Northern Lights Photography: take stunning photos with these tips

Northern Lights Photography tips for Scandinavia

The northern lights. They truly are fascinating and mesmerizing. Natives from all over Scandinavia had their stories on them. While ones believed they were a bad omen others claimed it was the breath of Odin’s soldiers during Ragnarök, the end of the world.

 But today we know, that it all has an answer, that can be proven scientifically. Even though I find those myths and legends about the Northern Lights very interesting. Iff you do have the chance to go far north in Scandinavia you might be able to spot them in the nightly sky.

Now it is time for you to capture your amazing Northern Lights experience in a photograph. But before you head out and shoot you should know some tips to get a great result.

The Northern Lights oval

The Northern Lights oval basically indicates where the Northern Lights can be, at least in theory, be seen. The intensity and existence can not be guaranteed. It really just depends on the sun and the angle of how the solar winds hit our atmostphere. If you would like to dig deeper into that topic, you can do that here: https://bit.ly/2GfMxiD.

Aurora Borealis can be seen in northern countries all over the world. Alaska, Iceland, Norway and Greenland just to name a few. Basically the Northern Lights can be seen the best around the arctic circle. Depending on the conditions it can also be visible in parts of northern Europe and the United States. There have also been sightings of aurora borealis in northern Germany and Denmark. 

Northern Lights in Norway. Captured by Morten Rustad, Norwegian filmmaker and timelapser.

What's the best time to see aurora borealis?

You will have the best Northern Lights experience from November to January, as it is basically dark all day long and the sun will never really rise. Not only does this raise the probability of seeing the Northern Lights, but also of doing Northern Lights photography.

 

But February, March and October may be the best months for families and travelers, as there is a regular day-and-night rhythm. That way you can enjoy all those beautiful sceneries by daytime and relish Scandinavia to the fullest. If you like adventurous trips, I would recommend pretty Iceland in February. 

Be prepared!

Taking photos of the Northern Lights can be quite different from everything else, that you normally do. Not only is it difficult to even be able to see them, as weather conditions and location play a huge role. It is also important that you are well prepared and pay close attention to your camera settings. 

 

Even though the lights themselves look stunning in a photograph, there is much more to pay attention to. City lights, light pollution and clouds. Also cars, that are driving by can be a real problem and destroy your beautiful composition. Weather conditions can be very harsh too. Cold winds, snow and rain. The golden rule for any outdoor photography: wear weather resistant clothing and bring a waterproof bag. You will never know when the weather is about to change. 

 

But don't worry. You are most likely not going on an expedition all the way through Greenland. It's actually quite simple, if you come prepared and know your locations and settings. But you should definitely consider bringing warm outdoor-clothing and a waterproof camerabag. 

Camera on Adventure in Iceland

Some equipment I did use in Iceland: Sony A77II with a Sigma 10-20mm 3.5 EX

Aurora forecast: get a Northern Lights prediction app

 

Aurora is a great app for iOS and Android devices. It will provide you details about the viewing chance and a detailed forecast. Best thing about this app is, that it is free! There’s also a pro-version, which does not include ads. Nice to have, but I found the free version to be very good already, despite the fact, that the pro version does not have any new features. If you want to spend the extra money go for it.

Get some more Information right here.

 

If you want to get a hold oft he forecast and viewing probabilities at your location you should definitely get an app like Aurora. So before you head out and start looking for aurora borealis you should consider downloading an app that offers a forecast for the Northern Lights. This does not only save you a lot of time, but also let’s you see ideal locations for the best viewing experience.

Northern Lights Photography in Iceland

The best Location in Reykjavik: Grótta

 

There are times when you are able to take some northern lights photos right in the middle of the Icelandic capital. I recommend always to look up into the sky when you leave your hotel. You never know what you could be missing out on.

 

Not only tourists, but also most of the Icelanders take a trip to Grótta to spot aurora borealis. Grótta is a small island, approximately a 20 minute bus-ride away from Hlemmur. If you drive by car it is about 10 minutes from downtown Reykjavík.

 

There is also a parking lot right on site, so you don’t have to worry about an enormous hike. Not only is it a great location for taking photos, but it also reveals a stunning view on parts of Reykjavík and an amazing mountain panorama, which is very beautiful by daytime too. Unfortunately I have had cloudy weather, so I was not able to spot the Northern Lights at Grótta.

Grotta Lighthouse in Reykjavik by night

Grótta Lighthouse in Reykjavík on a cloudy night. Normally a great spot for Northern Lights obervation. 

 Aurora borealis in Thingvellir

I was overwhelmed when I first saw those beautiful flickering lights whizzing around in the beautiful icelandic night sky. As I was in Thingvellir I stopped by a small turning area for busses. It is just a 30 minute drive from Reykjavik and it is very easy to access. A great advantage of this spot is that Skálafell and Þórufoss are not that far from here and create a beautiful background for photos.

 

You can easily plan a day trip to Thingvellir and come back to watch the northern lights at this site when the night fades in. If you want to check it out for yourself just copy and paste those coordinates into digital map service of your choice: 64°12'31.2"N 21°26'29.4"W.

 

But you don't have to stick to this exact place. It doesn't really matter where you are in Thingvellir. It is just an amazing place to see the northern lights, especially because the next bigger city is Reykjavik and miles away. You will have only little light pollution, which is a key requirement for taking neat images.

The headlights of the cars, that drive by create an interesting lighting effect on the Ground. 

