This Northern Lights Photography settings guide, in 7 easy steps, is aimed at beginners. You can use any camera with an option for Manual settings. Following these steps, most modern cameras will produce beautiful digital photos for on-screen purposes.
Step 1: Set to Manual
- Set your camera to Manual.
- Set your lens to Manual.
- Turn off Image Stabilization (typically the button next to ‘manual’ on your lens).
- Turn your Flash setting to OFF!
Why must I use the Manual settings?
Automatic settings are great in daylight, when the camera can sense and measure it’s surrounding. But cameras don’t see in the dark, and thus the Automatic setting is useless in Northern Lights conditions. If you leave your lens set to Automatic, it will continuously zoom in and out in a failed attempt to find focus in the dark. And because of the dark it will want to use the flash; to read the area. Your flash, however, is a harsh light pollutant and will wash out the Northern Lights and temporarily blind everyone around you. Make sure your flash is set to OFF.
Step 2: ISO setting
- ISO 1600 is a good start
What does the ISO setting do?
This is what controls the light sensitivity of your ‘film’. Some of you may remember a pre-digital era when you had to choose a different ISO film for different occasions. ISO 100 or lower for sunny days and ISO 200-400 for cloudy days. Digitally, now it’s a turn of a button. The ISO button. The higher the ISO, the less light you need to “develop” a picture. But beware; with higher ISO comes lower quality. Most modern cameras do well with ISO 1600 (or even more) without compromising quality. Older cameras may produce grainy photos on ISO above 400/800. It’s helpful to gain a deeper understanding of ISO
Step 3: Aperture = f-stop
- or the lowest f-number you can get
What does the aperture do?
The aperture, or f-stop (f-2.8, f-4, f-5,6 etc) on your camera tells you how widely your lens is open = the size of the opening letting light through the lens. This you can adjust by setting the f-stop. Confusingly, the lower the f-number, the bigger the opening. For Northern Lights photography we want the biggest opening (the lowest f-number) possible on our camera. Because: the more light your lens can take in = the lower shutter speed you can use = the quicker you can capture your shot = the more detail you can get in your Northern Lights image (because the lights are constantly moving).
Step 4: Shutter speed
- 20 sec. is a good start
What does the shutter speed do?
Shutter speed = exposure time = the time your lens is open and absorbing light. You will need to adjust the shutter speed as the strength of the Northern Lights changes through an evening. For example: Soft lights = 15-30 sec. shutter speed. Strong lights = 1-6 sec. shutter speed.
Step 5: Use a Tripod
- Mount your camera on a tripod
Why do I need a tripod?
Holding your breath and keeping very very still is not gonna cut it. You may be taking your photo for 30 seconds, that’s half a minute. Maybe it will even be windy. Bottom line: you will move = your photo will be blurry. So use a tripod. It can be as minimal as you like, it just needs to not be a living, breathing human body… as you will hopefully be in spite of the cold conditions
Step 6: Zoom & Focus
- Zoom out (lowest mm setting on your lens)
Here are some focus-finding options:
- Set to the infinity symbol, if you have one: ∞
- Pre-set your focus during the day
- Zoom in on a star or the Moon, set the focus and zoom back out
“But my camera has auto-focus”
Not in the dark. Get to know your manual focus options. If you have the infinity option (∞), great. But test it, it may not be exact. Ideally, find your focus during daylight hours, and either memorise it or make a mark on your lens rim (use tape, white marker, Tippex etc.). And always zoom out completely, the Northern Lights occupy a large space in the sky, and we want to capture as much of it as we can.
Step 7: Remotely release the shutter
- Use a remote control, or
- a 2 sec. self-timer, or
- an app.
Why can’t I just push the shutter button?
Earlier, we talked about the problems of being a living, breathing human body. Every time you touch your camera you will shake it, causing a possible blur in your photo. This is also applicable when you push the shutter-release button. Remote control is best. 2 sec. self-timer is also good. Some cameras can use apps.
Try out all these Northern Lights Photography settings before going out on your hunt. Get to know your camera. Once you are out, set everything up and do some test shots. Adjust the settings as needed. If your image is too bright, lower your shutter speed or ISO. If your image is too dark, up your shutter speed or ISO.
It’s as simple as that!
Normally not needed for a 3-4 hours night out Northern Lights hunting. But, if your camera is highly technical or if you will be using an app, you may be needing 1-2 extra batteries.
Want a picture of yourself under the Northern Lights?
Not that lucky? No problem! You will need a friend and a strong flashlight, or ideally a manually operated camera flash (don’t attach it to your camera, just hold it behind the camera and shoot manually). Use all the same settings as above for the Northern Lights. And then the aim is to freeze the subject, you, in motion. As a living, breathing human being you can’t stay completely motionless for the duration of exposure time. So:
- You stay as still as humanly possible during the whole exposure time.
- Anywhere during the exposure time your friend flashes you with a quick light.