I get this question very frequently, whenever I post a photo depicting the Aurora Borealis.
The answer is simple, but complicated: It depends. 🙂 There is no universal recipe for photographing the Northern Lights, but there are some general aspects that have to be taken care of.
First, you need a tripod. Yup, it’s more important than the camera. Why is that? Usually, you are going to shoot the Aurora from polar or sub-polar regions. Quite often, that means pretty strong winds. And we don’t want comma shaped stars, right? So, get the sturdiest tripod you can afford. If it’s not rigid enough, you can hang some sort of weight to your tripod. Most tripods will have a hook, under the central column. Hang anything heavy from it: your backpack, a bottle of water, a rock, your fat cat etc.
Then, you need a camera. Basically, almost any digital camera nowadays (even some mobile phone cameras) will be able to get decent photos of the Lights. The best option would be a DSLR or a mirrorless that gives you full manual control (exposure, aperture, ISO and focus). I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III for Northern Lights photography, but I got great shots with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II camera, too (the Live Composite mode of the Oly is pretty useful in Aurora photography).
In terms of lenses, you need a fast wide angle one. f/2.8 would be awesome. Usually, you don’t want to shoot the Aurora with a focal length longer than 35 mm. A fisheye lens might be useful for those very high activity nights.
A cable/infrared/radio release would also be very useful. I prefer the cable version as you don’t need batteries to operate it, and that’s pretty important when you’re shooting in the cold. If you don’t have one, you can use the self timer feature on your camera. You need this to get rid of vibrations induced by actually pressing the shutter button.
As long as we talked about cold conditions, it’s a good idea to have 2 or three spare batteries and a few memory cards.
Probably the most challenging part of the actual shooting is focusing. Your auto-focus won’t work in the dark, so this is how to do it. Set the camera on manual focus, open the aperture as much as you can, turn on the live view and set a high ISO (around 6400, if possible). If you’re using a zoom lens, set the focal length. If you want to change it later, you will have to refocus. Now, point your camera to the sky and find a brighter star in the field of view of your camera. Centre the star and zoom in the live view image (not by using the zoom ring on your lens, but the controls on the back of your camera; read the manual of your camera, if you don’t know how to do it). Now, gently move the focusing ring of your lens and get that star into focus. Once focus is achieved, carefully tape down both the focus and the zoom ring (if there is one) on your lens, using some gaffer tape. Even though you taped the rings, try as much as possible not to touch the rings from now on, unless you need to change settings.
Now, it’s pretty tricky to give you any advice on the exposure time and ISO. And that’s because the behaviour of the Northern Lights is unpredictable. They can be static and, in a matter of seconds, they can start moving like there’s no tomorrow. That’s why you have to adapt to the Lights. One thing is sure: open up the aperture as much as you can. As a general rule, if the Lights are static you can try ISO’s between 800 and 1600 and exposure times of 10 to 20 seconds. If the lights move very fast, you will need high ISO (3200 to 6400) and short exposure times (sometimes below 3 seconds; I have even shot Northern Lights at 0.5 seconds).
Be careful with your maximum exposure time, so that you don’t get trailing stars. We want the stars to be points of light, not small arcs. It’s a simple formula that gives you this value: 500 divided by the focal length (full frame equivalent) of your lens (t = 500/fl, where fl = focal length and t = maximum exposure time for point stars). Stay below that number and you will get nice point like stars.
Another thing to be careful with is framing. Try to include some terrestrial elements and/or people in the photo and use the rule of thirds. The results will be a lot better than shooting just the sky. Of course, shoot RAW files. Many photographers will tell you to avoid Moon lit nights when shooting the Northern or Southern Lights. I tell you the contrary. The landscape will always look better when you have the Moon present in the sky. Moonless nights will make all terrestrial elements look dark and featureless. I don’t like that at all.
Last, but totally not least, take the time and look at the Aurora with your own eyes. It’s a mind blowing experience. Yes, the Lights will look a lot more saturated and brighter in your photos, because of the way cameras see the world, but experiencing a strong display of the Northern Lights with your naked eye could be life changing.
P.S. If you want to photograph the Northern Lights under my guidance, in Lofoten, check out the tours I’m doing at colorsoflofoten.com