How to Find and Photograph the Northern Lights

Professional photographer and filmmaker based in the South Okanagan Valley. Commercial, Advertising, Marketing, Real Estate, Travel, Tourism, Wedding, WorkshopsProfessional photographer and filmmaker based in the South Okanagan Valley. Commercial, Advertising, Marketing, Real Estate, Travel, Tourism, Wedding, Workshops So you’re Social Media accounts have been bombarded with photos of green, red and violet skies and you’re thinking to yourself “I’ve spent so many nights outside and have NEVER seen the Northern Lights, how can I find them?!”. Easier said than done but with a little preparation, persistence and understanding of what causes these aurora to light up the sky, you’re chances of seeing them will greatly increase. There are a myriad of factors to consider before venturing out with the expectations of seeing the aurora borealis; nearby light pollution, moon phase, your location, local weather and most importantly, auroral conditions. They must be active to be visible. Below are a few websites I use before heading out in search of the Northern Lights. There are also smartphone apps that will notify you when they are active. The Geomagnetic Activity level (kp) must be around a 4 or 5 for them to be visible in Southern Canada/Northern USA.

Green and purple northern lights fill the night sky over Naramata's Wharf Park and Okanagan Lake in the South Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.Green and purple northern lights fill the night sky over Naramata's Wharf Park and Okanagan Lake in the South Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

Great storms on the Sun, most notably Solar Flares & Coronal Mass Ejections, send massive bursts of gas and magnetic field hurtling into space. When these charged particles from the Sun strike atoms in our Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light. This process creates the beautiful aurora, or Northern Lights. Oxygen results in a green aurora while nitrogen causes the blue and red colours. If the storm is strong enough, the sky will shimmer with a magnetic pulse similar to a strobe light.

A collection of photographs from a solo backpacking trip to Iceland in 2012. Skaftafell National Park, Hofn, Reykjavic, West Fjords, Golden Circle tour, Thingvellir,A collection of photographs from a solo backpacking trip to Iceland in 2012. Skaftafell National Park, Hofn, Reykjavic, West Fjords, Golden Circle tour, Thingvellir, The Northern Lights and a lenticular cloud are reflected in a small melt-pool near Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.The Northern Lights and a lenticular cloud are reflected in a small melt-pool near Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

When & Where to Look for the Aurora Borealis?

North of course! Although that’s not so easy in the dark without a compass so here’s a guide to finding Polaris, the North Star. You’ll also have to make sure there are no cities in the direction you are looking as this will cloud the night sky with “light pollution” or ambient light. Find a dark location with a clear northern viewpoint away from ALL light sources. You heard me. Put away your phone and let your eyes adjust to the dark night sky. Keep an eye on the “Auroral Oval” map for any dense areas of red or yellow; this is an indication that the northern lights are extremely active and visible in the sky. There is no specific time that they appear so you’ll just have to get out there and wait. I can tell you where the storm is but not when the lightning will strike. Bring a blanket, chair, hot beverages, friends and whatever else you can think of to pass the time and make it enjoyable.

How to find Polaris, the North Star

How to Photograph / What Camera Settings to Use

Possibilities seem endless photographing the Northern Lights. You’ll need a long exposure so set your camera up on a tripod and set your camera to Manual Mode. I’d recommend a fast, wide angle lens so that you can capture as much of the sky as possible. f/2.8 is best but f/3.5 will work great. Start by setting your ISO to ~1600, give or take depending on the brightness and speed of the aurora, and open up your aperture. Shutter speed will vary from 6 to 20 seconds depending on the intensity of the lights so play around with settings until you find that sweet spot.

Camera Settings:

  • Aperture: f/2.8 or 3.5 - as wide as your lens will open to
  • Shutter Speed: 6-25 seconds - the faster the aurora shimmers, the shorter the shutter speed
  • ISO: 800-2000
  • White Balance: Daylight or 4000K

Equipment:

  • Tripod
  • DSLR/Manual Settings
  • Wide Angle Lens
  • Extra Batteries
  • Intervalometer/Remote Shutter Release – optional

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