Dave Morrow Photography: How to View & Photograph the Northern Lights then Edit Your Pictures in Lightroom / Photoshop

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How to View & Photograph the Northern Lights then Edit Your Pictures in Lightroom / Photoshop

From planning and scouting to shooting and post processing, provided below is your definitive guide to becoming a master of viewing & photographing of the Northern night skies.

Armed with this tutorial and my Free 40 Page eBook provided below, you'll be on your way to capturing and post processing some great photos of the Aurora in no time!
The Northern Lights Dancing Through the Skies - 70 Degrees North,  Norway
Camera Settings: 20 Seconds, f/2.8, IS01200

 Welcome Photographers & Readers of 500PX!

As goes for all of my tutorials, this one is dynamic and will continue to change & grow over time as I learn new skills, tips, tricks and other pertinent information. This being said, feel free to stop back in from time to time, or join my mailing list provided below & get a free eBook.


In February (2014) travel photographer Conor MacNeill & I ventured to the Arctic ( Norway / Sweden ) during the winter months to photograph the Aurora. Much of our trip was spent constantly watching the weather for clear skies and strong aurora activity.

After 10 days of chasing and photographing the Northern Lights I've compiled all the tips & tricks I used into a definitive guide allowing you to capture some great shots of the night sky in the far North.

If you're just interested in viewing the Northern Lights, then the Planning Section is all you will need!

Download Your Free 40 Page eBook Bundle
Below I've provided a free 40 page, Night Sky Exploration & Adventure eBook Bundle, which will be sent directly to your email address as a PDF file. Included in the eBook is everything you will need to get started in Night Sky, Milky Way & Star Trail Photography + some great night sky hikes as well!

Included in the free eBook bundle are the following 5 eBooks
3 Tricks for Focusing at Night
5 Simple Steps to View & Photograph the Night Sky
Dave’s Top 10 Planning Tools for Photography & Hiking
Star / Night Photography Camera & Lens Recommendations
3 Great Hikes for Exploring the Night

Planning Your Shoot

The most important and often overlooked step in all of photography is planning and scouting. You can greatly improve your chances of getting great photos of any kind by putting in some planning work prior to your next shoot or photography trip.

Step 1: Find Dark Skies
The easiest way to find an area with dark skies is to check the Blue Marble Light Pollution Map which is a Google / NASA collaboration. The areas which are dark blue or black are free of light pollution, while areas of yellow or almost white have high light pollution. Your goal is to find an area which is completely dark, this will yield the best photos and viewing experience of the aurora.

Step 2: Find Clear Skies 
Next it's time to find clear skies. You can photograph the aurora on partially cloudy nights, but the results won't be quite as good as nights with 100% clear skies. Check the local weather and find a night with cloud cover between 0 and 20%.

MeteoStar Weather Satellite Imagery Maps of the Northern Hemisphere work very well for showing cloud cover conditions on a macro level. You will need to use the IR ( Infrared ) setting on their website to view the cloud cover at night.

Unlike visual (VIS ) satellite images which can only be used to view cloud cover during the daylight hours, IR satellite uses cloud temperature readings to watch cloud movement and cover.

If you're not well versed in IR satellite imagery, the How to Read a Satellite Image Post will be very helpful! If you want to take your photography planning to the next level, learning this information is really going to help! It's also quite interesting.

NOAA's Geostationary Satellite Server also provides some great resources!

Step 3: Check the Aurora Activity
The next thing you will want to do is check the aurora activity for the night of your shoot. There are many different resources for checking aurora activity, which all depend on your location.
Horses grazing in a field beneath a wonderful display of the aurora borealis in Iceland.
Wild Horses & The Aurora - West Fjords, Iceland || Photo by Conor MacNeill
Camera Settings: 8 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO4000

The aurora activity index ( Kp-index ) ranges from 0-9 with 0 being the lowest amount of activity and 9 being the greatest.  Kp-index ratings of 5 or great are considered a storm.

Usually it's best to aim for nights with KP-index of 2 or greater, otherwise you really won't see much aurora in the sky.

Provided below are a list of great websites which will help you to learn more about aurora activity as well as get the current forecast. There are other great websites which aren't on this list, so feel free to leave your favorites  in the comments section below!

A really nice visual website which provides the current aurora forecast as well as other interesting facts which will help you to capture a photo of the Northern Lights.

This site provides aurora forecast predictions as well as basic information which will allow you to be better informed prior to going out on your shoot.

If you're going to be shooting in Iceland this is the site for you. You can also use the aurora activity predictions from this website when visiting Norway, Sweden, Greenland, or anywhere else in the close vicinity. Obviously it will be most accurate when shooting in Iceland.

