Photographing the Aurora Borealis (Shutterstock)

Photography tips: snapping the Northern Lights

Turn photons into pixels with William Gray’s enlightening guide to snapping the aurora borealis

William Gray

1. Savour a few memories

Don’t become so obsessed with trying to capture an image of the Northern Lights that you spend so long wrestling with your tripod, fiddling with camera controls and staring at LCDs that you forget to just stop and stare and wonder. Filling the memory card in your head is just as important as filling the one in your camera!

2. Wrap up warm

Wear lots of layers. If anything, overdress. You can always shed layers in the heat of the moment when the aurora is blazing above you. For photographers, warming up numb fingers takes time and could cost you that perfect photo. Big, thick gloves or arctic-grade mitts don’t go well with small camera buttons and dials.

Think about wearing some silk liner gloves inside your mitts – that way you can slip the mitts off and still keep your hands warm while adjusting camera controls, but have the outer mitts to hand for the periods when you’re waiting for the aurora to show.

Northern Lights (Shutterstock)
Northern Lights (Shutterstock)

3. Don’t get hung up over your camera body

The lens is far more important than the camera body – especially when it comes to photographing the lights. Yes, digital cameras are very light sensitive, but you still need to be able to channel the elusive, subtle light of the aurora through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor. And to help it do that you ideally need a lens with a fast maximum aperture, ideally of around f1.4 or f2.8.

Why does this matter? Well, the longer your camera spends taking a picture – the longer the exposure – the more prone it is to movement. Even the slightest tremor from someone scrunching past in the snow nearby can cause camera shake and ruin your photo.

4. You’ll need a tripod

A sturdy tripod. Don’t skimp on this or think you can leave it at home because it’s too heavy to carry and that you’ll be able to wedge your camera in a tree or rest it on a snowman’s head. You will need a tripod to keep your camera as still as possible when photographing the Northern Lights.

A cable release is also important. It attaches to the side of your camera and allows you to take a picture without having to press the shutter button on the top of the camera – because even that can cause camera shake with the kind of long exposures you’ll be dealing with.

Shooting the Northern Lights (Shutterstock)
Shooting the Northern Lights (Shutterstock)

5. The bigger picture

At the end of the day – or night in this case – a large part of the success of a Northern Lights photo is down to composition and some good old-fashioned rules of photography.

A shot of the sky full of pretty green lights is fine. But show it in context to where you’re standing and you suddenly add a whole new dimension. Tilt your camera down slightly to include a forest, a mountain range, a lake, a log cabin, an Icehotel and you’ll immediately give scale and depth to the image.

Suddenly, the full magnitude of the aurora will be apparent as it towers over the little slither of landscape you’ve included at the bottom of the frame. In daytime photography, you would probably apply the rule of thirds, positioning your horizon about a third of the way up the frame, but when it comes to shooting the Northern Lights I think that’s often too generous. Keep the sky big; the land beneath almost cowering under this stupendous light display.

Shooting the aurora: a checklist

1. Ensure your camera is screwed firmly to a tripod, a cable attached

2. Set the ISO (the measure of how responsive your camera’s sensor is to light) to between ISO 400 and ISO 1000

3. Adjust the aperture to as wide as your lens allows: you want the smallest number, ideally f2.8 or f1.4

4. Check that autofocus is switched to manual so that your lens doesn’t ‘hunt’ back and forth trying to latch onto something. Focus on a distant line of silhouetted trees, the moon, a brightly lit log cabin etc

5. Start with a shutter speed of about 30 seconds, but be sure to review each and every exposure and make adjustments accordingly

6. Keep spare batteries snug in your coat pocket – freezing temperatures and long exposures drain camera batteries rapidly

7. Remember that if you take your camera from a warm building out into the freezing arctic night and expect to start taking pictures straight away you’ll end up with a distinctly ‘soft focus’ effect due to condensation forming on the lens. Avoid the dreaded fogging by keeping your camera at as near an outdoor temperature as possible.

William Gray’s Northern Light’s Travel Guide covers everything you need to know in order to witness the phenomenon, from where and how to see the aurora to photography, tour operators, accommodation and essential travel tips.

Main image: Photographing the Aurora Borealis (Shutterstock)

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 Your Comments (5)

  • 25th September by bazapaul

    when taking your camera from an extreme cold to a warm temp place in a plastic bag i.e. shopping bag and the condensation will stay on the outside of the bag and not your camera. easy to have a bag like this in your pocket. Happy snapping


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  • 25th September by tonyb73

    I went to Finland / Sweden in January 2014. Temperatures fell to between -25 and -32. A few tips I found handy were chemical hand warmers that you rub and put inside your gloves (and socks). My cable release froze solid so I used the camera's self timer and (if your camera has it) a custom function called 'mirror lock up', also take a torch, silhouettes of trees are ok but paint some light onto them and see the snow glow.!i=3085653142&k=v99f4Zh

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  • 25th September by tonyb73

    Oh almost forgot, 1 more thing, my tripod had a very good quality ball head but I soon found out it's limitations. If you can't feel your fingers, you have little chance of turning the little knobs to adjust the head. Either make sure you have one with good size knobs or (as I would) take a decent pan, tilt head next time with good handles.If you want to know how cold it can be, put ice in your sink with the plug in, add cold water and salt and your hands of course (Thats about -13) after a couple of minutes try and adjust your ball head. Better to try and learn 1st than pay a lot and discover what you can't do.

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  • 28th September by cottamweb

    Practice getting your kit set up in the dark and keep it simple. Also as the article says put something in the foreground to give a sense of scale.

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  • 29th September by mamo

    Find a good spot, set up the camera tripod and cable release and enjoy the show!! It's so fantastic!

    My latest from September 13.


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