Photographing the Northern Lights

The dark black skies of winter offer the ideal conditions for photographing the northern lights, so here’s a quick and dirty guide on how to capture the aurora borealis.

Although you can photograph the northern lights with any type of camera that allows manual camera settings, it’s best to use a DSLR or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera; these higher-end cameras have larger sensors that deal with noise better than point-and-shoots (noise is that nasty, pixelated look). Some newer point-and-shoots, such as Sony’s RX100, also do well with night, but they’re an exception to the rule. You’ll also need a wide-angle lens, a sturdy tripod and a shutter release cord, which prevents the camera shake that causes blurry photos.

Before you can photograph the northern lights, you’ll need to find a location to shoot them—ideally a dark location away from the city lights. A good indication that you’re far enough away from city is when you can see the Milky Way in the sky. There are exceptions to this; if the northern lights are especially bright (rare around Lake Superior), you might see them from inside city limits.

A rare red northern lights on the Pigeon River appeared directly overhead in October 2011. | BRYAN HANSEL

Once far enough away from the city, look for a location that has an open view to the north. Instead of just looking for a wide opening, find one with interesting trees or hills to include at the bottom of the photo. By including a part of the scenery in your photo, you anchor the northern lights to the earth, and it helps your photo’s viewers appreciate the scale of the event. Even though you’re including the ground, devote the majority of the image to the northern lights. One of my favorite places for shooting the northern lights is where The Grade crosses the Cascade River near Grand Marais; I take my photography workshops to this location when the northern lights are out.

After you find a composition that you like, lock down your tripod and set your aperture as wide as it will go, usually between f/1.4 and f/4. Then set your camera to ISO 800 or 1600 (higher means more noise) and your shutter speed to 30 seconds. Shoot a picture. When finished, look at the image on the LCD screen. If it looks too dark, increase the ISO. If it looks too bright, decrease the shutter speed or set your aperture to a higher number. Remember that in the dark, images on the LCD screen always look brighter than on a home computer. If you know how to use the histogram, check it to see if it’s far enough to the right. I shoot most of my aurora images at ISO 1600 to 3200 (my camera has limited noise), f/2.8 or f/4 for 20 to 30 seconds.

Predicting the Northern Lights

With the right tools, it’s easy to predict the northern lights. The best place to start is at www.spaceweather.com. Once there, scroll down the page while watching the left-hand column.

Posing for a self-portrait under the northern lights on Two Island Lake. | BRYAN HANSEL

First find the Current Auroral Oval. It shows the northern lights over the northern hemisphere. If there’s white over your location, you might see a green glow on the horizon. Once you start seeing yellow or red over your location, it’s time to get outside. The second tool is the Planetary K-index. Click on the “more data” link. In northern Minnesota, a Kp equal to 4 means northern lights and a Kp of 5 means that the aurora will reach as far south as Duluth. At the bottom of the column, predictions of up to 48 hours away are available as a percentage.

If you have a smart phone, try Aurora Buddy for Android. When the northern lights are overhead, it triggers an alarm. On an iPhone, try Auroral Forecast.

Spaceweather.com also offers a subscription phone service for $4.95 a month. When you subscribe, it will call you with aurora predictions.

By Bryan Hansel

Note: this story was originally published in the February-March 2013 issue of Northern Wilds Magazine.