Capturing the northern lights

No pencil can draw it, no colors can paint it and no words can describe the magnificence when it fills the sky with dancing colors. The aurora borealis, or northern lights, electrify the sky, creating a dazzling spectacle to witness, but a challenging phenomenon to duly capture in photographs.
The first step is to find a good location to watch the light come alive in the sky. You can find tips in books and online. I recommend the website for the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks ( It provides upcoming forecasts as well as maps to where and when the aurora will be visible. Some of the best places are Fairbanks, Alaska, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories or Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in Canada, or most places in Iceland.
Wherever you go, plan on standing in sub-zero temperatures for most of the night and pack accordingly. Boots with thick soles, wool or insulated ski pants, heavy jackets, cap and gloves are necessary.
You’ll need a digital single-lens reflex camera that allows for a high ISO and a fast wide-angle lens. I use a 16-35 mm f/2.8 for shooting the aurora and have found this to be a very versatile lens.
Depending on the temperature, using a cable release keeps the camera still while pressing the shutter button. But if it’s really cold, the delicate wires in a release can freeze and short. More reliable options are two-second timers, or a wireless remote.
An ISO of 2400 or 3200 works with new cameras, while those with older camera bodies should stick to 1200 or 1600. If you are working with a very old camera, you’ll need to stick to 800 ISO to avoid too much noise in the image.
Depending on the ISO used and the brightness of the aurora, I usually start test shots between five and 15 seconds to see what shutter speed can best capture the colors, detail and movement of the lights. During very strong displays I have been able to shoot at around two seconds, which brings out some incredible details in the bands.
The unfortunate thing about photographing the northern lights is you can’t capture the full movement as it is happening before your eyes. You’ll need to remember that what your eye sees is not exactly what the resulting image will show. Some colors will be different and the shapes will not be exactly the same, as the lights can significantly move and dance in even the few seconds your shutter on your camera is open capturing the display.
Don’t forget to sit back and simply enjoy the spectacle. There is nothing like seeing the sky start dancing with shades of green, blue, purple and red. Let it mesmerize you. Set aside your camera — at least for moment. ♦
— Andy Long is the author of “Photographing the Aurora Borealis,” available on Amazon. For e-book versions and information on northern light photography workshops in Alaska and Iceland, visit

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