How to photograph the Northern Lights

FOR WAN ONLINE USE ONLY. NOT TO BE USED IN PRINT Very strong Northern Lights. Aurora borealis attract every year many tourists.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Stunning to see but tricky to capture on camera. Stephen Scourfield explains how to photograph the Northern Lights.


Practice “taking control of the camera” by setting it on manual. Work out how to do long exposures, and make sure the camera is absolutely firmly placed. Practice with the night photography preset, if it has one. Increase the ISO to 1600 if you can. If the camera will let you, manual focus on infinity (the figure 8 on its side).


Put the camera on manual, pro or shutter speed priority setting (not automatic). Putting it on a solid tripod is best, but a wall, beanbag on a car bonnet or held really firmly base-to a pole for a vertical shot will help.

I’d start with a 24mm or 28mm lens (or zoom lens set to that). Manual focus on infinity (the sideways figure 8).

Here’s the first rule … set your lens to its widest possible aperture (for example f2.8, or f2, or as low as it goes) before you start increasing ISO to get a brighter image.

I then set my ISO to 800 for test shots. If then aren’t bright enough, increase the ISO to 1600 and take another practice shot. Always remember that as you push this up, the image becomes “grainy” and you lose quality — do it reluctantly.

Keep the white balance on auto and shoot RAW files rather than jpegs (most cameras can).

For those who are really technical, it’s always better to underexpose so as to not blow out the green channel. Check the image histogram.

You’ll usually get best results with between five and 25 second exposures. When the aurora is moving quickly, try five to seven second exposures. When it’s slow, try 10 to 25 second exposures. But this is just a rule of thumb — react to the results you are seeing in your screen.


Remember to have spare batteries in a pocket next to your body, to keep it warm. Cold is the nemesis of batteries. 

When it’s really cold, I like a wear a pair of fingerless gloves inside an outer pair, so you can take the big gloves on and off and still have some protection.

Be very familiar with your camera equipment, but a small torch or torch app on you smartphone can be helpful.

Top picture: Getty Images.


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