Capturing the Northern Lights
Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. The lights, the aurora – whatever you call them, these natural wonders are one of the most prominent reasons for traveling to the Fairbanks area. But what if you wish to secure this priceless moment? What if you wanted to show friends and family back home the stunning nature of the aurora? If you’re interested in photographing and capturing the Northern Lights, here are some tips for your next adventure.
First, there are some essential pieces of equipment required. You will need a camera with manual settings and a lens with manual focus, a tripod, and either a remote trigger or an internal 2-second timer. In order to shoot longer exposures, manual settings are necessary, and manual focus helps because autofocus won’t be functional in the dark. A tripod and some form of trigger or timer are needed as well in order to minimize shake and movement as much as possible. It’s important to remember to not touch the camera or tripod while exposing! If you do, the photo will turn out blurred. Some items that are also useful are flashlights and headlamps, as well as a fast, wide-angle lens (<50mm, f/2.8, or lower preferably). Additionally, make sure to remove any filters from the front element of your lens. Many filters (including UV) can create distortions in the picture.
A common issue with northern lights photography is moisture buildup and fogging on the camera and lens when transitioning from the cold outdoors to a heated shelter. It is often recommended to bring a gallon-size resealable plastic bag to place your camera in before returning inside. This way, the camera is protected and ready to go once you head back outside!
Now you’ve secured the proper gear – but how do you actually take a well-exposed photo? The main setting you need to adjust first is your shutter speed. To do this, put your camera in Manual Mode and shorten the shutter speed. If you have a remote trigger, shorten the speed until it is set to Bulb. Now, so long as you press the button on the trigger, the shutter will be open. If you are using a timer, shorten the speed to roughly 15 seconds. The optimal length of an exposure for the aurora is generally between 10-25 seconds. Note that depending on the brightness of the aurora and the amount of light pollution, among other variables, you will need to adjust the exposure accordingly.
Two other settings that are important are the aperture and the ISO. The aperture is represented by the f-stop (shown on your camera as f/), and should be set to the smallest number your lens allows. A higher-number ISO will also brighten the photos, but will also introduce more and more grain as it increases.
Before setting out on your adventure capturing the Northern Lights, make sure to set your lens’ focal length to infinity (often displayed as the ∞ symbol). This is performed by putting the lens in Manual Focus (slide the button on the side from AF to MF) and move the indicator line to infinity. Many photographers will tape the focus ring to the barrel of the lens in order to ensure that it will not move accidentally.
You are now ready to photograph the aurora! Set up a tripod, expose with the recommended settings, and enjoy. If the photos are too dark, try leaving the shutter open for a longer period of time (note that it is not recommended to expose for longer than 30 seconds, because the movement of the stars will begin to create ‘star trails’ in the photo). Follow these links to learn more about the basics of photographic exposure and for more information on photographing the aurora borealis.
The lights are a natural phenomenon, and as such, they cannot be guaranteed. However, we wish to always provide the best viewing experience and the highest chance to spot them on our various Northern Lights tours. We hope that you will enjoy your time photographing the aurora, wherever you happen to be!