Northern Lights and Northern Norway

A few weeks ago, I had a trip to Northern Norway to see and try to photograph the Northern Lights. Of course, that meant I "had" to buy a new lens, as I didn't have a fast wideangle. Since its release, I'd been looking at the 24mm L f/1.4 II, but I couldn't decide whether to get that lens or the Zeiss 21mm or TS/E 24mm. The need for a wide aperture finally decided it and pushed me into the purchase. I was a little over-ambitious, as I tried to get a bit of foreground in focus, using hyperfocal focusing, which is slightly awkward, when the DoF scale goes from 3m to infinity. As a result, I missed focus on quite a few, but I did manage to get some shots of the Aurora, even though activity was pretty quiet.

Aurora Arc by Kernuak, on Flickr

Northern Lights Silhouette by Kernuak, on Flickr

Lights in the Sky by Kernuak, on Flickr
Thanks to you both. I was a bit frustrated when I got back and looked at the northern lights images I had taken, because I didn't take the time to check everything was ok at the time. Luckily, the last two were ok (if a little dim by that time) and the first one had passable focus.


Aug 26, 2010
scrappydog said:
Can you provide any tips? I think a northern lights trip is in my near future.

I do some northern light shooting, and as you already noted, fast and wide lenses are ideal. The EF 15/2.8 Fisheye is a very good and reasonably priced alternative for FF, otherwise the EF-S 10-22/3.5-4.5 has worked very well for me on APS-C. The EF 24/1.4L II on FF is about the ultimate (but pricey) if the northern lights are not right above you, covering the full sky (in which case a wider angle is better). Depth of field is normally not an issue for celestial targets, so shoot wide open. An exception may be made if you want foreground objects in focus as well (making more interesting compositions).

A tip is to try to keep your exposures down to less than 30s, preferably even 10s if possible, as the aurorae are dynamic and change over those timescales. Longer exposures therefore tend to show less structure due to motion blur (you can use this for interesting effects as well). For fainter aurorae don't be afraid to push up the ISO to 1600-3200 as you will likely not need to resolve very small details in the images anyway, meaning they can take some heavy processing. An exception is if you're attempting to get a sharp silhouette, like in the nice tree example by Kernuak above. As always, iso, aperture and exposure time will be trade-offs.

Use manual focus and live view with max zoom-in to focus on a bright star or distant street lamp (unless your primary subject is more closely).

What really helps your image of an auora is if you can get to an as dark place as possible with limited light pollution from street lights etc. It makes a huge difference for these faint surface structures!

Aurorae require patience, the intensity can change dramatically over 10's of minutes; if they don't look good to start with, don't dispair; they might grow much brighter in the comiang hours. In my experience, aurorae are best after midnight. Depending on where you are, there are aurora forecast webpages you can consult to better plan your night.

A useful method is to make time-lapse phtography of aurorae. You can just start your camera and take contiuous images for a few hours. Later you can pick out the moment where the aurora was most impressive. And you can make a cool movie showing how the aurorae move in front of a background of slowly moving stars (due to Earth rotation; the stars move about 0-15 degrees in an hour depending on where you look).
I think epsiloneri pretty much covered it and I was pretty much a novice with the lights anyway. One thing the guide said to me, was that he tries not to go above ISO 800, but the 5D MkII does cope with 1600 fine for when you need to go higher. Looking at my images, there is definitely a difference between the ISO 800 and 1600, but I think most people would accept a bit of noise when you're shooting in the pitch black :p. Most advice suggests going for around a 5 second exposure, when it is possible, which isn't that often. I tried ISO 800 at 15 secs and ISO 1600 at 8 secs, when it was at its strongest. I probably should have stopped down a little, to cope better with the depth of field (I did stop down to f/1.6 later) and improve overall sharpness, although I'm not sure how much difference it would have made in reality.
My plan is to have another go in the next aurora season, possibly in Finland, where the weather is more predictable (but also much colder), although, we weren't far from the Finnish border with a bit of travelling.
Thanks Rob.
Btw, I forgot to mention the usual recommendation of f/2.8 or faster lenses, but that said, the 10-22 is commonly used, as are some fisheyes, as epsiloneri mentioned, although I was on full frame, so the 10-22 wasn't an option. Also, don't use filters, apparently you get interference patterns.