As a Canadian, I have seen the northern lights on quite a few occasions. However, I don’t think I’ve seen them since I was an age that was able to properly appreciate them. As I’ve gotten more and more into photography, I’ve seen countless numbers of northern lights photos from around the world. They quickly became the number one thing I wanted to photograph. The only problem is that I like warm climates, and I have rarely spent enough time north to see them.
However, one night in Burns Lake, British Columbia I decided to go out and try to photograph a really cheesy-looking motel sign and use a starry night as the back drop. When I took my first exposure, I inspected it to find a bright green streak trough it. I knew right away that the lights were about to come alive, I just didn’t realize how powerfully they would be. The northern lights danced through the sky for a solid hour and went from a simple streak of light through the sky to completely covering the sky in green.
If you’re interested in how I shot these images, I have outlined the process a little bit after the images. Enjoy!
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
- You Need a Stabilizing Device: Probably obvious to most, but you’re going to need a long exposure, so pack a tripod or something to stabilize the camera.
- Don’t Use an Extreme Shutter Exposure: Generally in star photography you need a really long exposure and high ISO. However, with the northern lights you can’t have too long of an exposure because the lights move too fast. However, you might not need an ISO that’s all too high because the lights are bright. I had my best results with an exposure of about 10 seconds. Anything longer and the lights started to just look like a green tint in the sky.
- Expose the Sky: When setting your exposure, expose for the sky. If you expose for the foreground you’re going to get a messed up exposure. The lights are the most important thing for your photo, so set your exposure properly for them.
- Build a Composition with More than the Lights: The lights are so beautiful that it would be easy to just shoot them. However, try to find something to place in the foreground of your image so that it doesn’t look too flat. If you can’t find a subject, create one by placing yourself in the photo like I did.
- Flash Bomb for Foreground Light: Depending on your composition, it might not be necessary. However, if you are good with lighting a scene, and you want to put a subject in your shot don’t be afraid to use a little bit of unnatural fill light to bring out something in the foreground of the image.
- Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Lights: I feel like lots of photographers, including myself, tend to miss the actual experience of certain things because we are so busy trying to capture the moment on film. Stop for a second and enjoy the moment; even the greatest photos are meaningless without an experience behind them to draw upon.