed file. Another difference if you have a Dx sensor, it will pick up less light and with the same exif data, compared to an Fx sensor you will get a more underexposed file.
  • The exif data are not only referred to the sky, but to the whole photo, also considering to obtain a correctly exposed landscape.

1 – Static or very slow Aurora to the north with and without Moon.

Let’s start with the simplest situation.

Usually in this situation we have the Aurora visible towards the north and it has a rainbow shape.
This rainbow is usually stationary or creates slow motion.

Here we have no problems keeping the exposure times short to get the right shape of the Northern Lights, we can easily lengthen the exposure times when enough to illuminate the whole scene, even the landscape.

Moonless

A good average of exif data can be ( with Full frame sensor and considering a spot with normal light pollution, not above a glacier cap and not in front of a city to be clear ):

Exposure time40-60 seconds
ISO3200 / 4000
Aperturef4 (just to have more depth of field)

With the moon (let’s consider a half moon)

Exposure time15-25 seconds
ISO1600 / 2000
Aperturef4 (just to have more depth of field)

2 – Fast Aurora with Moon (let’s consider a half moon)

The presence of the moon in the sky is certainly a great advantage for us, you can take home some beautiful photos without necessarily resorting to special photographic techniques and without having the latest sensor released on the market.

Many times in this situation you need a double exposure to get a correct exposure both on the sky and on the landscape.

Maybe if the landscape is covered in snow and the Moon ( full Moon ) shines brightly, with a single exposure you can bring home the result.

Sky

Exposure time3-6 seconds
ISO5000 / 6400
Aperturef1.8 – f2.8

Landscape

Exposure time15-25 seconds
ISO1600 / 2000
Aperturef4 (just to have more depth of field)

3 – Fast Aurora without Moon

The difficult situation, here the sensor and your technical skills make the difference!

A double exposure is essential to get a beautiful photo.

In this situation, if you have a lake in front of you in the foreground, you really need great photographic skills both in the shooting phase and in the edit phase to get the right reflection that corresponds to the sky. Because having the need for a double exposure with different times between sky and landscape, the reflection will not match.

Sky

Exposure time5-8 seconds
ISO5000 / 6400
Aperturef1.8 – f2.8

Landscape

Exposure time40-60 seconds
(if the spot is very dark: 120-180 or more)
ISO3200 / 4000
Aperturef4 ( just to have more depth of field )

4 – Very fast Aurora without Moon

The most difficult situation!
Certainly a double exposure is needed.

Sky

Exposure time2 seconds
ISO6400 / 8000
Aperturef1.8 – f2.8

Landscape

Exposure time40-60 seconds
(if the spot is very dark: 120-180 or more)
ISO3200 / 4000
Aperturef4 ( just to have more depth of field )

Useful tips

For this kind of photography you need a bright wide angle, for example a 14-24 f2.8, or a 14 f1.8, possibly a full frame camera, a stable carbon tripod and a remote control that allows you to overcome the 30 sec of exposure.

I’ll also publish a specific article about this shortly.

Conclusions

Remember that all these data will blow up at the first Aurora of your life, the emotion will be strong, you will only hear screaming and you will see everything green, you will turn around, running like crazy! 😂

I hope you find this practical manual that talks about Exif useful!
If you have any questions write me and I’ll wait for you all in the Lofoten islands 🐉

Greetings
Giulio

The author
The author

Giulio Cobianchi

“My name is Giulio Cobianchi and I am a landscape and adventure photographer. Born in 1984 in Italy, near the Dolomites, which I consider my cradle photo-picture.”