The night sky is full of wondrous sights: stars and constellations, comets, meteors, and asteroids, and planets and even galaxies. Thanks to the earth’s magnetosphere, we’re also treated to a special astronomical phenomenon on this planet: the aurora. From the northern lights to the southern lights, certain destinations are fortunate to be geographically placed for aurora viewing – and aurora photography. In this post, I’ll share aurora photography tips for how to photograph the aurora.
On my recent trip to Alaska – specifically to see the northern lights in Alaska and try my hand at photographing the aurora –, I spent a few hours with aurora photographer Frank Stegles. Stegles runs the company Aurora Bear in Fairbanks and offers aurora photography tours on his property outside town. Over the course of a warm homemade lunch, Stegles worked through his portfolio with different advice to get shots like his.
In this post, I’ve put together a list of the aurora photography tips that Stegles shared over the course of our chat, as well as others I learned from guides on other aurora photography tours I did. These tips on how to photograph the aurora will help you set your camera, protect your gear, plan your photo session, and stay warm while you photograph the aurora.
This post was originally published in April 2020 and was updated in December 2020 for the winter 2021 aurora season.
The Best Camera for Aurora Photography
You might be wondering if you need a specific camera to photograph the aurora. The good news is that no, you do not need a special camera for aurora photography. The same cameras that are good for astrophotograpy will work well for aurora photography.
Here are the four cameras we recommend in our post about the best astrophotography cameras for any budget:
- Sony A6000 – An entry-level mirrorless camera that’s great for beginners and won’t completely blow your budget.
- Fujifilm X-T20 – The best “cheap” camera for night sky photography without sacrificing image quality.
- Sony A7Riii – If you’re looking for a Sony rig with more “oomph,” the A7Riii is a workhorse that can handle any aurora or astrophotography you want to shoot.
- Canon 5D Mark IV – A great “prosumer” that costs more but comes with every feature you need and lots of flexibility on lenses and photo capability.
You can read more about each of these (with a full review and specs) in our astrophotography camera guide.
Now that you have an idea of which camera you might want or have to shoot the aurora with, here are the other important details for aurora photography.
Camera Settings for Aurora Photography
Because I know that the most-asked question about aurora photography are settings, here’s a quick glance at the best camera settings for aurora photography:
– Aperture: 3.5 or lower – as low as possible
– ISO: 2000-3200
– Shutter Speed: Varies by photo
Read on for a breakdown of each of these.
1. Shoot in Aperture Mode at the Lowest Possible
The first of my aurora camera settings tips is similar to astrophotography: you should aim to shoot your aurora photography in the lowest aperture (F-stop) number possible. This will depend on which lens you’re shooting on; most kit lenses will go into the 3.5-4.5 range, whereas prime or other lenses may go lower (1.8-2.5).
The goal in setting a low aperture is to ensure that your sensor receives as much light as possible and captures the subtle nuances of the aurora in the sky.
2. Find the Right ISO & Stick to It
My next aurora photography settings tip deals with your ISO. Stegles also advises that once you’ve set your aperture, the next setting to find is the ISO for the light and aurora conditions. While the specific numbers/increments on your camera may vary, Stegles says that most aurora photographers shoot in the 2000-3200 range.
I shot almost all of the aurora photos in this post myself, and I was shooting at 2400. I found that when I stepped up to 3200, there was too much noise in my photos.
Once your aperture and ISO are set, you can use your shutter speed to make exposure adjustments.
3. Use Shadows to Judge Exposure
Once you set your aperture and ISO are set and you start shooting, Stegles advises using the shadows in your photos to determine the right shutter speed. As you can see in the photo above, my shadows are very dark and post-production editing couldn’t fix that issue.
In general, you want your shadows to have some definition – you can always turn them back down to darker blacks. It’s better to overexpose your night photos and aurora photography, Stegles advises. You can fix that with edits.
4. Be Creative with the Foreground
Here’s another aurora photography tip that you can also find on our list of astrophotography tips: use the foreground! It might seem tempting to set your camera pointing straight up to get as much of the night sky as possible – but this often makes it hard to understand the context of your photo.
“Be creative with telling stories; use objects in the foreground instead of just the sky,” suggests Stegles. He then showed me several stunning photos with beautiful foregrounds that were almost as interesting to view as the aurora in the background sky.
In the above photo, Carl Johnson from Alaska Photo Treks guided my tour group to an abandoned railway. The bridge offered more structure when composing my shots, even as the aurora was a less defined shape.
Protecting Your Camera & Gear
5. Shoot with a Tripod & Remote
Unsurprisingly, you need a tripod and remote to shoot aurora photography! Shutter speed may not be as long when photographing the aurora compared to star trails or the Milky Way, but it’s still too long to shoot hand-held.
Stegles has a few aurora photography tips here:
- You don’t need a tripod; you can always use the snow if you need an alternative or want a different perspective.
- A remote is necessary, but one with a cord is a better choice so your remote batteries don’t die from the cold (I had this happen!)
- If your remote does die, use a 2-second timer to control your shutter without having to touch the camera body.
6. Bring Extra, Extra Batteries
As already mentioned, bring all the batteries. For your camera, for your remote, for everything!
