Northern lights photography

Photographing northern lights, or the polar light, is rewarding. What with the naked eye is a faint white cloud or ark in the sky, is already beautiful green in the picture. The sensors of modern cameras catch more light and colours in the dark then our eyes. And fortunately, photographing northern lights is not difficult at all. Every amateur who prepares a bit will make beautiful northern lights photos and that does not necessarily require any huge investments. The following information is intended for this target group. The ones with more experience already know what to do.

Pictures of northern lights

The first time I photographed aurora borealis, I had no idea how to do it. I had a Canon 40D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L lens and a tripod. You will not succeed without a tripod, so it is essential to bring one. The northern lights were pretty strong and I just turned the button to the 'Landscape' mode, in which the camera determines itself iso, aperture and shutter speed and the flash doesn't pop out. I used the auto-focus (AF) on the lights in our house and pressed the button. The camera chose iso 800, an aperture of f/5.6 and a shutter speed of 10 seconds. The picture was not bad at all, see here next to. It can be that easy!

For more control it is of course better to use the camera in the M-mode and determine shutter speed, aperture and iso yourself. These three values influence each other. With a higher iso-value you can use a faster shutter speed. You can generally use the largest aperture, so the smallest number, in order to maximise the capture of light. Fixed values cannot be given because light conditions vary. A full moon on snow already provides a lot of light. There are weak and strong northern lights. Sometimes aurora borealis starts so early that the sky is still relatively light and even low iso-values and relatively fast shutter-times can do the job. On site you must make choices.

But you have to start somewhere. During a normal dark night, with a half moon on the snow and moderate northern lights, I often start with iso 1000, aperture f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 10 seconds. Look on the screen of the camera if the picture looks a good. Go to iso 1600 or 20 seconds if the image is too dark, or shorter if the photo is too bright. A photo is better a little too light than too dark. If you want to reduce the exposure on the computer afterwards, you get less noise in the photo than when you have to make the picture lighter. But beware also that you don’t overexpose, because overexposed northern lights are not nice and can’t be repaired properly.

If the northern lights become very bright, action must be taken quickly. Bring shutter speeds or iso down to prevent overexposure. Or, if you want to freeze the movement of the northern lights, iso up and shutter speed down considerably. The latter is certainly recommended, because otherwise you will have a kind of green soup in each picture. It is nice to capture the 'rays', more details, in the northern lights. That's why I sometimes go to iso 3200 or 6400, sometimes even iso 12800 (see also 'Which camera') and way down with shutter speeds.

Focusing can be difficult. Focusing on some vague patches of northern light does not work. Use the autofocus (AF) on a far away artificial light, a house or lamppost, that works fine. As soon as such an object is in focus, switch directly to manual focus (MF) and don’t touch the focus ring anymore. Then make a new composition again. Using live view manual focusing on stars or the moon is another option.

Often a northern light picture becomes more fun if you are looking for something in the foreground. That can be anything, but it is so important that it becomes sharp. I usually manage to save myself by shining a flashlight on the object. The autofocus then focuses on the light spot and I quickly switch the button to MF and make a new composition.

Remove any filter from the lens. Especially when there is artificial light in the distance or the moon is coming into view, a filter gives ugly light spots on the photo. Also turn off the image stabiliser. It will stabilise things where it is not necessary, sometimes with annoying effects.

It is best not to touch your camera on the tripod when you take a picture, because you will soon get a vibration or movement that causes blur. You can use a cable release, but much easier is the timer (which takes a picture after 2 or 9 seconds). Some photographers even photograph with the mirror up in an extreme attempt to prevent any vibration.

This all reads as a lot of hassle, but it isn’t in practice. First explore your camera at home. You can even set the camera before you go out. Put it on 'landscape' or, if you want to get more out of it, on the M-position, a high iso, your biggest aperture (smallest number) and 10, 15 or 20 seconds. But especially look at home very well where you find all the settings and buttons, because if you are looking for them outdoors in the dark and the cold for the first time, you will certainly experience less fun at the northern lights than you would like.

Nowadays, almost any camera is useable for northern lights pictures. I have seen nice pictures with 'simple' compact cameras, yes even taken with mobile phones. But often you have to dive deeper into the menu with those compact cameras, which is very annoying in the dark. With most interchangeable-lens cameras, with or without mirror, the most important settings are usually literally within reach and can be easily adjusted in total darkness without any fuss with headlights, if you are familiar with your camera.

I myself have ever landed at Canon, but every brand currently makes at least equivalent cameras. The Canon 40D from 2007 was my first digital DSLR with a crop factor of 1.6x. The pictures of northern lights with that camera were so good that I sold several to printed media. My, later, 1D Mark IV, with a crop of 1.3x, gave even better images at about 1600.

Out of curiosity for the X-trans sensor I bought the very compact Fuji X-M1 with a Fujinon XF 27mm f/2.8 lens. That is also a crop camera (1.5x) that can give amazing results, although I prefer the colours from the Canon, northern lights look much more realistic. In short, with crop cameras you can take great northern light photos.

Nevertheless, I have been working with full-frame cameras for years now. They have larger sensors and are therefore even better able to work in the dark and with high iso values. Iso 1600 is no problem, iso 3200 and 6400 are often good. But if it is not really necessary, even with a full frame I do not like to go over the iso 1600.

After the Canon 5D MKII (a lot better than the 40D on high iso) the Canon 6D (N) and Canon 5D MK IV followed. The 6D is better in the dark than the 5D MKII, with much less colour noise at iso 1600 and higher. At high iso the difference between the 6D and the 5D MK IV is almost negligible in my opinion.

