7 Easy Steps to Your Own Amazing Photos

Northern Lights Photography Settings

This Northern Lights Photography settings guide, in 7 easy steps, is aimed at beginners. You can use any camera with an option for Manual settings. Following these steps, most modern cameras will produce beautiful digital photos for on-screen purposes.

Step 1: Set to Manual

  • Set your camera to Manual.

  • Set your lens to Manual.

  • Turn off Image Stabilization (typically the button next to ‘manual’ on your lens).

  • Turn your Flash setting to OFF!

Why must I use the Manual settings?

Automatic settings are great in daylight, when the camera can sense and measure it’s surrounding. But cameras don’t see in the dark, and thus the Automatic setting is useless in Northern Lights conditions. If you leave your lens set to Automatic, it will continuously zoom in and out in a failed attempt to find focus in the dark. And because of the dark it will want to use the flash; to read the area. Your flash, however, is a harsh light pollutant and will wash out the Northern Lights and temporarily blind everyone around you. Make sure your flash is set to OFF.

Step 2: ISO setting

  • ISO 1600 is a good start

What does the ISO setting do?

This is what controls the light sensitivity of your ‘film’. Some of you may remember a pre-digital era when you had to choose a different ISO film for different occasions. ISO 100 or lower for sunny days and ISO 200-400 for cloudy days. Digitally, now it’s a turn of a button. The ISO button. The higher the ISO, the less light you need to “develop” a picture. But beware; with higher ISO comes lower quality. Most modern cameras do well with ISO 1600 (or even more) without compromising quality. Older cameras may produce grainy photos on ISO above 400/800. It’s helpful to gain a deeper understanding of ISO and Photography Talk have the perfect article for it.

Step 3: Aperture = f-stop

  • f-2.8

  • or the lowest f-number you can get

What does the aperture do?

The aperture, or f-stop (f-2.8, f-4, f-5,6 etc) on your camera tells you how widely your lens is open = the size of the opening letting light through the lens. This you can adjust by setting the f-stop. Confusingly, the lower the f-number, the bigger the opening. For Northern Lights photography we want the biggest opening (the lowest f-number) possible on our camera. Because: the more light your lens can take in = the lower shutter speed you can use = the quicker you can capture your shot = the more detail you can get in your Northern Lights image (because the lights are constantly moving).

Step 4: Shutter speed

  • 20 sec. is a good start

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.

Step 5: Use a Tripod

  • Mount your camera on a tripod

Why do I need a tripod?

Holding your breath and keeping very very still is not gonna cut it. You may be taking your photo for 30 seconds, that’s half a minute. Maybe it will even be windy. Bottom line: you will move = your photo will be blurry. So use a tripod. It can be as minimal as you like, it just needs to not be a living, breathing human body… as you will hopefully be in spite of the cold conditions.

Step 6: Zoom & Focus

  • Zoom out (lowest mm setting on your lens)

Here are some focus-finding options:

  • Set to the infinity symbol, if you have one: ∞

  • Pre-set your focus during the day

  • Zoom in on a star or the Moon set the focus and zoom back out

“But my camera has auto-focus”

Not in the dark. Get to know your manual focus options. If you have the infinity option (∞), great. But test it, it may not be exact. Ideally, find your focus during daylight hours, and either memorise it or make a mark on your lens rim (use tape, white marker, Tippex etc.). And always zoom out completely, the Northern Lights occupy a large space in the sky, and we want to capture as much of it as we can.

Step 7: Remotely release the shutter

  • Use remote control or

  • a 2 sec. self-timer, or

  • an app.

Why can’t I just push the shutter button?

Earlier, we talked about the problems of being a living, breathing human body. Every time you touch your camera you will shake it, causing a possible blur in your photo. This is also applicable when you push the shutter-release button. Remote control is best. 2 sec. self-timer is also good. Some cameras can use apps.

What next?

Try out all these Northern Lights Photography settings before going out on your hunt. Get to know your camera. Once you are out, set everything up and do some test shots. 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.

It’s as simple as that!

Replacement batteries?

Normally not needed for a 3-4 hours night out Northern Lights hunting. But, if your camera is highly technical or if you will be using an app, you may be needing 1-2 extra batteries

 

Want a picture of yourself under the Northern Lights?

No problem, it’s actually quite easy! You will need a friend and a strong flashlight, or ideally a manually operated camera flash (don’t attach it to your camera, just hold it behind the camera and shoot manually). Use all the same settings as above for the Northern Lights. And then the aim is to freeze the subject, you, in motion. As a living, breathing human being you can’t stay completely motionless for the duration of exposure time. So:

  1. You stay as still as humanly possible during the whole exposure time.

  2. Anywhere during the exposure time your friend flashes you with a quick light.

Do some test shots to get used to the method and find the best lighting. Et voila! You have a photo of yourself under the Northern Lights!

PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE

Don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t photograph the Northern Lights. Let’s put that myth to rest. You absolutely can,- and your smartphone might just be your best bet! Here’s what you need to know:

  • Above all else, know thy phone – spend some quality time with your built-in camera and the adjustments you can make 

  • Don’t skip the tripod – unless you’re a robot, you’re not gonna hold your camera still enough during long exposures

  • Hello, darkness, my old friend – light pollution will ruin otherwise great shots of the aurora

  • Geek out with your manual settings – a little time messing with exposure and ISO can make all the difference

  • Go ahead and edit – even a few nudges on those sliders can bring out dazzling detail hidden in your images

The Northern Lights can be an elusive subject. A little shy at times, even for professional photographers. And while most people don’t lug around €35,000-worth of camera gear, a seven-man crew and a portable editing suite, most people do have the next best thing: their smartphones.

Smartphones have come a long way. Take the iPhone. Larger sensor. Double lenses. Brilliant performance in low light (like if you’re, say, shooting the night sky). Smart tech all around. And now Apple has added the “live photos” feature, which can bring a whole new dimension to a difficult subject like the Northern Lights.

1. KNOW THY PHONE Not all smartphones are created equally. Take a look at your camera specs and find out what kind of features you have. Regardless of your equipment, keep a few basics in mind.

  • Keep your lens clean with a microfiber cloth or lens wipe – Iceland can get pretty damp. But your lens doesn’t have to be. No shirt tails or fingers, please. Distilled water can help with grime, but don’t even think about using harsh cleansers. They’ll damage your lens faster than you can say “extended warranty”.

  • Quit out of other apps if they’re running simultaneously – CPU power matters, so give your cam all it needs.

  • Turn off your calling/messaging functions – the last thing you want when you’re nanoseconds from capturing the ultimate shot is a call or text message to shut it all down.

2. DON’T SKIP THE TRIPOD Even the finest surgeons and gunslingers ought to heed this advice. The human hand is just not going to hold your camera steady enough.

  • Dark images need a long exposure – even the slightest movement can leave you with a blurry, soupy photo. 

  • Inexpensive smartphone stands work well too – we like the ones with bendy legs that you can prop up on a rock or a backpack or wrap around a fence.

3. EMBRACE THE DARK SIDE! You want as much contrast as possible: dark sky, bright lights.

  • Get out of the city – light pollution is enemy #1.

  • Move away from the road – even passing headlights can spoil your blackness.

  • Our drivers will turn off all the lights they can – we won’t leave you in the dark; this is your best chance to get a clear shot.

  • Do what you can – if you find yourself around ambient light, even shielding your setup with a jacket can help.

4. SWITCH TO MANUAL MODE The auto mode on your phone is probably not really ideal for this kind of photography. Try your manual settings instead.

  • Some pre-sets that might work – look for names like starry night, lightning and fireworks. 

  • Manual mode lets you adjust things like ISO and exposure – some phones don’t have a manual mode in the native camera app, like the iPhone, but you can download apps like ProCam, that offer manual controls.

  • Dial in your ISO to 800 – If the lights aren’t clear enough then up your ISO, but too much and you’ll get graininess. 

  • Try a 15-second exposure – up your exposure time if the Northern Lights are being shy. You’ll have more time to capture it if it flickers across the sky, but this is where you really need a tripod.

  • Let the games begin – start with those settings and adjust until you get your best images.

5. AIN’T NO SHAME IN EDITING Editing your images is not cheating! You took the picture. Enhancing it just brings out the good work you’ve already done.

  • Don’t leave well enough alone – With a subject as delicate and fleeting as the Northern Lights, you ought to at least tweak your images to bring out depth and definition.

  • Nothing fancy – basic adjustments like contrast, brightness and tone can make a world of difference and most cameras offer these editing features in the device.

And remember, you are not alone. A lot of photographers—amateurs and pros alike—have tried their hand at capturing the elusive Aurora. So look online and see what the hive mind has to say, even about shooting with your particular device.

A little money might go a long way too, and not just with equipment. If you’re willing to spend a little on camera apps, you might end up with some priceless pictures from your Northern Lights Tour.

And one last note: don’t forget to look at the lights with your own eyes as well. Remember to enjoy the moment and make memories. Those images in your head may end up being the ones you treasure most.

Good luck!