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November 12, 2020


For many winter photographers, seeing and photographing the Northern Lights is an absolute dream but unless you are one of the lucky few to live very far north or very far south, you'll likely need to plan a trick to the Arctic to get your fix. Either way, seeing the Northern Lights in person should definitely be a bucket list item for all photographers.

Northern lights are quite difficult to explain but let’s try to make sense of this incredible phenomenon. 

The Nitty Gritty: 

The sun emits energy particles constantly. During high solar activity, you may hear about a solar flare. This is when a wave of particles from a coronal hole moves as what we call a solar wind.

The earth's magnetic field is a shield that starts at the two poles and surrounds the planet like a big force field. Protection against solar activity is therefore more effective at the equator, rather than at the poles where the magnetic field is vertical and more direct.

The magnetic field attracts solar winds. When a strong eruption occurs, it will follow the Earth's magnetic field to the poles, and the solar wind has the opportunity to pass through the shield. Then we speak of a geomagnetic storm.

Solar particles come into the atmosphere, they ignite and become visible as bright, often green glows in the sky. These are the auroras. The stronger the magnetic activity is, the more it extends and covers the globe towards the equator. In other words, the further north you go, the better it is to see small auroras as well as big ones!

We often talk about aurora borealis because they are the ones we can observe most easily, but in reality we call this phenomenon polar aurora (or aurora polaris). The aurora borealis appears in the northern hemisphere, and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. If you look at a globe, you will quickly understand that it is easier to see aurora in the northern hemisphere, instead of the southern. 

How to measure the intensity of an Aurora:

There is a scale to measure the intensity of an aurora, it goes from KP0 to KP9. Globally, up to KP 3 it is an arch, but the further north you are, the higher it is in the sky. From KP4/5 on, it's a much bigger shape and a much stronger light that appears in the sky and dances at an incredible speed. And beyond that, the aurora is no longer just green but can take on pink and red hues.

Kirkjufell, Iceland
Kirkjufell, Iceland

What gear do you need to shoot northern lights? 

1. Camera 

A camera of course! You don't need to have the latest camera. But you have to know that the more you have the ability to go up in ISO, the more you pictures would be sharp and noiseless.

2. Lens

Wide-angle lens is great to be able to integrate a nice foreground in addition to the northern lights show in the sky. The lens must have the largest aperture possible, like f/2.8 or f/1.8. If you want to invest for an APS-C, I’d recommend the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 which fits several brands. If you use a full-frame camera, I’d recommend the Sigma Art 14mm f/1.8 which is the lens I use.

3. A tripod

Your tripod must be both very stable to withstand wind and snow, and strong enough to support the weight of your equipment. Some important criteria to choose a tripod are: 

  • Weight supported by the tripod
  • Weight and material of the tripod
  • The kind of ball
  • The heigh when folded and unfolded
  • The number of sections, etc. 

I have an in depth article on how to choose a tripod but it's in French, so you'll need to brush up on your language skills or use Google Translate. :) 

4. A remote control

A remote control is very helpful to avoid vibrations of the shutter release, and to not use the camera timer. 

And finally, don’t forget your beautiful Vallerret gloves! They are your best friends and will keep your hands warm when you spend the night out waiting for northern lights!  

Otertinden, Norway & Straumnes, LofotenLeft: Otertinden, Norway. Right:Straumnes, Lofoten

What are the best settings to shoot the Northern Lights ? 

First of all, I advise shooting in manual focus. Focusing at night is not an easy thing to do, so if you mess it... You'll be disappointed to have a blurry picture. I'm telling you, I've lived it!

The best way is to do an infinite focus either day or night on your lit car with an important distance for example. You can also focus manually by lighting something far in front of you with a headlamp. Or you can use focus peaking for those who have this setting on their camera. The small lines will allow you to focus on the top of a mountain or on the stars.

Regarding the settings, I also advise you to shoot in manual mode. A basic set-up would be something like:

  • ISO: highest and exploitable ISO (from 800 to +++)
  • Aperture: as large as possible - the ideal is f/1.8 or f/2.8
  • Speed: I would say from no slower than 8s for small auroras that don't move - lowering the ISOs to reduce noise – to as fast as you need to capture green lights movement depending on the strength of the auroras

Finally, speed will be the setting you need to monitor the most. If a very strong aurora appears, it will produce a lot of light which will allow you to shoot faster and lower your ISO. To capture the draw of quick movement of these strong auroras in your photo, do not use too slow a speed.

If, for your first time, you are afraid to miss it, you can also put your camera on priority aperture. The speed will automatically adjust itself according to the intensity of the light and your picture will not be overexposed. 

Kirkjufell, Iceland & Dimmuborgir, IcelandLeft: Kirkjufell, Iceland. Right: Dimmuborgir, Iceland

The northern lights hunter's toolbox

In the Nordic countries, the weather is capricious. However, to see auroras, you need clear sky and avoid light pollution. You can't control Mother Nature, so you might put all the chances on your side!

SpaceWeatherLive offers aurora borealis predictions over 1 month here. These forecasts are not guaranteed, they are the result of the geomagnetic activity detected. On the home page you’ll find the strength of the current auroras on the scale from KP0 to KP9.

SoftServNews gives you the auroras forecast for the next 45 minutes and it is quite correct most of the time.

If you go to Iceland, EN.VEDUR website allows you to follow very precisely the cloud cover. It is very useful to move according to the weather and adjust your itinerary if you are in a camper van. Maybe that at 1h drive from your position there is a clear sky window to shoot!

Live Aurore Networks allows observing the sky through cameras installed in Iceland and Norway. You can check the cameras located around you to see where the auroras appear. You can also watch it during the weeks before your trip, to get you excited about your trip.

If you are going to Norway, I recommend the application or website YR.no - to follow the weather. The forecast was perfect when we drove 14 hours round trip from Norway to Finland to find 1 hour of clear sky.

The most important advice if you are going on northern lights hunt is: HAVE PATIENCE! This is a stunning phenomenon to witness so be patient and enjoy the show. You will not be disappointed. ;)

Eastern fjords, Iceland

This article was written by Vallerret ambassador Aurora Alifanti. Aurore is a french photographer passionate about cities and nature landscapes. Travel means happiness for her, and this is how she fell in love with Nordic landscapes. She thinks that the most important thing in photography is feelings. A beautiful picture is an image that provides emotions. She shares her passion and vision of photography through a french blog to learn photography and editing. You can follow her on instagram here: @auroe_alifanti

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