How to photograph the Northern Lights

Northerh Lights in Estonia and Panstarrs comet

Aurora Borealis is a beautiful sight that seems mystical, unreal and really beautiful.

Northern Lights are very rare in Estonia and there are very few occasions, when they are strong enought to glow in all three colors – green, red and violet. To be able to see the aurora borealis is really fashionating, but one thing is even better – phototgraphing the aurora borealis 🙂 Photographing this beautiful event gives us the ability to share what we saw. Northern lights are caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude of the Earth´s atmosphere. There are two types of auroras – diffuse or discrete aurora. Diffuse aurora is like a green glow over northern horizon. The discrete aurorae are features with sharply defined shapes that look lika a pillars or brushstrokes in the sky. They vary in colors and brightness.

Northern Lights

Most common aurora sight is a greenish glow in the distance over the northern horizon (diffuse aurora). Sometimes this glow is so faint that it is not possible to see it with human eye. Luckily our new DSLR cameras have a good light sensitivity and low noise to capture even very weak rays and glows of light. It is a bit easier to photograph the auroras when you have captured them once. Then you know what you are looking for. Although I do not have many years experience in aurora watching and photographing, I can give you some advice. This knowledge has helped me to capture my aurora borealis photos and can help you find and photograp the northern lights too.

On the photo: discrete aurora, manual settings, focused to infinity.

Pentax K10D and Helios 44M @ 58mm, ISO400, f2, 10s.


How to prepare for photographing aurora?

You may see the aurora totally unprepared, if you are really lucky. But it is not likely to happen unless you are that kind of person who spends a lot of time outside in the nature in cold winter nights. I am not 🙂 So it is wise to make some preparations to improve the possibility to capture the aurora borealis.

Warm ClothesNorthern lights are best viewed in the winter when the air is clear and the sky is cloudless. This clear weather comes with really cold temperatures, sometimes -15 C or even more. -20 degrees C is quite common in Estonia. So in order to survive you should wear warm clothes – hat, gloves, winter boots. The warmer – the better, because you never know when the light show is going to begin and how long time you must walk before finding this good place to capture the photo.

You could wear two pairs of gloves. Ones to give better control to your fingers and others to keep warm when nothing happens. One good bright flashlight helps you to move safely in the darkness and set up the tripod. It would be nice to think and find few places where to go shooting before the aurora is actually in the sky. It would be good if these places would not be very far, about 15-30 minutes drive from where you live. When thinking about such a place pick one where there is not so much light pollution.

Photo: © Caraman | Dreamstime Stock Photos


What equipment to use to photograph the northern lights?

TähedYou can see better aurora colors, when the sky is darker. In order to capture the aurora, your camera needs a lot of light to produce good image. So a good bright lens helps a lot. If you have only cheap lens use the brightest aparture setting and longer exposure times. Even with the best lens you will need a solid tripod under your camera. When shooting at hand your photos will be noisy and blurry. In some sence the aurora photography is like photographing the stars. You can use same principles and camera settings. If you would like to test your gear and learn photographing the northern lights, you can start by trying to photograph the stars. Try out how long exposure time your camera needs and which is the lowest ISO setting that you can use. It all depends on the lens, the focal lenght and the camera sensor. Even with small focal lenghts, the stars are getting trailing when exposure time exeeds 30 seconds.


On the photo: the Orion constellation, full manual settings, focused to infinity.

Pentax K10D and Helios 44M @ 58mm, ISO400, f2, 13s.

Modern DSLR camera gives you the best control to capture the aurora. This camera does not have to be the newest and the most expensive one. You can get nice photos with entry level camera and kit lens. The expensive ones have just larger sensors with lower noise and more photo details. What matters really is the possibility to use the manual camera moda and bulb setting. Then you can set the exposure, aparture and sensitivity right. It is best to use manual focusing too, it is better in the darkness and saves your camera battery life. If you camera has a RAW photo capture mode, then use this to get more details when you post process the image later on the personal computer. JPG is not so good option.

