Benfleet Camera Club
Photographing the Northern Lights

If you have never seen the Northern Lights and want to, then this winter (2015-16) might be your best chance for some time.   We are just coming out of a solar maximum, a time when we have the greatest number of sunspots on the sun.   Sun spot cycles run for between 9 to 14 years with an average of about 11 years.   The northern (and southern) lights occur after a solar flare or CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) and these can occur at any time, but tend to be biggest and most frequent at solar maximums.   The biggest events can produce sightings at lower latitudes but these are rare, most events are seen around the arctic circle.

Since the phenomena are faint, darkness is necessary for observation and photography.   This in turn means that observation is best in the north during our winter, and in the south during our summer, their winter.   Cruises are ideal for seeing the Northern Lights as the bridge crew are always on the look out for them and will announce it on the ships tannoy if they are seen, which could be any night whilst in or near the arctic circle.   However a cruise is not the best way to get a decent photo.

Because the auroral display is faint, you need a long exposure (say f/2.8 at 10 to 15 seconds with ISO 400/1600), and for that you need a tripod on land and not a rolling ship.   Usually a cruise ship will have only one overnight stay where timed photography will be possible, and if the display is not good, or it is bad weather that night, you will not get good photographs.   To be sure, you need to be on land somewhere near or inside the arctic circle, for three or four nights with the possibility to go to the locations with the best weather forecast.

Tips for photographing the Northern Lights.

  • Turn off your flash.   The Northern Lights are a long way away and your tiny flash will not light them up.   You will however annoy every one around you and ruin their dark adaption.
  • For the same reason don't go mad with a flashlight.   If you do need supplemental light use a dimmed, red light.   Even with that you need to avoid splashing it about, especially on snow which is very reflective.
  • If your camera display has a dimmer then reduce the intensity.   Remember to set it back or you will curse next time you are in bright sunlight.
  • Use a wide angle lens, prime if possible, on its widest aperture (smaller f-number).   If your lens has a sweet spot, use that aperture instead and compensate with exposure time or ISO setting.
  • Use a long exposure (experiment to see what is best).   Above 20 seconds star trails start to form, though on a wide angle lens they will be hardly noticeable.   If you want star trails to add to the drama then you will need longer exposures and should reduce the ISO to avoid too much noise.   If the long exposure brings up light pollution then you may be able to filter it out in Photoshop if it is mainly from sodium lighting.
  • Use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when starting the exposure.
  • If you have a low noise sensor then you could try higher ISO values.
  • If you have a top range video camera that can do slow frame rates and can handle low light conditions then you might be able to capture a movie.   However if you take 200 individual still frames this will give you 8 seconds of video.   This is the way those impressive shots of the waving curtains are done.
  • If attempting a video by stop motion stills then you may need to use two batteries.   Keep one in an inside pocket to keep it warm and swap them periodically.   Battery performance is temperature dependant.
  • Use "extreme" memory cards that are rated to cope with lower temperatures.
  • Remember to turn off the image stabilisation when using a tripod.
  • Set the lens on manual focus and set for infinity to start with.
  • Take a test shot and check your focus by zooming in on the stars.   Adjust if necessary.   Infinity markings on lenses are not always accurate.
  • You can get aurora forecasts from
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