How to Photograph the Northern Lights


On my recent adventure up North to the land of frosty mornings, polar bears and trapper hats, I was fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis – more commonly known as the Northern Lights. Unsurprisingly the Northern Lights in all of their natural beauty have made their way to the top of traveller’s bucket lists, particularly in the age of instagram. One question I have been asked a number of times since my visit revolves around how to photograph the Northern Lights, so if if you’re looking for the answer and photography tips on night photography, you have come to the right place!


First things First: Having the Right Gear

Capturing the Northern Lights is one of those times a camera phone won’t do, nor will failing to plan in advance! Not only will you need to check for clear skies and aurora activity, but you will also need to have the right gear in order to capture the light show.

At the bare minimum you will need a camera with manual mode and a sturdy tripod (though I did manage to take my photos without one – albeit with difficulty!)

Camera – To capture the Northern Lights I used my Olympus OMD EM5 Mark II or my “big camera” as I more commonly refer to it. This body allows me to shoot in manual mode, an essential component when shooting in the night.

Lens – For my photos I used my Olympus M.ZUIKO 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO Lens. Using a wide-angle lens ensure you get plenty of light activity within your frame, however is not essential when photographing the Northern Lights.

Tripod – As mentioned earlier a tripod is an essential item of gear when photographing the Northern Lights, as it will allow you to maintain a stable frame with a long exposure. Unfortunately for me I left my tripod on the floor of my bedroom ready for packing, so I was forced to make do without it on my trip (which in hindsight didn’t turn out so bad!) If you don’t have a tripod with you just prop your camera up on the ground with a rock or stick nearby – just be sure to check it is sturdy and will not move in the wind.

Batteries – Although not required, I would strongly urge you to invest in 2-3 extra batteries for your camera when photographing the Northern Lights. Due to the cold air up North, your batteries will empty much faster than usual and it is always best to have a back up!


Northern Lights Camera Settings

Now that you’ve checked the likelihood of Aurora activity, checked for clear skies and packed all the necessary gear, its time to learn the basics of shooting in manual mode so that your camera settings allow you to capture the lights at their best. Being anything but a pro myself I’ll keep this section pretty simple to allow for simplicity and the “bare basics” approach to shooting at night.

Shooting in Raw – If you are someone who likes to post-edit photos (most people!) then I would highly recommend shooting in raw format. Especially if you are planning to alter the white balance, shooting in raw gives you much more flexibility when editing photographs.

Aperture – For night photography aperture is as simple as selecting f/2.8.

ISO & Exposure Settings – This is the most important aspect of night photography and will largely depend on your surrounds and lighting circumstances. I would recommend an exposure between 5-25 seconds, depending on how quickly or slowly the lights are moving. After a few photos you will soon adjust to the light movements. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little!

For ISO, i would recommend starting out with an ISO of 400-800 to begin with. If you find your photo is too dark, try increasing the ISO to 1200 and check again. This is another area of experimentation so be sure to bring your patience too!

Don’t forget… practice makes perfect! Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Each time you try again, just fail better!


Framing your Photographs


Another consideration for your Northern Lights photos is how to frame them. If you have a friend with you a great way to increase the memory of what you saw is to jump in the photo yourself – you’ll just have to stay incredibly still! Also be sure to consider having items in the foreground of your photos to show size and scope.

Unfortunately for me I was in an area filled with polar bears (though not really unfortunate at all!) This meant that we only had 10 minutes to exit the vehicle and take photos so as to reduce any risk of a bear encounter. Just five minutes after we left a bear was spotted approaching photographers and “chased out of town”… only in the North!


In Conclusion…

Although I only got the chance to photograph the Northern Lights for all of ten minutes on my first night in the true North, I was pretty happy with the outcome of images! If you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights for longer than I did or more than one night, I would highly recommend checking each night as the aurora activity changes a lot, as do the colours of lights!

The most important things to note are to come prepared (with extra batteries) and to adjust your settings until you have just the right balance. Finally, of course, practice makes perfect!


This blog post contains sponsored content and links – all opinions remain my own.

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    Kate - Travel for Difference
    December 27, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    I was in Iceland for 5 nights in September, and was lucky enough to be there during an incredibly active period of Aurora. I saw the beautiful Northern Lights 4 times out of 5 nights, each of which were incredibly breathtaking. I have a very similar post on my blog from a few months ago, so beautiful!