Another great website with a broad overview of the aurora forecast for a multi-day time frame. Space Weather's website is worth spending some time visiting!

What You Need – Minimum Gear Requirements & Recommendations

To capture images of the Aurora, there are only 2 minimum requirements. If you would like to capture high quality images, which will look much better in terms of detail and color then the items in the minimum requirements and recommended gear lists with both be needed.

I've also compiled a list of my favorite night photography cameras and lenses in the eBook above, and about half way down my Free Star Photography Tutorial.

Minimum Requirements
  1. Camera with Manual Mode functionality. This means you can manually adjust the exposure time, aperture and ISO settings.
  2. Tripod - The Sturdier the better. I currently use a Really Right Stuff setup which works great.

Recommended Gear
Although this gear isn't required it will make your experience as well as the quality of photos you produce much much better. These are in addition to the items listed above.

  1. Full Frame / 35mm Camera with Manual Mode Functionality and high ISO capability. Cameras that handle ISO up to 3000-5000 without producing much noise are recommended.
  2. Wide angle lens with a fast aperture. An minimum speed aperture of f/2.8 - f/4 is recommended for photographing the Northern Lights. For full frame cameras it's preferred to have lenses in the range of 14-24mm to capture a wide angle of the landscape and night sky.
  3. 2-3 fully charged batteries.
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Enjoying this Tutorial? Once You're Done, Check Out
Dave's Free Star Photography Tutorial

Focusing at Night

Prior to correctly focusing your lens it will be impossible to effectively perform any type of night photography. Due to this fact, this section has been placed first. Upon learning these skills you will be able to move forward and learn all of the other material provided below.

After Midnight in the Pine Forests - Sweden
Camera Settings: 15 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO1200
Since the stars & Northern Lights are very far away in respect to where we stand on Earth, we can focus at infinity or very close to it, and capture perfectly sharp photos of the night sky.

Most lenses have an “∞” symbol on them which is used to mark the approximate infinity focus point. Just because you focus your lens to this infinity symbol doesn’t mean it will take a perfectly sharp photo. This proves true for all types of photography. Most lenses need to be adjusted slightly more to ensure sharp focus, but “∞” is a great place to start.

After spending a few nights out shooting the aurora you will be able to narrow down the best ways of focusing which work for you. I have 8 different methods which I currently use to focus at night depending on the situation which I'm shooting.

It's great to have a "bag of tricks" for each of your photography skill sets, this way if you ever run into trouble, you can pull out one of these tricks without ever skipping a beat.

Experimentation and practice are key to finding out what works and what doesn't! 

There are a few different options for focusing at night.  Each of these methods work well for any type of night photography and some also work for landscape photography.

Method 1: Preset Your Focus Point During the Day
It’s much easier to focus during the day than at night, for both you and your camera’s autofocus software. Since focusing is one of the hardest parts of night / low light photography, getting this step out of the way during the daytime is always best practice.

Follow these easy steps to get started...
  1. Set up your camera during the day with the lens you will be using to take your night / low light photos. You can do this at your house, or anywhere else that’s easy, it doesn’t have to be at the location where you plan on taking your night photos.
  2. Adjust your lens to focus at infinity, or at a far away horizon. I always like to use my camera’s Live View Mode, zoomed in, and focus on the furthest horizon in my composition. This will ensure that you’ve focused at infinity. You can also focus by looking through your camera’s view finder. This works very well too.
  3. Next manually make the final adjustments if / as required using the focus ring.  I find that Auto Focus usually does very well during the day, but sometimes needs manual input to nail down the final focus in low light.
  4. Take some more practice shots at an aperture of f/8 - f/11 and make sure the entire photo is in focus. If it isn’t focused, repeat Step 2 and Step 3.
  5. Now your lens is focused at infinity.
  6. Using a permanent marker, mark both the focus ring, and the barrel of the lens (non-rotating part of lens). Tape works as well, but may fall off over time.

This is a reference point that you will be able to use when returning to shoot at night or in low light. I’ve personally marked my lens using a silver Sharpie, allowing me to see the mark at night without using a headlamp or light.

Method 2 & 3
I've provided 2 more of my favorite focusing methods in the Free 40 Page Night Sky Exploration and Adventure eBook bundle.

Camera Settings

Since the aurora is dynamic and constantly moves through the sky your camera settings ( ISO & Exposure Time Only ) will also need to be dynamic and change as time passes. After a night of practice you will be an expert, until then, follow these simple tips and tricks!
The aurora borealis over the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland.
Strong Aurora Activity - West Fjords, Iceland || Photo by Conor MacNeill
Camera Settings: 15 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO3200

Feel free to click on the following titles if you're not sure what they mean.

