Shooting the Northern Lights in Alaska

Trees standing against a yellow, green, and purple Northern Lights sky with stars and clouds

Trees standing against a yellow, green, and purple Northern Lights sky with stars and cloudsHave you ever wondered how photographers capture the Northern Lights with all those colors? I got to have such an experience with a small group from Great Escape Publishing on a Northern Lights Photography Expedition. This was five filled days & nights of dedicated time to practice our photography skills and learn new ones from acclaimed photographer Kristen Bentz. We stayed at the Chena Hot Springs Resort which caters to photographers trying to capture the Northern Lights. Here are my tips for shooting the Northern Lights.Ice Museum with green and purple Northern Lights display behind it

Trees standing against a yellow, green, and purple Northern Lights sky with stars and clouds

The first night of shooting was extremely cold, somewhere between -20 and -10deg F.  The beginning of the night was spent getting our camera’s settings accurate. We needed to set our lens focus on infinity to capture the Aurora Borealis. Once we got our focus set, they taped down our lenses so, we couldn’t accidentally change it while we were outside. The next step was to make sure all the other settings were accurate. You want to set your Aperture at F2.8, increase your ISO to 800-4000, and set the shutter speed to 1″ -15″. Unfortunately, the lens I had couldn’t get down that low of Aperture. So, I had to play with my settings to get more light through my Sigma 10-20mm lens. I ended up mostly at F5.0, ISO 6400, and 13sec shutter speed using my Canon 7D. I might look into a newer lens that can admit more light in the future. 

When you are looking at the sky you might notice a green, blurry haze of light. That is the Aurora Borealis. The best time to see the lights is obviously in the winter time when it is darker. The best months are March & October. Plus, the closer you get to the Arctic Circle the more intense the colors are. If you are not sure what causes this, it is when the solar wind reaches the Earth’s atmosphere and reacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Each color (red, blue, violet, and green) in the lights pertains to a particular gas. Such as when you see red, oxygen is present. With the naked eye, it is harder to see these colors that your camera can capture. But, the more you witness them, you will begin to notice the other colors in the sky before your camera does.Bright yellow and purple Northern Lights display behind evergreen trees

Northern Lights Checklist

Some of the steps to get good Northern Lights photos are:

  1. Create a Shoot List – things you want in your photos
  2. Scout Locations – open area, higher vantage point, low traffic
  3. Make sure camera settings are set
  4. Mount camera on a tripod
  5. Set up your remote trigger
  6. Compose your foreground
  7. Switch lens to manual focus
  8. Shoot in RAW – better for editing later

Of the 700 photos I took, I got about 24 good ones. The good thing about this trip is that they were also teaching us how to edit them in Lightroom. Keep taking pictures though, you will never know which ones will come out until you look at them later.Trees silhouetted against a purple and green Northern Lights background with a shooting starGreen and purple Northern Lights display shaped like a ghost

The most important thing to remember is to dress warm! I was out every night from midnight to 3:30 am and you will get cold. Bring plenty of hand & foot warmers. But, it is worth waiting to see the show start. When the Northern Lights start dancing they are amazing! You will need to know all the tricks ahead of time because the lights are quick and you don’t want to miss anything! I hope you enjoyed my tips on shooting the Northern Lights. I would love to hear about your experiences shooting the Northern Lights.Snowy Trees foreground with Purple, Green, and Yellow Northern Lights Display

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