How To Photograph Northern Lights To Get The Best Pictures

Posted on October 23rd, 2023

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, present a captivating dance across the night sky, weaving a tapestry of colors that leave spectators in awe. 

This natural phenomenon is not just a spectacle to behold but a cherished subject among photographers. Capturing the Northern Lights on camera, with their ever-changing forms and hues, is both a challenge and a reward. 

Each photograph tells a story of a rare moment where nature unveils its abstract artistry. Alaska, with its pristine wilderness and dark skies, offers a magnificent theater to witness and photograph this celestial ballet. Among the myriad night sky wonders, the Northern Lights stand out as an entrancing subject that promises a blend of challenge and enchantment for every photographer.

Understanding how to photograph Northern Lights is akin to acquiring a key to a hidden realm of photographic adventure. The colors, the motion, and the settings where the auroras unveil themselves, set the stage for photographs that are nothing short of magical. 

Every click of the shutter, under the ghostly glow of the auroras, can result in a masterpiece that resonates with the heartbeat of the wild Alaskan nights. 

So, if you're keen to venture into the cold, under the starlit skies, to chase the elusive auroras and capture their glory on camera, you're in for an experience that's as enriching as it is exhilarating. And while the Northern Lights are a spectacle anyone can enjoy, photographing them well requires a blend of preparation, understanding, and technique.

Getting Ready for Your Adventure

Preparation is the cornerstone of a successful Northern Lights photography outing. Embarking on this photographic journey with the right gear and knowledge will significantly enhance the quality of your captures.

Gear Up

Investing in the right gear is the initial step in your quest to photograph Northern Lights. A camera capable of manual settings, a sturdy tripod, and a fast lens are the essentials. The camera should allow long exposure times to capture the light adequately. A tripod ensures stability, especially crucial when shooting in low light conditions. A fast lens, with a large aperture, gathers more light, making it easier to capture the auroras vividly.

Know Your Equipment

Familiarity with your equipment is crucial. Understanding the settings on your camera, how to adjust the focus in the dark, and how to stabilize your tripod on uneven terrain are skills that will serve you well. Spend time getting to know your gear before heading out into the field.

Join a Guided Tour

Enrolling in a guided tour, like the ones offered by Capture Wild Alaska, can provide a profound advantage. Guided tours offer the expertise of experienced photographers who know the terrain and the best spots to capture the Northern Lights. They also provide real-time feedback, helping you adjust your technique and settings to get the best shots.

The first step towards mastering Northern Lights photography begins long before you step into the wild. It starts with understanding the importance of preparation, familiarizing yourself with your equipment, and considering the benefit of guided expertise. These elements lay the foundation for a successful and enjoyable Northern Lights photography adventure.

Understanding the Best Conditions

The natural theater for the Northern Lights is the night sky, but not every night presents an equally majestic show. Various factors come into play which can significantly impact your photography.

1. Weather and Clear Skies

A clear sky is your best friend when it comes to photographing the Northern Lights. Cloud cover can obscure the auroras, so monitoring the weather forecast is crucial. Look for nights with clear or mostly clear skies. Cold, crisp nights often provide the clearest views.

2. Solar Activity

The intensity of the Northern Lights is driven by solar activity. Tracking solar activity forecasts can help you anticipate good auroral displays. Websites and apps provide forecasts based on solar wind data and can be a valuable resource.

3. Location

Choosing the right location is paramount. Alaska's vast wilderness offers numerous spots away from city lights where the auroras shine bright. The farther you are from light pollution, the better your chances of capturing stunning images.

4. Timing and Seasonality

The Northern Lights are visible in Alaska from late August to early April, with the equinox months of September and March often providing the best displays. Timing your visit during these months can increase your chances of witnessing a spectacular auroral show.

Understanding and aligning with the natural conditions significantly heighten your chances of capturing the auroras in all their glory. It’s a blend of preparation and aligning with Mother Nature’s schedule that sets the stage for successful Northern Lights photography.

Camera Settings and Tips

The Northern Lights are elusive, and capturing them on camera requires a blend of the right settings and techniques.

1. Focus

Focusing in the dark can be tricky. Set your lens to infinity (∞), but ensure to check the sharpness by taking a few test shots and adjusting as necessary. Some photographers prefer manual focusing to get the sharpness just right.

2. Exposure

Long exposure times allow your camera to capture the light and color of the auroras. Start with an exposure time of about 15 to 20 seconds and adjust according to the intensity and movement of the lights.

3. ISO

A higher ISO setting will make your camera more sensitive to light, but it may also introduce noise. Start with an ISO setting of around 800 to 1600 and adjust based on the brightness of the auroras and the amount of ambient light.

4. Shutter Speed

Adjusting the shutter speed in tandem with the ISO and aperture settings is crucial. A slower shutter speed allows more light in but can blur the motion of the auroras. Finding the right balance requires experimentation.

