Equip yourself with the right gear and an imaginative spirit, and you’ll have a delightful experience photographing the northern lights.
These tips come to you from our northern lights adventure in Churchill, Manitoba–one of the best places on the planet to witness the aurora borealis.
1. Keep an extra camera battery close at hand. Don’t miss your opportunity to photograph the northern lights while rummaging through your camera bag in the dark! Keep your extra battery on your person in an inner pocket so your body warmth can work its magic, and you’ll have instant access to a ready-to-go replacement in case your primary battery freezes up.
2. Use a tripod and focus on the foreground. It’s dark, you’ll be working with long exposures, and you WILL get a few blurry photos. Reduce the potential for this with a solid tripod. Once you’re set up, have a friend shine some light on a nearby object in the foreground and use this to help focus your lens.
3. Bring a protective camera cover. In case there are snow flurries, you’ll be able to keep shooting while sheltering your camera from the elements. This also allows you to leave your whole setup outdoors if you need to go inside for a bit. Avoid the situation in #6!
4. Headlamps are your friend. Hands-free lighting will be invaluable as you juggle tripod adjustments, tiny camera buttons and your ever-present pair of gloves (an essential item for enduring the northern elements, but the bane of every photographer’s existence). Find one with a red light setting to help you preserve night vision. Get more clothing and gear recommendations for a northern lights adventure here.
5. Play around with lighting, colors and composition. The northern lights are going to be the star of your photo. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun with your foreground. Whether it’s windblown “flag tree” pines, a teepee glowing with firelight or Nat Hab’s glass-enclosed Aurora Pod, play with composition, lighting and colors for a unique shot.
Your headlamp can double as foreground lighting if you want to play with color. You’ll get a blue hue using one with an LED bulb or “sportsman” mode. A “night vision” setting will offer a saturated red contrast to the greens and blues of the aurora borealis. A traditional non-LED headlamp or flashlight achieves a warm, more neutral tone.
6. Don’t bring your camera back inside until you’re 100% done taking photos. Once that happens, your camera will fog up with condensation. Rest assured, it’s temporary. But if you want to warm up a bit, leave your camera outside while you head inside to enjoy your steaming hot cocoa. Just remember: only bring it in with you when you’re done photographing for the evening.
7. At some point, your camera may give up. So enjoy the view! Sometimes you can be totally prepared and sufficiently equipped with 13 batteries and plenty of life left in all of them, but your camera just doesn’t want to play nice. I was surprised when my DSLR’s mechanisms themselves completely froze up after a few hours on a recent northern lights photography adventure in Churchill. I was unable to take any more photos, despite multiple warm, fully-charged backup batteries.
The silver lining: I was gifted with an incredible occasion to be in the moment, unhurried and unconcerned with the mechanical world before me as the natural world came alive above me.
Even for photographers, the camera can become secondary to the experience–maybe no more so than when the magnificent northern lights fire up across a starry nighttime expanse. Soak it all in while you can.
Want to learn about specific camera lenses and settings for capturing the colorful lights of the aurora borealis? Check out our extensive post on the topic over at The Natural Photographer!
By Megan Koelemay, Director of Digital Marketing at Natural Habitat Adventures.