What equipment do you need for Northern Lights Photography?

You might be wondering what kind of equipment you need to capture the Northern Lights. Basically every camera really does the job here. But there are certain very important things you should definitely pay attention to when doing Northern Lights Photography.

 

 

Choose the right camera

The best camera is the one that you carry with you, right? Well, this actually kind of applies to Northern Lights Photography. The Camera does not have to be the fanciest and most expensive on the market. I have seen people pulling off amazing captures with their smartphones. Yet there are some key-specs you need to look out for. 

 

 

Manual Exposure mode

As a rule of thumb you can keep in mind, that a manual exposure mode is indispensable. Getting to know manual exposure is not that hard and let’s you be more creative in general. 

 

 

Shoot in RAW-Mode

Switch your camera to RAW mode to be able to capture every single detail. This will also allow you even more flexibility in post-production. If you are shooting on a Smartphone make sure to caputre in a DNG Format.

 

Peter McKinnon's video to camera basics.

The amount of megapixels

I recommend using a camera with 12 or more megapixels. This will give you a great combination of a good level of detail and low-light-sensitivity. 24 Megapixels are ideal to do Northern Lights Photography on an APS-C sized Sensor chip. 

 

 

Pick the right sensor size

Your camera sensor should be a M4/3, APS-C sized chip or lager. The advantage of those larger sensors is, that they don't tend to produce a lot of noise in your image, which is really important for this type of photography. A full frame sensor might give you even more flexibility, if you seek for an even wider angle and even less noise. Also bear in mind, that the smaller the sensor, the tighter the perspective with the same lens.

 

 

Choose a lens!

Speaking About lenses. You will definitely need a wide-angle lens for your Northern Lights photography. Keep your focal length around 20-30mm (on a full-frame) to get a great view on the lights and the surroundings.

 

This is especially important when the Northern Lights spread across the sky. With a wide-angle lens you make sure to get it all captured in an awesome photograph. The lens needs to have an iris of 3.5 or faster.

 

 

Get a tripod

When taking photos of aurora borealis you really want to ensure, that your camera has a steady footing. Any tripod does the job. It should be extendable to a height of about 27‘ (70cm). It should also have a 3/4'' mounting option to mount your camera, which is industry standard. Make sure to check the size for your camera before buying a tripod. Nice to have, but not necessary is a quick release plate, which just makes it easier to switch the camera or adjust your setting.

 

If you have forgotten to bring a tripod you can also improvise by putting your camera on the ground and take a photo from there. It won’t be as steady and you will have fewer options on your composition. Smartphones can also easily be attatched to a tripod. All you need is an adapter frame, that holds the phone. It should have a 3/4'' mounting option at the bottom to screw it onto the ballhead.

Northern Lights Photography in Iceland

Practical example: taking northern lights photos with a mirrorless

 

Let's start off with the settings, that I have used to capture those Images. Before doing that, you should have to actually set up the tripod and install the camera on it. The first thing I set was the ISO to the highest option possible. That way I am able to see my composition and pull focus on my subject. 

 

Then I set my shutter speed to 40 seconds, which is actually longer than recommended. Thus that I have used a 10-20mm Sigma lens to capture the photograph and I knew, that the stars' movement would be very little in the final result due to the wide angle. I kept the Iris all the way open at f3.5, which was just fine.

 

So why did I do that in the first place? Well, the longer you expose, the fewer your ISO can be. That way you ensure great details and very little noise, that would have been introduced into the photo with a higher ISO value. Then I actually reset my ISO until the brightness was to my liking. I ended up at ISO 2000.

 

Now I did press the shutter and that's it! See the result above the practical example ;-) 

 

Camera settings

 

Set your ISO right

 

Keep your ISO around 1.600 to 3.200 to make sure good quality and details. But do not set your ISO too high, as your images will have too much noise then, which decreases sharpness, details and color fastness.

 

 

 

Shutter speed

 

Set your shutter speed around 15 – 20 Seconds. Keep in mind, that the wider your lens, the less noticeable the stars‘ movement will be and vice versa. So if you want to do Northern Lights photography with a 50mm lens you should keep the exposure time even shorter to prevent the stars from trailing in your photograph.

 

 

White balance

 

Don’t underestimate the importance of white balance. Before you start shooting you should set it around 4000K. Getting the white balance right in camera saves you time in post production and prevents certain colors from clipping. It also helps to keep the color accuracy.

 

 

Set the iris

 

When doing Northern Lights photography you need to set your iris to 2,8 or higher to get great details throughout the image plane. It’s important to still let in as much light as possible and thus choosing a fast lens.

 

 

 

Conclusion: be creative and tell a story

 

If you are arranging a trip to a northern country, or even the arctic circle, it is important to bring your equipment and plan out your idea.Find the right place and use an app to help you out. Always remember to check the weather and predictions – it will save you a lot of time.


Get to know your camera and play around with it. Set up your tripod, adjust the ISO and your exposure time. Get your settings right and you will see, that photography can be a lot of fun. Especially little adventures like Northern Lights photography have a certain satisfactory to it.

 

Always remember that there are no rules to creativity and crazy "laws" in photography. It is all about being unique and developing an interesting style. Go out, explore and tell your story!

 

 

 

 

 

Please always remember being polite and respect the rules of each country. Do not risk your life, or the ones of other, to take a photo. 

Photographer Scandinavia

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