Pentax K10D and Helios44M @ 58mm, f2, ISO200, 15s. Date 17.03.2013

What lens can you use? The brighter lens is better with maximum aparture. It is no point to turn the aparture smaller. Most kit lens have the largest aparture setting f3.5. Mida heledam (suurema avaarvuga) on objektiiv, seda lihtsamini virmalised pildile jäävad. Enamike kit objektiivide suurim avaarv on f3.5. A lens with aparture value f1.8, f2 or f2.8 would be much better. The less focal lenght you use, the wider the view you will get. I recommend trying different lenses. Even a 50mm f2 lens can give good results because it is brighter than your 18mm f3.5 lens. There is no right or wrong. You may try different focal lenghts**.

Northern Lights in Estonia

Pentax K10D and Helios44M @ 58mm, f2, ISO400, 8s. Taken17.03.2013

I use one old good manual 58mm f2 Helios 44M lens for aurora photography sometimes. The first Helios 44 lens were produced in 1958.

Objektiiv This lens has big aparture and I can use shorter exposure times. My pentax has a crop factor of 1.5, so the real 35mm equivalent focal lenght of this Helios is 87mm 🙂

87mm focal lenght means that when the exposure time gets 10 seconds or more, the startrails will be visible on the photo.When I keep this in mind the photos will be nice and distant aurora looks nearer on the photograph.

To keep the exposure time below 10 seconds I must use higher ISO usually 800 or so, sometimes 1600 or 3200 with my new Pentax K5. If I do not mind startrails on the photo, then ISO 200 and eexposure time 60 seconds or more is needed.

Helios 44M m42 lens

NB! When using longer focal lenght, the smallest camera movement causes blurring on the photo. When using long exposure time, stars show movement on the photo. It is not always bad and you can use it to get a nice little extra mood.

Aurora and Star Trails

Pentax K10D and Helios44M @ 58mm, f2, ISO400, 30s. Date 18.03.2013

How to Photograph the Northern Lights?

Every photographer has his own style and experiences. There are more than one ways to get a good photo of the northern lights. One is for sure, if you want these sharp images of the auroras then a good solid tripod is a must have tool. For exposure times up to 30 seconds a tripod and 12 second self timer is good enough. These 12 seconds allow us to eliminate the camera movement caused by the push of the photo capture button.

One nice accessory is remote shutter release cable. I use remote cable if the exposure is longer than 30 seconds. You will need to set up the camera in Bulb mode for that. Just hold down the button on your remote release and you can take photos with exposure time 1,2, 5 or more minutes. It is up to you. Just remember to turn the ISO smaller for very long exposure shots.  


What do these indexes and numbers mean?

Aurora Borealis – very old name for the northern lights. In 1621 Pierre Gassendi gave this name. “Aurora” was the name of the Roman goddess of dawn and “borealis” is a Greek word for the north wind.

Kp-index – The official planetary Kp index is derived by calculating a weighted average of K-indices from a network of geomagnetic observatories. You can find more information fro here. Kp-index should be 3-4 or more to get a better view of northern lights in Estonia. Number 5-9 means a very good probability for the auroras. – nice chart that shows you where and how much Kp-index is needed to view the northern lights.

Colors of the northern lights – there are three basic colors.

Green – Oxygen at about –150 km up gives off the green color.

Red – Oxygen at higher altitudes about (250 km and above) gives the red auroras.

Violet – Nitrogen gives off the red-puple colors.

IMF (Inteplanetary Magnetic Field) Bz – is a vector quantity with three directional components. Bx and By
are oriented parallel to the ecliptic. The third component Bz is perpendicular to the ecliptic and is created by waves and other disturbances in the solar wind. The higher the negative value, the better chance for stronger auroras. More info.

Velocity – the speed of the solar wind [km/s]. The velocity of the solar wind is not uniform. The normal speed is about 390 – 400[km/s]. That means that the solar wind speed is about 1 million miles per hour. When speed is stronger, the aurora will be stronger too. More information is here.

