Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I’ve not posted for a while (been having too much fun to stop and type!), but wanted to share my findings of my first attempt at trying to photograph the Northern Lights from Whitehorse last night, and show off some of the more successful images. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the aurora, so I was keen to capture something to remember the night.

A time-lapse image that I created with G+ autoawesome.
A time-lapse image that I created with G+ autoawesome.



I thought that I was going to be freezing cold, so layered up with my running gear as a base layer; lugging a bag full of camera equipment up a hill, I expected to get a bit sweaty so didn’t want a soggy cotton base layer reducing my cold endurance.

I then had a cotton t-shirt, jumper, hoodie, fleece and a breathable but windproof Rab rain jacket on top – having done some night walking, it’s all about reducing potential sweat chill whilst keeping air tight. I wore running gloves as they are warm but very thin, which makes using the buttons on the camera possible without having to de-glove at any point. Thick walking socks and winter walking boots kept my feet away from the icy ground.

That combination kept me comfortable for the ~2-hours that we were out, despite the temperature being a solid single figure negative the entire time. I wasn’t even cold when we headed back (but the others had had enough!).

Camera Kit

I used my Nikon D5200 with a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G Lens. Whilst the focal length is longer than ideal for this type of photography, I’m only carrying that and a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens, which whilst being an excellent, versatile lens, wasn’t as fast as I thought I’d need for night shooting, and the 50mm has a marginally wider angle.

I mounted it on my Manfrotto 732CY tripod (no link as it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon any more…), which I have fitted with a Manfrotto MH293A3-RC1 293 Aluminium 3 Way Head with RC1 Quick Release. I’m glad that I opted for a lighter model, as it’s been everywhere with me in my rucksack since I left the UK.

Everything was in or strapped to my trusty Incase Photo DSLR Sling Pack Black, which has survived well so far during my travels despite being a bit of a trendy city bag rather than a rugged kit lugger.

The last crucial piece of the gadget puzzle is the Timer Remote Control/cable release, which is useful if you want to take shots without camera shake and don’t want to configure the shutter delay in-camera every time, or hold the shutter open to experiment with exposure times. This model also has an LCD display and programmable shutter timer, which makes time lapses easy; you set up the interval and duration of shutter openings, press the Start/Stop button and let it do its thing.

Disclosure: All of the above product links are via my Amazon UK referral links, so if you click through and buy something I get money from the referral to further my travels and gadget purchases. 🙂

Lastly, don’t forget to fully charge, and take spare batteries if you’re going to be out there for a while. The best time to shoot the lights is on cold, clear nights, and the cold does affect the performance of batteries. You won’t get as long out of them as you would in milder conditions, and some recommend putting your batteries in your pocket until you need them when it gets really cold.

Camera Settings

First off, remove your lens filters; you’ll get some annoying moiré on long exposures if you don’t for reasons I won’t go into here (if you’re interested look, up diffraction interference patterns).

After some playing around in full Manual mode, I used the following settings for most of the best shots:

ISO: 1000 – 3200

Aperture: wide-open at F1.4

Shutter Speed: 3″ – 6″
(only possible with fast lenses, I’ve heard that 30″+ can work for slower lenses but you’ll get star trails and the aurora won’t be as crisp over about 15″)

Enough of this, where are the pics?!

Here are a few of the best. Back indoors I can see that some are pretty noisy due to the high ISO, and it got worse throughout the night as the camera warmed up. I’m pretty pleased with the results for a first try though, let me know what you think in the comments.

6 Replies to “Photographing the Aurora Borealis”

  1. Your photos remind me of my first experience of the aurora. ..they are stunning shots…especially as you have managed to snap the stars through the aurora in such clear view. It must’ve been truly incredible to see first hand…really enjoying your (sometimes) weird, techy posts 🙂 looks like you’re having a ball

    1. Thanks Magz! It was pretty spectacular; I had tried to lower my expectations, and was pretty pleased with the view of the stars alone before the show started, but then the earliest signs of the lights were visible from the fully lit main road as we headed up the hill, it was so much brighter than I expected. Where in the world did you see them first?

  2. Your photographs really brought me back to my recent northern lights experience last Feb 2014. It was really stunning! I was as excited as you were Matt. 🙂 Amazing shot there with the vivid stars in the background! Great thing you included a lot of foreground cause it gave me the impression that the aurora was really that massive! 🙂 I would like to share with you my photographs too. Try to look into my site right here:

    1. Thanks Dennis! I really like the clarity in your photos. I’ll try with a larger aperture next time as there’s a little blur on the stars as I had to go for a slow shutter speed and the lights were quite faint at times.

  3. Matt,

    Makes me want to take more photos of the northern lights also. Your pictures are awesome and very inspiring. I have had the experience of doing 15 to 25-second exposures at lower ISO levels. Just a suggestion next time your out and shooting them again. I am jealous you live in the prime northern lights area Whitehorse. I live in northern Alberta so the lights are good but not till February and most of the month of March. Anyways hats off and very nice photos always enjoy seeing other photographers works!

    1. Thanks Troy! I wish I lived up in Yukon… Sadly it was just a visit as I was travelling across Canada. I’m in the lower latitudes of central Europe these days, but hope to get back to Canada later this year. I’ll try out your recommendations of lower ISO and longer exposure when I do, thanks for the tip!

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