One of the best spots to watch the Aurora Borealis is right here in Canada. The northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a unique display visible in the night sky from a number of locations, and the number one spot in Canada is Yellowknife, Northwest Territories!
Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, is along the auroral zone and during the winter months, you will have one of the best chances to see the lights in and around Yellowknife. I had the opportunity to see them in person this past March and was able to capture some really cool pictures and time lapses of the Aurora Borealis.
If you are thinking of going to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to see them for yourself, checkout our blog post from my recent trip for some of the best places to view the Northern Lights in and around Yellowknife.
Once you are there you’ll need to make sure you have the right camera and settings in order to capture the Aurora Borealis at night. Here’s my 7 steps to take your own amazing pictures of the Aurora!
Northern Lights Photography Settings
This Northern Lights Photography settings tutorial is aimed at beginners. You can use any camera with an option for Manual settings. Following these simple steps you’ll be able to capture beautiful photos of the Aurora Borealis.
Step 1: Set to Manual
Set your camera to Manual.
Set your lens to Manual Focus.
Turn your Flash setting to off.
Why use the Manual settings?
Automatic camera settings work great in daylight but your cameras automatic settings don’t work properly in the dark, and the Automatic setting is useless if you are trying to photograph the Northern Lights at night. If you leave your lens set to Automatic Focus, it will continuously zoom in and out trying to find focus in the dark which will result in blurry pictures.
Turning off your flash will ensure it doesn’t go off when taking a picture and wash out the Northern Lights.
Step 2: Setting the ISO
ISO 1600 is a good start
What does the ISO setting do?
ISO controls the light sensitivity of your cameras sensor. Prior to digital cameras you had to choose a different ISO film for different shooting situations. Now with a digital camera you can change the ISO simply by using a button. Here’s what the different ISO values do – The higher the ISO, the less light you need to take a picture. But with higher ISO the picture is of lower quality and can appear grainy. You’ll need to do a few test shots and adjust your ISO up or down as the Aurora Borealis changes in the night sky.
Step 3: Adjust the Aperture
f-2.8 or the lowest f-number you can get.
What does the aperture do?
The aperture, or f-stop on your camera adjusts how wide your lens is open and how much light will get through the lens. It may sound weird but, the lower the f-number, the bigger the aperture opening. For Northern Lights photography you will want to use the biggest opening (the lowest f-number) possible on with your lens.
The more light your lens can take in means you can set a lower shutter speed and still get enough detail in your Aurora Borealis image. Since the Northern Lights are constantly moving a lower shutter speed will ensure you get enough detail and a clearer image which isn’t just a blob of light in the sky.
Step 4: Set the Shutter speed
The shutter speed needed will really depend on the aperture of your lens and will take some experimentation to get dialed in.
20 seconds is a good start if your lens has a maximum aperture greater than f/2.8.
What does the shutter speed do?
Shutter speed = exposure time = the time your lens is open and absorbing light. You will need to adjust the shutter speed as the strength of the Northern Lights changes through an evening. For example: Soft lights = 15-30 sec. shutter speed. Strong lights = 1-6 sec. shutter speed.
Keeping your exposure time between 5-25 seconds will work well. If the aurora is moving quickly in the sky aim for 5-7 second exposures. If it is moving slower try 10-25 second exposures.
Think about it like this: If the aurora is moving quickly in the sky, then a 30 second exposure will show the average of what each pixel captures over that 30 second timeframe, instead of the showing the instantaneous view your eyes see.
The shorter the exposure time, the closer your photos will resemble what your eyes actually see.
Experimentation is key!
Step 5: Use a Tripod
Since you are taking long exposures of the Northern Lights you will need to mount your camera on a tripod.
Why do you need a tripod?
Holding your camera won’t work with long exposures. Your body will move way too much and with the long exposure you need to take will result in blurry pictures. If you need to buy you don’t need anything really expensive but I do recommend spending a few extra dollars to get a sturdy one so your camera doesn’t accidentally topple over and break the lens.
Step 6: Zoom Out & Focus
The Northern Lights show up best using a wide angle lens so you can get as much of the sky in the image as possible. Next, set your focus to the infinity symbol, if you have the option. To get the focus exact set it by focusing on the brightest object in the sky (usually a star or the moon).
Step 7: Press the Shutter
Now you are set to take a picture! I recommend using a remote control to avoid any camera shake when taking the picture but if you don’t have one not to worry. Your camera should have a self-timer you can set. If you just press the button without a remote or self-timer you can cause some blur in your photograph.
Get to Know Your Camera
You will want to try this tutorial BEFORE you go out at night to take pictures of the Northern Lights. Get to know your camera and set everything up the in the warm and lit inside rather than trying for the first time in the cold dark night.
Once you outside ready to capture the Aurora, do some test shots and adjust the settings as needed. If your image is too bright, lower your shutter speed or ISO. If your image is too dark, up your shutter speed or ISO. Just experiment and have fun!
What to Else to Bring Along
I recommend taking along a headlamp flashlight so you can make adjustments in the dark. Even if you are a pro with your camera settings a little light goes a long way trying to find some of the buttons!
You may also want to pack a couple of extra batteries for your camera along. It gets really cold in Yellowknife in winter and batteries don’t last as long. Keep a couple of spares in your inside pocket so they stay warm. You should also keep your camera inside your jacket while you are finding your spot to take pictures. The extreme cold can really deplete your batteries!