Northern Lights Photography is easy….once you see them!

I first tried to see the northern lights or Aurora Borealis in Alaska but since I didn’t have any luck there I decided to try Iceland. I had much better luck in Iceland than in Alaska. Once I saw them it was time to put all my research into action and actually capture them on camera.

Whenever I have captured night photos before I was trying to get the stars and milky way. This is best achieved by having a wide angle lens, a camera that can capture good quality at high ISO and really dark skies. The less light pollution you have the better. The more the milky way will pop out and the less orange glow you will have.

I don’t have a wide angle lens but I’ve been able to get some ok shots of the milky way with my 24-105mm on my full frame Canon 6D. If I had a wider lens I might be able to lower my ISO or get more detail in the milky way than what my camera captures now.

The photo below is my first ever attempt at capturing the milky way. As you can see there is some light pollution on the bottom left but it’s not too bad. The “core” of the milky way is also not as colorful or detailed as other shots I’ve seen as well.

Milky way photo:

ISO 6400, 20 seconds

Night photography in Oregon is much different than northern lights photography

What I learned first about taking photos of the northern lights versus the milky way is that the exposure needs to be much shorter in order to capture the movement of the lights. They move really fast. It’s crazy. Even though it is dark you don’t need the length of time as the milky way if you want to see more than just a big green blur. The northern lights tend to streak and wave throughout the sky so capturing these little intricacies is good (to me) whereas stars don’t move quite so fast.

Even after all the research I did the first time the lights came out and I went to take a photo I was still playing with all my settings. Unless your lens and camera are the same as the instructions you were reading (or are reading here) there’s still a little play that needs to happen. It can be a fun and frustrating process to get a northern lights shot that’s just right. I know that most of the time when they came out to play I was not in the best situation for foreground.

I want to see the northern lights again at some point and really plan my photography around the lights. It will be a wait and see trip but I think it can be so worth it by all the photos I’ve seen of northern lights at waterfalls and other well known landmarks in Iceland like the black church.

First northern lights photo:

ISO 6400, 6 seconds

Northern lights Iceland

What did I vary in my Iceland photos?

I tried different ISO settings in combination with different exposure lengths.

6400-3200. 5-10 seconds.

Northern lights location?

The best place to photograph the northern lights is in any northern country like Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Canada. You can also see them in the northern lights in Alaska and some of the northern states. The further north you go the better chance you have of strong colors.

The best northern lights location might be when you least expect it too!

Below, I thought I was trying to capture the milky way but caught the northern lights instead. Who knew that I would ever see them in Oregon, much less Southern Oregon?! This was the last northern lights location I ever expected. I was so surprised at what my camera was capturing I thought it was either broken or something out there was happening that I had no idea what it was. Well, it turns out my camera was just fine and the KP really spiked that evening.

The only way to ever see the aurora borealis lower than those northern countries is when there is a big aurora storm, in other words when the KP spikes (global geomagnetic conditions). The higher the KP number the further south you can usually see the northern lights.

When you are out in the field it’s good to check the northern lights forecast so you might want to invest in a phone plan or wifi that lets you check the weather as well as the KP levels. I know when I’m out shooting it’s often an all day adventure and some areas don’t have good cell service or any at all.

Remember, the best place to photograph the northern lights is going to be in the darkest area you can find with the fewest clouds. Don’t try to visit a place during the rainy season like me trying to find the northern lights in Alaska in September. It was the wrong time of year. Winter is the best time to see them.

Northern lights forecast:

Here’s a three day northern lights forecast. A basic site with numbers for the USA. Here’s a better view with a graph. Northern lights Alaska forecast. A more image heavy site that shows the northern lights forecast for the whole northern hemisphere.

If you want to read more about what KP numbers mean or what causes the northern lights it’s fun to learn more and go down that rabbit hole. I mean, for me the northern lights was a big bucket list item and one of the most amazing natural phenomenons I’ve ever seen. As cliche as it sounds seeing them in person is better than any northern lights photography you’ll see.

Accidental aurora photography settings:

ISO 3200, 30 seconds

Accidental northern lights photography, shot by Roux Roamer in Oregon

Is it time to plan your trip yet?

Before you go chasing the lights make sure you know what to pack as it gets pretty chilly. Planning when and where to be for the northern lights was not as easy for me with my non-photographer travel companions but maybe it can be easy for you! Or perhaps you can go on a northern lights photography tour. The guides are sure to know when and where to spot the lights and will get you to that perfect foreground spot. You might even be able to hit up multiple locations in one night.

If you are absolutely freezing I’ve shot night shots from my car before. I turned the heat on high and placed my camera on a tripod just outside the door and used my remote to trigger the camera. I highly recommend the Canon Connect App if you have a Canon like I do. This helps if you want to do this or take selfies like I do.

My northern lights photography gear

  • Canon 6D, full frame, professional quality photos (this link takes you to the newer, more available version of my camera as mine is now over 2 years old)
  • Canon 24-105 lens, my usual lens
  • Vanguard Tripod that’s light and compact for travel. It also has a great warranty. I know because I had to use it.

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If you want to learn more about how I edit in Lightroom I have a post on that. Or more about my photography travel gear.

How to photograph the Northern Lights by Roux Roamer

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