From the March 2019 issue

How to photograph the northern lights

No matter your photography skills, a few simple tricks can help you capture the best images possible.
By | Published: March 12, 2019 | Last updated on May 10, 2024
A frozen lake is a prime location to capture the shimmering glow of aurorae, as the landscape is largely free of obstructions.
All images: Steve Cullen

If you ever decide to head to the small town of Yellowknife (population 20,000) in the Northwest Territories of Canada and expect to get good pizza, you might want to reconsider your choice of destination. But if you go there hoping to watch and photograph some of the most amazing displays of the northern lights you will ever see, you have certainly chosen wisely.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there isn’t good pizza to be had in Yellowknife, but my takeout order consisted of crust, some kind of makeshift white sauce, cheddar cheese, and a slice of pepperoni or two. However, that’s just the risk you take when you venture to one of Canada’s most remote northern towns. On the flip side, coming up with a location that is better situated to catch the northern lights in North America would be next to impossible.

Embedded in the auroral oval

Yellowknife is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle. One of its most notable claims to fame is being featured on the first season of the TV show Ice Road Truckers. The town serves as the home base for convoys of trucks that brave the frozen-lake ice roads 24 hours a day, seven days a week for about two months each winter. But for us, the most important thing about Yellowknife is that it sits directly under the auroral oval.

The auroral oval is a gigantic ring that circles Earth’s geomagnetic north pole. It represents the point along Earth’s magnetic field where charged particles from the Sun collide with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere, causing them to release the colored light we call aurorae. Theoretically, aurorae could be any color in the spectrum, but the most prominent is a green hue often accompanied by violet, blue, yellow, pink, and red wisps. Besides being perfectly positioned for auroral displays, Yellowknife (for the most part) checks off many of the boxes for other criteria you would want to consider in selecting a place to capture the northern lights: its levels of light pollution, its geography, and the overall weather.

Early on New Year’s Day 2016 (UT), aurorae hunters across the northern United States and Canada were treated to a spectacular show when the auroral oval expanded south and intensified.
Given its remoteness, Yellowknife has very dark skies once you venture away from the town itself. A 30-minute drive will get you far enough away from light pollution to have excellent sky conditions. The darker the sky, the more the aurorae will stand out against the inky blackness. That said, even in town, the northern lights often glow bright enough to be easily seen, albeit with reduced contrast against the background sky. From a geological and topographical perspective, the area is fairly flat and dotted with a multitude of lakes left over from the retreat of ice-age glaciers. This is important because aurorae can appear almost anywhere in the sky, and with no large mountains obstructing the view, you can take in a broad expanse of the heavens.The lakes are a huge benefit from January through March because they are frozen over to a thickness that allows you to drive across them. Being in the middle of a lake eliminates everything that might block your view of what’s going on above. I have to admit, it is a bit disconcerting the first time you drive over the surface of a frozen lake, but you soon get used to it. You might even come to enjoy the unique ride.

Fortunately, Yellowknife is in a region with relatively good weather, especially considering its far northern latitude. Rain isn’t a major concern for aurorae viewing, since the sky stays too bright for many displays from April through August, which is when most of the rain falls there. Snow is also surprisingly light. The region will have some amount of it for about 190 days of the year. But the monthly totals are bearable, with November being the worst, experiencing an average of 14 inches (36 centimeters), while the rest of the snowy months average less than 9 inches (23 cm).

As a photographer, the main thing you have to worry about is the cold. Temperatures early in the year can be brutal, with an average in January of –14 degrees Fahrenheit (–26 degrees Celsius). When I was there in March, the overnight temperatures dipped to –25 F (–32 C), with a wind chill of –40 F (–40 C). Luckily, I had brought along an Alpine climbing snowsuit that I stuffed with heat packs, which kept me mostly comfortable while standing outside for four or five hours. Make no mistake: These kinds of temperatures are not to be taken lightly, so you should definitely plan accordingly.

