Photographing northern lights

Article & photo by Al Perry

Northern Lights with Moon, Alaska
Northern Lights with Moon, Alaska

Many people have some knowledge of northern lights (aurora borealis), but few have viewed or photographed the colorful, dancing lights in the sky. In less than six months, the northern lights (aurora borealis) can be viewed and photographed in the northern hemisphere. If you want to see them sooner, go to the southern hemisphere.

Northern (and southern) lights can occur all hours of the day, night and seasons of the year. However, northern lights are best viewed under cloudless, moonless, and dark skies in spring and fall at high latitude in the arctic. Active sunspots allow coronal mass ejections of charged particles from the sun to sometimes be directed toward the earth. A few of these fast moving charged particles strike our upper atmosphere and release a photon that we view as green, red, pink, blue, yellow and/or purple northern (or southern) light.

If you want to photograph the aurora borealis, travel to the arctic circle in September or March, take along warm boots, outer and inner wear, sturdy tripod, fast wide angle lens, low noise camera, and lots of patience. Aurora forecasts are not very reliable. If you are serious about photographing the aurora, plan on going out at 10 PM each evening and not coming back before 6 AM.  It also helps to avoid big groups of other viewers/photographers as their head lights and LCD’s will often show in your images.

Active northern lights occur about once every ten to fifteen nights. Extraordinary northern lights occur about once every 45 days. For example, I had one very good night in Iceland during a 2 1/2 week visit. Clouds are more of a problem in Northern Europe than in North America. During 2 1/2 weeks in Alaska, I had two very good nights, one of which was extraordinary. Shown with this column is one of 4000+ images during one 8 hour evening. Each of the 4000 images is of similar quality, but all are different in content. For active northern lights, plan on an exposure time of about 10 seconds at f/2.8, 1600 ISO. People’s eyes are more receptive to green, which is the main color of northern lights. Your camera sensor can bring out all the colors of northern lights if properly exposed. Fairbanks, Alaska, is a good location due to its clear skies, relatively low airfares and winter maintenance of major road access to several good viewing areas.

If you want to view time lapse photography of the northern lights in motion, go to