Image Format
You should be shooting in RAW Image Format for all of your photos. This gives you maximum control.

Metering Mode
I find Matrix Metering on my Nikon D800 to work the best for night photography. Canon calls this same function Evaluative Metering. As an experiment, when shooting star photography, I tried all the different metering modes my camera has to offer and Matrix clearly won. You should do this experiment as well and see what works best for your camera setup.

Color / White Balance
Shooting in RAW image format as denoted above you can always change your white balance settings when you get back home to edit your shots. I like to adjust white balance in the field as well to give me an idea of what the shot will actually look like when I get home. For night / aurora photos it's best to shoot in "K" or Kelvin Mode. Try shooting at Kelvin values of 2800 - 4000 for your aurora and night sky photos.

Aperture Settings
It's very easy to select an aperture when shooting the Northern Lights. Just open your aperture to f/2.8 or as wide as possible if it doesn't go all the way to f/2.8. I don't recommend opening your aperture any wider than f/2.8. With very wide apertures it becomes hard to focus at night.

The key is to allow the most amount of light to hit your camera's sensor in the least amount of time, allowing you to keep your ISO at a lower value and inducing less noise. More on the ISO / noise topic below!

You'll find that even shooting at f/2.8 your entire landscape will still be in focus. If you take a practice shot and your photo is not completely in focus you can use my Focus Stacking Techniques provide in a free YouTube Video Tutorial to obtain overall sharp focus in your images.

ISO & Exposure Settings
I grouped these together due to the fact that you'll need to change them both at the same time, since they directly reflect on one another.

After a few hours of photographing the Northern Lights using the skill sets provided below you will easily be able to adjust both of these settings simultaneously, obtaining great results.

Two questions to ask yourself prior to adjusting ISO & Exposure Time

Question 1: How Quickly is the Aurora Moving Through the Sky?
With high level aurora activity the Northern lights can move through the sky very quickly. To capture all of the nice color and detail in this scene, without your photo looking like a "blob of color", you'll need to shoot at a much shorter exposure time than if the aurora was slowly moving through the sky.

Think about it this way... If the aurora is moving very quickly through the sky, and you take a photo at a 30 second exposure, then instead of seeing the instantaneous view that your eyes see, your camera will actually pick up the entire movement of the aurora through the sky over that 30 second time frame. The details and colors will become the average of the 30 second exposure for each pixel. 

As seen with long exposures of water or cloud scenes, all of the color and movement mixes together. This is not the goal for photographing the Northern Lights, we want, vivid color and nice detail.

Keeping your exposure time between 5-25 seconds will work very well for shooting the northern lights. When the aurora is moving quickly, try 5-7 second exposures, when it's not moving as quickly try 10-25 second exposures.

You can increase or decrease these times as you see fit, they are just rules of thumb!

Question 2: How Bright is the Aurora in the Sky?
This tutorial assumes that you are already well versed in the basic technical aspects of the photography histogram. If you would like to brush up on your histogram knowledge prior to reading the rest of the tutorial, Ken Rockwell's Website provides some great explanations for both Color Histogram and Luminance Histogram. I will refer to each below!

Since the aurora changes color, speed, and brightness all throughout the night, you'll also need to constantly adjust your camera settings to match this dynamic situation.

All of the other settings have now be adjusted. It's time to select an ISO value.
Since ISO is the sensitivity of your camera's "film" or in these days sensor, increasing your ISO will also increase the brightness of your image. Provided that none of the other settings are changed.
  1. Start out shooting with an ISO of 400-800 and take a practice shot. 
  2. After doing so, if your practice shot wasn't bright enough, increase your ISO to approximately 1200 and take a practice shot. 
  3. If the photo still isn't bright enough, continue to increase your ISO until it is. I usually shoot in the ISO range of 800-4000.
Always keep in mind that your image should not be (in terms of the histogram ) well exposed, you are shooting at night, so the image can also be dark.

You can bring out nearly all of this dark detail in Photoshop.  Always watch your histogram to make sure you're not losing any dark detail off of the left-hand side. You will also want to make sure that you're not "blowing out" any highlights, meaning the histogram isn't dropping off the right hand side.

Let's look at and analyze a few example images so you can see exactly what I'm talking about.

The following images are straight out of my camera ( RAW Files ), and exported to JPEG format for display. This is how the images looked on the back of my camera screen after taking them.

Example 1: Overexposed Image
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Camera Settings: 10 Seconds, f/2.8 ISO2500
When you're taking photos of the aurora it's very important to watch your Color Histogram, even more than your luminance histogram. It is very easy to "blow out" or overexpose the Green Channel, which makes your photo lose color and detail. This can be seen as circled in RED in the Example 1 image above.

