There are few natural phenomena on this planet as visually exciting as the Northern Lights.
In what is essentially solar flares emitted from the sun interacting with our atmosphere, these bright green (and sometimes purple) lights dance across the night sky above many locations in the upper regions of the Northern Hemisphere in the winter months.
The Northern Lights dance above a church in Vik, Iceland
Places like Iceland, Norway, Canada and Alaska are known as some of the best places to witness the Northern Lights. This is because each of these places are located far enough north that the tilt of the planet during the Winter months gives people a higher chance of seeing Aurora activity.
One of the key things to remember when photographing the Northern Lights is that they can happen spontaneously.
Image of me photographing the Northern Lights w/ an Induro 304L Tripod. Photo by Toby Harriman
You’ll need three essential pieces of gear:
Camera w/ Manual Mode
When it comes to photographing the Northern Lights, you need to have a camera that has a manual mode that allows you to adjust ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture. Sorry folks … a cell phone simply won’t cut it. In addition, it doesn’t hurt to have a camera that has great ISO performance since you will be shooting in the middle of the night. More likely than not, you will need to pump up your ISO while capturing images of the Aurora, which can drastically degrade the quality of your images depending on your cameras sensor.
Regardless if your camera has interchangeable lenses or not, you need to make sure that you have “fast glass.” What I mean by this is that you will want to shoot with an aperture of f/2.8 or lower if possible. The lower the aperture number, the larger the aperture opening is on your lens, allowing more light to reach your cameras sensor.
A Sturdy Tripod
There is no getting around the need to use long exposure photography to capture the Northern Lights. To give you the best chance at capturing a tack sharp image, you will want a sturdy tripod such as the Induro CLT 304L or the GIT304L.
I hope each and every one of you gets a chance to witness [the Northern Lights] at least once in your life.
Northern Lights above the Godafoss waterfall in Northern Iceland
One of the key things to remember when photographing the Northern Lights is that they can happen spontaneously. They won’t always appear over a perfectly angled waterfall or that epic mountain that you have been hoping to photograph them with. At the end of the day, it is the luck of the draw in terms of where they appear … and for how long they last.
Stopped on the side of the road in Iceland to capture this shot with a passing car in the frame
It is also important to note that unless the moon is present, most of your foreground elements might be pitch black. This will cause most of the landscapes around you to be pretty dark, if not pitch black, offering silhouettes against the bright Aurora in the sky.
Sometimes you must work with silhouettes in your images when there is no moon present
But all is not lost! If you happen to bring a high-powered flashlight, you could always experiment with light painting. This is the act of using a flashlight to “paint” in light while you are shooting a long exposure from a tripod. It takes a good amount of practice to get it right – but when you do, the results can speak for themselves!
The Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall painted with a flashlight w/ an Aurora overhead
Icebergs painted with light at the Jokulsarlon Beach in South Iceland
The aurora over the mountains surrounding the town of Reine, Norway in the Lofoten Islands
The Northern Lights over the Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland
Regardless of where you get a chance to see the Northern Lights or how you try to capture them, I hope each and every one of you gets a chance to witness them at least once in your life. The experience itself is euphoric in nature and one that you will remember for a long, long time.