Real-Time Guidance on a Northern Light Photography Tour

Joining a Northern Light Photography Tour with Capture Wild Alaska can provide real-time guidance and feedback on your camera settings. Experienced guides can help you tweak your settings on the spot to ensure you capture the best possible images of the Northern Lights.

Mastering the technical aspects of your camera and understanding how different settings impact your images are crucial steps in capturing the ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights. It's a learning curve that’s both challenging and rewarding, promising a sense of accomplishment with every beautiful image you capture.

Picture Composition and Photo Creativity

The captivating allure of the Northern Lights is undeniably the star of the show, yet the composition is what truly encapsulates the moment and tells a compelling story through your photographs.

1. Framing

Choosing the right frame can transform your Northern Lights photographs from good to breathtaking. Incorporate interesting elements such as silhouettes of trees, reflections on water, or the contours of the landscape to add depth and context to your shots.

2. Perspective

Experiment with different perspectives to create unique photographs. Whether it's a low-angle shot across a tranquil lake or a wide-angle shot capturing the vast expanse of the sky and land, varying your perspective can yield captivating results.

3. Leading Lines

Utilize natural or man-made leading lines to draw the viewer's eye towards the auroras. Roads, rivers, and shorelines are excellent elements to include in your composition to guide the viewer through the image.

4. Experimentation

Don’t shy away from experimenting with different settings and compositions. The more you experiment, the more likely you are to stumble upon a composition that captures the mystic beauty of the Northern Lights uniquely.

Guided Tours for Creative Compositions

On a guided tour like the one offered by Capture Wild Alaska, you'll be taken to prime locations that offer a myriad of compositional opportunities. The guidance of experienced photographers can also provide fresh insights into creative compositions.

Embracing creativity in your approach to photographing the Northern Lights can lead to the creation of distinctive images that resonate with the viewers. It’s an endeavor that demands a blend of technical knowledge and artistic intuition.

Post-Processing Your Images

Post-processing is an integral part of the journey towards creating mesmerizing images of the Northern Lights.

  • Image Editing Software: Utilizing image editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom can help enhance the colors, sharpness, and overall aesthetics of your Northern Lights photographs.
  • Color Correction: The colors of the Northern Lights can sometimes be more subtle than expected. Tweaking the saturation and vibrance can help bring out the colors while maintaining a natural look.
  • Noise Reduction: Long exposure shots, especially at high ISO settings, can introduce noise. Employing noise reduction tools in your editing software can help maintain a clean and sharp image.
  • Sharpening: Applying sharpening can enhance the details in your images, making the shapes and colors of the auroras pop.

Learning Through Tours

The post-processing techniques can also be learned and honed during guided photography tours. Capture Wild Alaska, for instance, provides a holistic photography experience that encompasses not just the capturing but also the post-processing of your images.

Post-processing is not about altering the reality but enhancing the beauty that was present at the moment of capture. It’s an art in itself that, when mastered, can significantly elevate the visual appeal of your Northern Lights photographs.


Embarking on the journey to photograph the Northern Lights is an invitation to experience the sublime dance of nature's colors against the endless Alaskan night skies. The path to capturing these ethereal moments begins with a readiness to delve into the unknown, equipped with the right gear and knowledge. The skies of Alaska are a canvas waiting for your lens to capture the fleeting strokes of auroral light. Yet, the essence of Northern Lights photography goes beyond just technical mastery; it's about syncing with the rhythm of the night, understanding the play of solar activity, and being at the right place at the right time.

Guidance from seasoned photographers, like those leading the tours at Capture Wild Alaska, can significantly enhance your journey. Their expertise can provide real-time insights, helping you tweak your camera settings, compose your shots creatively, and even guide you through the post-processing phase to ensure your photographs echo the magic of the Northern Lights accurately. The small-group Northern Lights Photography Tour is designed to provide personalized attention, ensuring every participant gets the guidance they need to hone their skills.

Your adventure under the starlit skies, chasing the elusive auroras, is not just about the photos you'll take home; it's about the memories etched in every frame. Each photograph will be a narrative of your encounter with the wild, untouched beauty of Alaska, a story told through colors and light.

So, if you're ready to take your photography skills to new heights, come join us in Alaska. Reach out to Capture Wild Alaska at (907) 799 7876 or [email protected] to book your spot on our Northern Lights Photography Tour. Don’t miss this chance to witness and capture the celestial dance of the Northern Lights amidst the pristine wilderness of Alaska. 

Your lens awaits the spectacle; the auroras await you.

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Thank you for your interest in Capture Wild Alaska! Whether you have questions about my week long photography tours in and around the beautiful state of Alaska or want to explore the magical Northern Lights that starts September 15th 2023. You can also check out our awesome merchandise, drop us a line below. (Merchandise will be added mid month 8/23.)