As stated earlier, you really do not need the most expensive camera for nice northern light photos. With a ‘amateur camera’ you can already get on well today. If you want more quality and print bigger, you do not need the newest and most expensive full frame either. In fact, a second-hand older model for a reasonable price will make you happy already. The biggest difference with the newest cameras is often mostly the price, certainly not always image quality.

Take a look at the photos on this page and read which lenses, cameras and settings have been used. That gives an impression.

A bright wide-angle lens is preferred. But here too, you can make fine photos of northern lights without having to buy the most expensive of the most expensive. For a long time my Canon EF-S 10-22 mm F / 3.5-4.5 USM was my fastest lens with the largest aperture at f/3.5. And that lens does an excellent job. I took more photos with my Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4 L with the largest aperture at f/4 and that lens does not disappoint at all.

I have no experience with the cheap standard lenses that come with a camera. But I am convinced that they are perfectly capable of capturing northern lights with them. If you expose and focus well, I’m convinced that with a Canon 1200D and a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, or comparable camera’s and lenses from other companies, very acceptable images are possible.

I exchanged my Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4 L for a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS that is just a bit sharper at the edges. That lens gives nice results as well with northern lights. Even on a 1.3 crop camera like the Canon 1D4 this is still a fairly serious wide angle, with about a 22 mm equivelent.

But of course it can always be better. The expensive and bright, f/2.8, zoom lenses from Canon generally did not have a good reputation as northern lights lenses, because of what is called comatic aberration. Then stars, which are supposed to be white dots, appear as stripes, a coma or even flying seagulls at the edges of the image. With the arrival of the Canon EF 16-35 mm f/2.8 L III, that problem would be over. But that lens suffers a lot from vignetting in the corners.

I myself do not use Canon lenses for northern lights. My first 'real' northern light lens was a secondhand Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T * ZE. Wide open, at f / 2.8, very sharp and he often shows surprisingly much details in the dark landscape. This lens can only be focussed by hand, AF is not there, but on the 'infinity' position it also really focuses on infinity, which is not the case with all lenses. Nice colours and a quit good coma performance. A beautiful lens, which I actually should use more then I do.

But when the northern lights are high in the sky, 21mm sometimes falls short. So there came a used, and cheap, Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC. For a long time this lens was seen by many as the best 'astro-lens'. Focusing on infinity can be tricky, because the lens goes beyond that point, but if you have discovered what position you should put the focusring on, the image is sharp, even at f/2.8 and coma performance is even better then the Zeiss. Fine lens, but also suffers from vignetting.

The reviews of the Tamron SP 15-30 mm f/2.8 Di VC USD were so good that I finally bought one, again second hand. This is a very fine lens for northern lights. Relatively little vignetting, good coma performance and good sharpness wide open. Since this purchase the Zeiss and the Samyang have practically no longer been used, because even with northern lights a zoom is sometimes preferable (this is the lens I use when I’m guiding northern light trips and take pictures from people under the aurora). Of all the lenses mentioned here, the Tamron probably gives the most value for money.

And so came the Sigma 14 mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art. It is unbelievable to experience how much more light a f/1.8 lens catches compared to an f/2.8 lens. I have, with a very high iso, taken pictures from northern lights without tripod. That is possible nowadays! The Sigma is not that good with the coma effect, birds fly in the corners. But the lens is really sharp already at f/1.8 and the enormous amount of light coming in is so nice that the negatives are quickly forgiven. This lens on a Canon 5D MK IV even gives good results with video from northern lights.

And further ...

Anyone who edits their photos on a computer or wants to do that in the future, should shoot best in RAW, together with JPG if wanted.  

The advantage of a RAW file is that you can adjust photos much better if needed than a JPG file. With a program like Lightroom or Photoshop (or cheaper alternatives) you can easily adjust the exposure. If the photo has a lot of noise, then that can also be removed. Due to the high iso mode and slow shutter speeds, noise, ugly 'digital dust', can easily arise in the photo.

Even if you do not edit photos yet, shoot in RAW (with many cameras you can choose RAW + JPG). Not everyone lives under the northern lights or has money to later make a trip again to shoot in RAW after all.

The fact that you have to dress very warm when you are going to shoot northern lights is an open door. You stand still for a long time and often in a place above the Arctic Circle. Also ensure fully charged batteries because if it is cold, they are also empty faster. Make sure you have light with you, but be careful not to blind yourself or others around you. Use it as less as possible

Various dark and blurry pictures that can be found on the internet prove that even the most expensive lenses and cameras do not guarantee good photos. Preparing well and working well is the most important thing.

And if it does not work with the photos, just stop and enjoy the spectacle.

Photographing northern lights

Canon 40D, iso 800, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L, 17mm, f/5.6, 10 sec.

Canon 40D, iso 640, Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5, 10mm, f/3.5, 10 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 6400, Canon EF 16-35mm F/4 L IS, 16mm, f/4, 1 sec.

Which lenses for northern lights?

Which camera for northern lights

Canon 5D MKII, iso 1250, Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE, at f/2.8, 5 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1600, Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, op 15mm en f/2.8, 2,5 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1600, Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC,  f/2.8, 6 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1600, Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art, f/1,8, 2,5 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1250, Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC,  f/2.8, 8 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1250, Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art, f/1,8, 4 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 3200, Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, op 15mm en f/2.8, 5 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1600, Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, op 15mm en f/2.8, 13 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1000, Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE, f/2.8, 10 sec.

Canon 6D, iso 1600, Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, 15mm, f/2.8, 3 sec.

Fujifilm X-M1, iso 1000, Fujinon XF 27mm f/2.8, f/2.8, 2 sec.

Canon 5D MKII, iso 3200, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L, 17mm, f/4.0, 10 sec.