one for the bucket list: how to photograph the northern lights

  • green and orange northern lights in Alaska picture by Christal Houghtelling

On Christmas night I stood next to my car in -40 degree temperatures outside of Denali National Park trying to capture the perfect photo of the Northern Lights.

Why?

Because photographing the northern lights is addictive, magical, and so much fun. It was also on my bucket list, and it’s probably on yours as well. The dancing lights can be fleeting, so I want to give you some tips on how to get it right the first time.

How to photograph the northern lights by Christal Houghtelling

Protecting your camera:

Taking your camera in and out of the cold can cause condensation, and so it is very important to properly protect your camera. I place my camera into an extra large airtight ziplock bag. I then place the camera into the camera bag that I have also had out in the cold. The condensation will form on the bag and not on my camera. The reason I place the plastic bag into a cold camera bag is to allow the camera to adjust slowly to temperature changes. Just be sure to let your camera warm up slowly, it can take quite a while.

green and orange northern lights in Alaska picture by Christal Houghtelling

Protecting yourself:

Be prepared for the weather! I live in Alaska and -20 or colder at night is normal. I wear thermal underwear, long sleeved shirts, a heavy winter coat, snow pants, snow boots, gloves, large mittens over my gloves, hat and a face mask. I also use hand warmers in my gloves, and my boots. I like to be warm! Obviously this might be overkill for where you live, so prepare yourself accordingly. DO NOT touch your tripod without gloves in very cold weather. It can be very painful, I know from experience!

the northern lights behind a forrest pic by Christal Houghtelling

Recommended Gear for photographing the Northern Lights

  • Tripod: You will need a tripod for the long exposures that are required.
  • Shutter release: Although this isn’t a requirement, I find that using one helps keep the photo sharp, and free from camera shake.
  • Wide angle lens with a wide aperture: I use a Nikon 14-24 exclusively for my northern light photos, but the Nikon 24 1.4 G is on my wish list.
  • Extra Battery: You will be taking lots of long exposures, and the cold reduces battery life! Be sure to keep an extra battery on hand. I keep mine inside my coat to keep it warm.

swirling green northern lights photo by Christal Houghtelling

Recommended Camera Settings

Your camera settings will vary depending on the brightness of the Aurora, but here are some good starting points.

  • Aperture: Keep your f-stop around 1.4-2.8, or the widest your lens will open up.
  • ISO: Start with an ISO around 800, and increase or decrease as needed.
  • Shutter Speed: Shutter speeds will also need to vary depending on your desired effect. If the lights are dim try shooting around 1/15-1/25th of a second. If the lights are bright and really dancing, increase your shutter speed to 1/10 of a second or faster to catch the movements.
  • Focus: I set my camera on manual focus, and focus to “infinity”. Another way to focus is to use live view and focus on the moon or a star.

the northern lights behind a mountain photo by Christal Houghtelling

The northern lights can be unpredictable, and can change in intensity. You will need to adjust your settings as needed throughout the shoot.

Don’t let the dark winters keep you indoors and away from shooting. Yes, it can be hard to drag yourself out of your cozy bed, but it is worth it! Just don’t forget to stop for a moment and really enjoy what you are seeing. Now get out there and capture some magic!

northern lights photography by Christal Houghtelling

About the Author:

Christal Houghtelling is a Portrait and Wedding photographer based out of Palmer, Alaska. She enjoys life with her husband and 4 rambunctious children. Together as a family they enjoy going on hikes, out in the canoe, fishing, cooking and watching movies together. Christal uses a D700, and an assortment of prime lenses and zoom lenses on every shoot to capture her vision. She thrives on creating romantic, vibrant images for the adventurous in Alaska!

4 Comments

  1. elizabeth Sep 16 2014 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Just seeing the Northern Lights is on my bucket list, but ahh to photograph them too – would be amazing. Thank you for this great tutorial!

  2. Donna Sep 16 2014 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Wow! Thanks for such a great tutorial. Seeing the Northern Lights has been on my bucke list for far too long! Do you have any advice on White Balance? Thanks!

  3. Jess Sep 17 2014 at 1:09 am - Reply

    Wonderful! I’m also curious about white balance. While I’ve taken a number of Northern Light images… I’m always second guessing my WB. Thanks so much!

  4. Sarah Oct 02 2014 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this! I live at almost 9,000 ft in Colorado, and photographing the Milky Way is a new obsession. I can’t wait to get out on those cold, cold, COLD winter nights for crisp photos. No northern lights here, but my brother lives in AK and I am jonesing for a winter trip (for a lot of reasons!).

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