    Justine Cross
    December 21, 2016 at 3:25 am

    Thanks so much for these helpful tips, Brooke! I’m bookmarking these for later as we’re off to Iceland in a few months in search of the perfect Northern Lights spot!

    December 19, 2016 at 4:51 am

    Hi, Thanks for sharing this useful informative article. It’s really helpful and interesting. Keep on sharing for more.

    December 15, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Those photos look amazing! I’ve been meaning to see the Northern Lights for years…do you have any tips on where to stay and when to go?

    Atsuna Matsui
    December 14, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    The northern lights are soo pretty! I have yet to witness myself one day and thank you for sharing with us on tips on how to capture images of it. 🙂 I’ll definitely refer to these tips.


    December 14, 2016 at 6:00 am

    I had to keep a stash of camera batteries in my bra to make sure I had enough juice during the night to photograph them. That ‘vicinity’ of the body seemed to keep them nice and warm!

    December 13, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Great advice! The Northern Lights are definitely on my bucket list.

    December 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    We just went on a Northern Lights trip to Iceland over Thanksgiving. May I add to your article – dress super warm!!! Iceland was beyond freezing. Standing out waiting for the Northern Lights was taxing because of the cold, even all bundled up in down. And second – we didn’t see the Northern Lights! It was overcast/cloudy all 3 nights we were there. Sometimes they cancel the tours. Sometimes it looks clear, and you go out on the tour and….nothing. For hours. Even in different locations. Even when you booked during Northern Lights season. Just an FYI. Was disappointing to say the least. Another disappointment about Iceland. If you want to bathe in the Blue Lagoon – BOOK AHEAD or you are NOT getting in. They only allow so many in each hour. We did not know. Double bummer.

    Nicoli Redmayne
    December 12, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for this tutorial. I’m going to Iceland in April and hoping to see and photograph some Northern Lights. Really appreciate and admire all your work you have put on your website. It shows how passionate you are about photography and that you are living your dream.

    Agness of eTramping
    December 12, 2016 at 12:18 am

    Amazing photos, thank you for your tips. I’m sure to use them when I go to see the Northern lights.

    kelly r
    December 11, 2016 at 5:46 am

    So stunning! The northern lights are on my bucket list as well. Thanks for the tips!

    December 10, 2016 at 10:12 am

    cool photos and great photography tips. Much appreciate it.

    December 10, 2016 at 4:49 am

    Thanks for great tips! Can’t wait to capture the Northern lights!

    December 10, 2016 at 2:04 am

    This is so gorgeous, its on my bucket list. I’ve always been in awe with the northern lights.


    Gunel @Blixmagazine
    December 10, 2016 at 12:27 am

    Thanks for tips. I’m going to try these on my next trip to Iceland! 🙂

    December 9, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    These are beautiful! For only having about five minutes you did an awesome job!! Every evening I check the aurora report hoping that it will come south to North Dakota on a cloudless night. I might just have to make the trip into Manitoba to see them this spring.

    Charmaine Ng
    December 9, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you for your tips, Brooke! Your photos are beautiful as always. I’m basically a noob when it comes to photography even though I took a course in university – although it was a short one, in my defence!

    – Charmaine

    December 9, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Even without your tripod, you managed to take incredible photos! What an experience, and especially with the polar bears. Yikes!

    nat //

    December 9, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Perfect! I was looking for northern light photography tips! Love ya

    December 9, 2016 at 8:42 am

    I’m going to try this, thank you!

    December 9, 2016 at 8:41 am

    These photos are gorgeous! I’ve always wanted to visit the Northern Lights so these tips are super helpful!

    Tatyana Ray
    December 9, 2016 at 7:43 am

    Wow these are beautiful Brooke! Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska, Sweden or maybe Norway is on the top of my list! Lovely images, glad you had this experience.

    Pier Nirandara
    December 9, 2016 at 7:08 am

    Love your posts as always, Brooke! And so incredible about the polar bears. If you get the chance to shoot the aurora again, an aperture of 2.8 or even wider (f1.4) is great to allow lots of light to come through, and wide angle lenses are actually recommended to stop stars from trailing (unless that’s what is desired) during long exposures! This way, you can reduce ISO to reduce grain, and keep shutter speed shorter <3