Photographing night skies, and particularly the Aurora Borealis, can result in spectacular images. But while you can get lucky, careful planning, preparation, and camera knowledge can greatly improve your odds of shooting a stunning image.
After years of practice, I’ve figured out a few things about shooting night scenes, including the northern lights (Aurora Borealis), as seen in the photo above. I took this shot last fall at a trailhead in northern Minnesota along the Superior Hiking Trail.
Want to capture similar images? Here are a few tricks to help you nail that perfect Aurora or Milky Way photo.
Checklist: Weather, Moon Phase & Aurora Forecast
Weather: It should be obvious, but if it’s a cloudy night, no stars for you.
Moon Phase: It’s easier to see stars in the night sky when there is no competing light. This can be light pollution from a city or the moon. Check the moon phase before you head on your trip. Here’s a link to the one that I use most often.
Aurora Forecast: Forecasts can help incerease your chances of finding the lights, especially in the contiguous United States. There are a few forecasts out there. It’s difficult to accurately predict when and where to see the Aurora Borealis, but at least you can get an indicator of the probability you’ll find them. Typically the farther north, the better chance you’ll have of finding them. Soft Serve News is my favorite forecast site.
The first few times I tried to shoot the stars it always ended up looking blurry. This is because my shutter speed was too long so I got star trails and I couldn’t focus the lens. It’s difficult to focus because your autofocus won’t work at night and it’s hard to see the stars.
Using the settings below will help…
Camera Settings: Around: f/2.8, ISO 2,000, and 13-second exposure. Plan to tailor this to your surroundings, camera, brightness of the Aurora Borealis, and ambient light. A hand-held light meter can help quickly dial in the exposure.
Note that each camera is different, and some cameras will produce overly noisy images at high ISO settings. Experiment with your individual camera to learn its capabilities.
Mirror Lockup: If your camera has a “mirror lockup” setting, now’s the time to use it. Locking the mirror up before the exposure reduces vibration and results in a crisper image. Experiment with this setting on your camera in the daylight before trying to figure it out in the dark of night.
Remote Trigger Or Timer: When shooting in low light, use a remote trigger or the camera’s self-timer to eliminate camera shake caused by depressing the shutter button.
Focus Settings: There are a few ways to focus at night, but they largely rely on manual focus. One method is as such: With your camera is on a tripod, activate live-view or your rear display. Boost your ISO really high and digitally zoom in on your display. Turn the lens to manual focus and turn it toward infinity until your stars have the cleanest edges.
Another method is to use the distance guides inscribed on the lens itself. With stars far in the distance, you can simply crank to infinity (or close to it) and be sure your subjects are far enough from the camera that they also fall in the focus plane. The guide numbers on the lens will help you do this, or you can simply asses your results on the LCD and adjust as needed.
Light Beam: To get it done in camera you need to be a little lucky. There has to be something in the air for the light to reflect off of. In my case, there was a little mist from Lake Superior but not enough to restrict our view.
- High ISO camera and fast, medium to wide-angle lens (f/2.8 is great)
- Powerful headlamp, the Princeton Tec in this photo is 205 lumens
- A friend or a remote trigger for a self-portrait
- Second headlamp or flashlight for camera adjustments
It may seem like common sense but shooting over a body of water or at the top of a hill will give you a better shot of the sky. I took this photo from a trailhead along the Superior Hiking Trail. The trees were cleared out and it gave us a good look at the sky.
–Paul Vincent is a photographer based in Minnesota. Follow him on Instagram.