When you stand directly below the incoming flow of charged particles from the Sun, the aurora borealis at the zenith is a psychedelic menagerie of violet and green against the inky black backdrop of space.
In fact, a lot of camera gear will simply stop working properly in such extreme environments. The mirror on my Nikon D850 would frequently stick and refuse to move when I pressed the shutter button. The legs on my tripod also completely froze in the open position. And even though the air is drier in the winter, whenever I was near any open water, there would be enough humidity for ice crystals to form on my lens.The solution? I went to the local sundry shop and bought some hair scrunchies, which are now part of my permanent photography travel kit. I wrapped one around the lens to hold a heat pack or two tight against the body, and it provided enough heat to keep the ice crystals at bay.

Another issue is that batteries do not perform as well in cold environments. I kept a few batteries warm in my pocket at all times. I usually needed to swap them out once or twice during a session. On the positive side of the ledger, the bitter cold temperatures lowered the amount of noise in my photographs.

The final major question to answer when deciding to photograph the northern lights is when to go. As spring arrives, the Sun sets later and later at high northern latitudes. From early April to late August, the sky never reaches astronomical twilight, and it is as bright as civil twilight from late May to mid-July. That pretty much eliminates those months as options.

If you find a reflective surface, such as an unfrozen lake or pond, try to capture the reflection of an aurora in your shot.
The final major question to answer when deciding to photograph the northern lights is when to go. As spring arrives, the Sun sets later and later at high northern latitudes. From early April to late August, the sky never reaches astronomical twilight, and it is as bright as civil twilight from late May to mid-July. That pretty much eliminates those months as options.This brings me to an interesting phenomenon that scientists are still investigating. There seems to be more prominent auroral displays in the weeks around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. This is called the Russell-McPherron effect. The prevailing hypothesis is that during these windows, Earth’s magnetic field is better aligned with the stream of charged particles raining down on us from the Sun, leading to heightened auroral activity. So, if you’re looking to nudge the odds in your favor, I would suggest timing your visit around one of the equinoxes.

Imaging aurorae

With the trip planning covered, let’s get down to brass tacks — what’s the best way to photograph aurorae?

Your gear should consist of at least two camera bodies if possible. If you’re making such a large time and travel investment to journey to the Northwest Territories, having a backup only makes sense. (My guess is that Amazon Prime won’t make next-day deliveries to Yellowknife.)

You should also bring a sturdy and reliable tripod. There are differing schools of thought about whether twist lock legs or clamp lock legs are better for the cold. Mine are all twist locks, and they absolutely were prone to freezing up as the temperatures reached double-digit negatives.

Because aurorae can appear anywhere in the sky, a fast wide-angle lens also is an important part of your kit. A lens in the 14mm to 24mm focal length range would be best, preferably with f/2.8 optics.

When it comes to photographing aurorae, sometimes  less is more. Even relatively faint aurorae will give most images a subtle, elegant feel.
As with all night-sky photography, you’ll want to practice sound composition techniques. Because many of your shots will be wide angle, try to place an interesting foreground subject in your frame. Use the aurorae as you would the Milky Way; it should be a strong supporting element, but it doesn’t have to be the hero. Trees, rocks, snow formations, water, and other close-in objects tend to draw the viewer’s eye into the image more than an image looking straight up at the sky. If you’re just starting out with night photography, keeping it simple is probably the best approach. Don’t worry about stacking images or shooting to combine the foreground and the sky in post-processing. These are all techniques for getting improved results, but not necessary early on.Plan to set your camera to a high ISO, probably 1600 or above. Of course, this will depend on your camera’s capabilities and performance at higher ISOs. Set your aperture as wide open as your lens allows.

And, finally, set your shutter to be open for anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds. Once you’re in the field, you can experiment with the exposure time. However, keep in mind that the northern lights are constantly in motion, and they will appear “fuzzier” the longer you leave your shutter open. If you are a more advanced nightscape photographer, many of the skills you already know for Milky Way photography will also apply to aurorae photography.

Photographing aurorae is a fun and challenging experience. But if you go, make sure to appreciate the journey. And more importantly, take time away from the camera to simply look up and enjoy the show.