Density – the proton density of the solar wind is typically about 4-7 particles/cc [cm-3]. These particles are measured by Nasa ACE satellite in the space. The density rises significally during powerful solar wind. Read more about solar wind and density from here:

Solar Flares – are bright and powerful explosion like energy releases in the solar atmosphere. When a solar flare occurs and it is directed towards the Earth, then two or three days later a more powerful aurora might be visible. The speed of the solar wind varies so that the exact timing is unpredictable. Solar flares cause radiation and disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field. Solar flares are not visible with naked eye. You should never look at the Sun unprotected. There are special instruments for viewing the Sun.

Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M and X flares. Read more.

Photo X class solar flare: NASA

Coronal Mass Ejection also CME – Coronal mass ejections release huge quantities of plasma matter and electromagnetic radiation into space above the sun’s surface or farther into the planet system, or beyond (interplanetary CME). These highly energetic particles in the solar wind can cause particularly strong aurorae in large regions around Earth’s magnetic poles. Read more.

How important is the viewing time and place?

The right time and place are very important. Even the most powerful northern lights may be invisible when sky is full of clouds or You are just too far away from the poles. You should find out how strong the Aurora should be in order to be visible in your living place. – nice chart that you can use to find out how strong the Kp-index should be.

It would be wise to use Google Earth or regular paper maps to find at least 4-5 places for photographing the northern lights, that are not too far away from your home. What to look for?

The easiest way is to use Google Earth satellite view. You are looking for places that are at least 10-15 minute drive from city or other constant light source. You will need a large field or meadow, lake or sea or other treeless area facing north. You keep your camera facing north when shooting, so it would be good if nearby cities would be located on your left, right and behind, but not in the front (north side).  You can make a screenshot and mark suitable places. You can mark nice places green and bad light sources red. So it is easier to decide later. Here in Estonia, most little light sources like villages and private homes will be gone when the time is late enough 02-05 am 🙂

3DView from Google Earth

Try to keep things simple. Pick the best place you can. It is unbelievable how far the light pollution travels at night. Even if there is some pollution in the distance keep shutter times a bit shorter and shoot your photos.

One example. We can see the lights from Hiiumaa when photographing on the northern coastline here in Saaremaa. From Hiiumaa and from the northern coast of Estonia, the lights from Finland are visible over the sea.

View from the Panga Panga in Saaremaa. Lights from Hiiumaa are in the distance.

When to photograph? Northern Lights are best viewed when nights are dark and clear. So nights from October till March are the best. In the summertime aurora may be seen, but it must be more powerful to be visible in the brighter night sky. The full moon has a bad effect on aurora too. It makes the whole sky much more brighter.

Pentax K10D ja smc DA 18-55mm @ 18mm, f3.5, ISO200, 54s. Kuupäev 17.03.2013

It is possible to use modern software and information technology for better chance to photograph the northern lights. Weather information ia available free online and from comfortable apps in you smartphone (ForecaWeather free, AccuWeather, and others). You can see information about sunrise and sunset, when the moon rises and many more. With PC, Stellarium free software creates virtual sky on your computer screen. You can choose what date and time you are interested in. You can trackt the movement of stars and planets. Very useful and convinient. Modern DSLR cameras are very good for photographing northern lights. Their sensors are getting better every year and so you can use higher ISO and get less noise and more megapixels.

Photo: Stellarium free software on PC

There are cool apps for smartphones, that make seeing northern lights easier. I have Aurora Forecast, 3D Sun and Aurora installed on my iPhone. it seems to me that the first of them is the best. They are all made available for iOS devices. I am sure you canfind similar apps for Android too.

Thanks to internet we can work together to capture beautiful auora photos, share them and share advice and our experiences. It is possible to see photos made hundreds of miles away. The earth is in our reach. There are many good posts, forums and aurora related facebook groups online. If you do know some good Aurora resource online, then you are welcome to comment and only the best links will be highlighted in the end of this article. That makes it really easy to find good information on this topic.

NB! If you find this little aricle useful, then you can let us know 😉 Just add our facebook page to your favourites by clicking “Like”. By doing this you will be well informed about Northern Lights in Estonia in the future.

Little list to keep all the neccessary items with you, when goint to find the northern lights 🙂

How to photograph the northernlights
What to do when you have found the northern lights and want to take some photographs 🙂


Related links about the northern lights:

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