Expert Advice: How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Hello everyone! This week’s interview will be especially interesting to you if you live or travel to northern countries and want to photograph the northern lights. I’ve asked Timo Oksanen, an expert northern lights photographer from Finland, to walk us through everything we need to know to capture the dancing lights ourselves. From setting up the shot to camera settings and editing techniques, Timo has provided us with a serious amount of insider knowledge into the (somewhat intimidating) world of nighttime photography.

Who is Timo and what makes him an expert?

Timo is from southern Finland and has been interested in photography for much of his life. As Timo explains, “my interest in visual storytelling started some 30 years ago when I got my first video camera. I started taking photos a bit more seriously about 10 years ago when I got my first DSLR.”

His passion for photography naturally grew to a profession, where Timo works in marketing and produces photos and videos for work. That being said, Timo says “the night photography is basically just for fun, even though I occasionally also sell my work and do some paid projects.”

Timo’s favourite spots for capturing the northern lights are Lapland in northern Finland and the fjord sceneries in northern Norway. The strong northern lights aren’t as common in southern Finland where Timo lives, so he makes trips to the north 3-5 times each year.

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How to find the Northern Lights

This was actually the most surprising thing Timo told me. I believed (and I’m sure some of you did too) that you need three things to see the lights: dark skies, clear skies, and high Kp activity (I have no idea what the Kp value actually is, I just knew you wanted it to be high). But here is what Timo told me: “Actually, the Kp value is not that important.”

“If I was watching only that, I would have missed many good opportunities here in Southern Finland. There are many websites that provide data from satellites monitoring the solar activity, and the values I usually keep an eye on are the Speed (of the solar wind), Bz and Density. Even if these measures don’t say that much to you, the sites usually show them colour-coded. So if everything is red, the auroras will be very strong, but often with yellow values you’ll probably still see something even below the Arctic Circle.”

Preparing to photograph the Northern Lights

My next question for Timo was about preparing to photograph the lights. How much was scouting locations and determining composition/subject, versus spontaneous and reactive to what the lights were doing?

“When hunting auroras I usually try to find a location where in addition to the northern lights I can also get something interesting to the foreground. If it’s not wintertime and the lakes are not frozen, I often prefer a lake view in order to capture the reflection as well.”

“I change the spot and composition often during one night, and for that it’s best just to react to what the sky has to offer and try to find an interesting enough foreground. Auroras usually come in ‘bursts’, meaning that there’s a short stronger show, and then a pause when the aurora is ‘recharging’. So, when the sky really does come alive, it’s best not to look for a better location anymore and just shoot.”

What camera settings do you need to photograph the Northern Lights?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of camera settings, let’s do a super quick recap of the three primary elements of manual photography for any true beginners reading this post.

Shutter speed: This is how long the shutter stays open. It’s also referred to as “exposure”; a long exposure means the shutter was open for a long time, exposing the lens for a longer period of time.

Aperture: This is how wide the lens opens up (how much light the lens can let in while it’s open). A large aperture has a low f-value (i.e. f/1.4 is larger than f/2.8).

ISO: This is how sensitive the lens is (high ISO means very sensitive, but if you go too high you’ll get grainy photos).

Use the shortest exposure time possible

“If auroras are strong and moving fast, I recommend using as short exposure time as possible,” Timo explained to me. I also found this a bit surprising, as it contradicts what a lot of websites claim about northern lights photography. I’ve seen photography websites recommending a shutter speed as high as 30 seconds!

“Long exposures (over 10 seconds) will make the auroras blurry and you cannot see the different shapes so clearly. However, if the aurora is moving slowly, you can use longer exposure and lower the ISO, but then everything just blends together and you don’t get any definition.”

I’d trust Timo’s recommendation over these other websites, because, well, look at his photos! “What is the shortest [exposure] for your camera depends on how high ISO you can use and what’s the largest aperture in your lens.” “For example with my 14 mm f/1.8 lens, I often prefer a 2-second exposure with ISO ranging between 1600 and 6400 depending on the brightness of the auroras.”

What if you only have a beginner DSLR?

“You can get some shots even with beginner DSLRs and kit lenses (or even some mobile phones), but usually you need to settle with a quite long exposure time, as shooting with higher ISO values will result in very grainy photos and if you don’t have large aperture, you need the longer exposure to let more light to the sensor of your camera.” Not surprising, Timo uses a very professional full frame camera.

“I use very fast wide-angle lenses from Sigma with Canon 5D Mark IV and Sony A7 III. The widest I have is 14 mm f/1.8 and I also have 20 mm f/1.4 and 35 mm f/1.4.”

For context, the common starter lens with a beginner DSLR is an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 (a narrower lens with a much smaller aperture). If interested, you can buy a wide-angle lens with a lower f-value for a beginner DSLR.

Another piece of advice Timo has for beginners: “I recommend taking lots of photos with different settings in order to understand better how the settings affect the picture. Also that way you can find the settings that suit your taste the best.”

How to edit Northern Lights photos

“For me, editing usually takes more time than the actual hunt, but it isn’t necessarily so. I shoot time-lapse sequences and can have thousands of frames from one night, so that just takes time. I mainly use Lightroom, but occasionally also Photoshop if I for example want to combine two exposures (longer for the foreground scenery, shorter for the sky).”

You can get very good results with very little editing, basically just checking the white balance that colours look natural and adjusting the basic settings. Often it’s best not to edit too heavily. As a beginners’ tip I can say that now that I look at my photos from 3-4 years back, I must admit they hurt my eyes! Colours are too saturated, there’s too much clarity and I’ve used de-haze too heavily….”

“Anyways, your eye doesn’t see things as well as the camera sensor with long exposure, so the photos will have more details and colours than what you saw. I try to make the edited frames look as natural as possible and usually I slightly desaturate the photos instead of adding saturation.”

Find more

So there you have it, a beginner’s guide to northern lights photography. The most important thing is to get out and practice. If you’re interested in learning more or are in need of some inspiration, you can check out northern lights time lapses on Timo’s YouTube channel or find his photos on his Facebook or Instagram pages.

Where to next? For more photography tips, check out my post on how to take epic landscape photos.


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