Unlike normal astrophotography, it’s nearly universal that you’ll be out in the colder part of the year to shoot aurora photography. That makes batteries drain even more quickly so you’ll want to stock up on backups for your backup batteries.
7. Watch for Ice Formation
One issue I had never considered about aurora photography versus other night sky photography is ice formation. As I mentioned, you’ll likely be out in cold, snowy climates when photographing the aurora, so ice is a real concern.
Obviously, ice will form if you have any condensation within your camera system – this includes from your own breath, so be sure to stand back from your camera as your breath condenses in the cold air. Stegles advises keeping a soft cloth on hand to gently remove ice if you see any forming.
8. Leave Gear Out Once It’s Out
Another important way to avoid ice formation is by leaving your camera equipment out in the cold once it’s set up. If you bring your camera body in and out from cold to warm and back, it’s a real risk that condensation will form on your lenses, screens, and even within the camera body on the sensor. I can speak with authority that this happened every single time I brought my camera into the warmth with me.
There are two risks here: ice formation if you take your camera back out and electrical damage from the moisture.
To avoid draining your battery by leaving it out in the cold with the rest of your equipment, Stegles suggests that you simply pop the battery out and take it indoors with you when taking breaks from photographing the aurora.
9. Warm Your Camera Body Up Slowly
When you’re done with your aurora photography session, it’s best to warm your camera up slowly – to avoid the aforementioned condensation build up and possible electrical damage.
Instead, stick your camera into your camera bag while you’re still outside, and bring the bag inside while closed. The cold air within your bag will warm slowly overnight while you catch up on lost sleep, and by the morning your body will be at room temperature and ready to turn on with minimal risk.
Timing Your Aurora Photography Session
10. Stay Up Late
I went on several aurora viewing sessions during my Alaska trip, and every single guide – all photographers themselves – advised that the later you can stay up, the better your chances to see and photograph the aurora.
Stegles says the prime window is 11:30pm to 1:30am; Kory Eberhardt at Aurora Pointe in Fairbanks suggests 12am to 2am. One tour I went on ran until 3am to ensure we had the longest viewing window possible! Of course the aurora can be seen earlier or later depending on the night and solar activity.
11. Rest During the Day
If you’re going to stay up half the night, you need to make that sleep up sometime. There are two main ways to do that: sleep in each morning (think 10am or later!) or take a nap in the late afternoon or after dinner. Having spent four out of five nights in Alaska chasing and photographing the aurora until 2-3am each night, I prefer all of the above!
12. Take Advantage of Hotel Wakeup Calls
Many hotels in aurora destinations offer a great service: wake-up calls when the aurora is visible! Since almost all hotels have a night manager, they will keep an eye on the sky and can notify guests once the lights start to dance.
I’ll admit: I could never take this aurora photography tip myself because once I’m in bed, there’s nothing that will drag me up to put on layers of cold-weather clothing and step out into sub-zero temperatures. I might be persuaded to look out the window, but that’s about it. Hence my staying up until the week hours each night instead of climbing in and out of bed.
Staying Warm While Photographing the Aurora
13. Cover Exposed Skin
This advice isn’t strictly for how to photograph the aurora, but this comes from my own knowledge and experience from years of growing up in Alaska. It obviously varies by destination, but in most cases, viewing the aurora means visiting in the coldest months of the year and staying outside in the coldest hours of the day.
Frostbite is a real concern in some aurora destinations, so be sure to cover exposed skin as much as possible. Hats, hoods, parkas, liner gloves, mittens, wool socks, hand and foot warmers… you’re going to need them all when it’s negative double-digits outside!
14. Stand Away from Your Setup
One great final piece of advice from Stegles involved ensuring your camera setup stays stable even as you dance and stomp to keep your feet and legs warm: stand back from your gear!
Snowy, icy, and/or frozen ground has a different resonance than thawed ground, and stomping feet can cause a lot fo vibration. These movements can really mess up an otherwise great aurora photograph with all the right settings.
15. Book a Tour with a Warm Spot to Wait
Finally, the best way to photograph the aurora is when you have somewhere warm to go and warm up in between frames and photo sessions. On my trip, I went on several tours that offered this:
- Chena Hot Springs, outside Fairbanks, has yurts that guests can stay in while waiting for the aurora. (They were the coldest of any place I toured though!)
- Stegles’ holds his Aurora Bear aurora photography tours on his property, so his home is available for warming up.
- Eberhardt runs Aurora Pointe (pictured above) which was a fabulously comfortable and warm spot, and also has a yurt for guests on his property, Taste of Alaska Lodge.
- Down near Anchorage, Johnson’s Alaska Photo Treks operates out of a sprinter van, which is kept warm and cozy throughout the tour.
Take my advice on this: having a place to warm up is a pretty critical way to keep up your energy and enthusiasm, especially when you’re first starting out learning how to photograph the aurora!
Do you have other questions about these aurora photography tips? Let me know in the comments.
Featured photo courtesy of Carl Johnson/Alaska Photo Treks
Special thanks to Explore Fairbanks, Visit Anchorage, Frank Stegles, Kory Eberhardt, and Carl Johnson for their support and advice which made this post possible.