When photographing the Northern Lights it's always better to underexpose the photo as not to blow out the green channel.

You will also want to watch the Luminance Histogram to make sure you're not blowing out or overexposing the photo as a whole.

Example 2: Well Exposed Image
Camera Settings: 10 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO2000
The image seen above is what most would call well exposed. All of the color channels and luminance channels fall within the left-hand and right-hand bounds of the histogram, meaning we're not losing any detail in the dark areas or blowing out in highlights in the light areas.

By all means this photo would work very well when going home to edit it as I'll teach you below.

Can we improve this image? YES! This image can easily be improved upon. I'll show you why in the next example.

Example 3: Optimally Exposed Image
Camera Settings: 10 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO1000
Most photographers would say this image is underexposed, and much too dark. I disagree! This is exactly the image I was looking to capture.

The aperture was at it's widest possible setting allowing the most amount of light to be captured by the camera's sensor in the least amount of time.

The exposure time of 10 seconds was the longest I could go, while still keeping nice detail in the Northern Lights.

I also managed to drop the ISO by half ( compared to Example 2 ) from 2000-1000 which will keep the noise in my image much lower, allowing the photo to easily be printed full size after post processing.

Looking at the color and luminance histograms to the right-hand side of the photo we can say that no dark details were lost off of the left-hand side of the histogram, and no highlights were overexposed on the right-hand side of the histogram. Perfect!

Why is this the Optimal Image?
5 Years ago, this image would have been too dark, and Example 2 would have been prefered! The new full frame digital cameras such as the Nikon D800 / D810 and the Canon 5DMKIII can easily recover up to 4 stops of light from nearly any image. This means that you no longer have to "bracket" photos, taking multiple exposures of the same composition to compensate for dynamic range.

The only time you would need to bracket photos would be for cases where the scene being captured had a dynamic range of greater than 4 stops. This is rarely the case for landscape photos, and NEVER the case for night photos.

I can take a photo such as the one above, and using the exposure slider within Lightroom, brighten the entire photo up 4 stops prior to seeing any noise being induced in the photo. I will process my single RAW file ( in Lightroom ) for one part of the photo, export it, then process the same RAW file for another part of this photo and export it.

These two exported files can be blended together in Photoshop to create a nicely exposed overall image.
The goal is to know the physical bounds of your camera / lens, and take advantage of what they can do!

Rarely is there a need to take bracketed photos anymore ( for night photography ), all the data/detail is there, we just need to bring it out in post processing!

The tutorial continues below the next photo!
Bright Aurora Borealis over some ice on the edge of the Jökulsárlón lagoon.
Massive Icebergs & The Aurora - Jökulsárlón Lagoon, Iceland || Photo by Conor MacNeill
Camera Settings: 25 Seconds, f/2.8, ISO5000

Action Required - Test Your Camera Setup
If you're not using a newer full frame camera, then you will have to test your camera setup and see how many stops of light it can recover. 

I would recommend everyone to do the following test if you haven't before! The results are amazing!
  1. Take your camera outside on the next sunny day, and take a shot directly into the sun. Also include a landscape or subject in the foreground. 
  2. Expose the photo for the sun only, ensuring it isn't blown out. The rest of the photo will appear very dark / or even black in your preview screen.
  3. Take this photo, and load it into Lightroom or any other RAW file processor. 
  4. Using the Exposure / Brightness adjustment slider, increase the brightness of the entire photo until you start to see the image degrade in the darkest areas of the photo. This image degradation will come in the form of noise, or a slightly magenta/green color cast.
  5. At this point, check your exposure slider to see how many stops of brightness you have increased this photo. 
  6. Make a mental note of this value. 
  7. Now you know how much detail / data you can pull out of a single RAW file!

Bracketing and taking multiple exposures makes photography much more complicated when it isn't necessary!

Next time you're out shooting, just expose for the brightest parts of the scene, you now know how many stops you can recover in post processing! When in doubt, take an extra shot, increasing the exposure by the number of stops which you calculated above.

This method cuts down on the number of photos you need to take, and makes life much easier all around when shooting and editing your photos!

Now that you will rarely have take multiple exposures for dynamic range, doesn't mean you shouldn't be taking multiple exposures for depth of field. If you need an extra exposure to create an overall better quality photo, by all means take it!

Less digital storage space, more efficiency, overall better photos!

 Final Words of Advice for Photographing the Northern Lights

The only guaranteed way to become good at anything is trying it for yourself and seeing what works. That being said after a few nights practicing the provided skills under the night sky you will easily grasp all of the concepts. 

Always remember you should never increase the ISO to obtain a brighter image prior to opening your aperture to the widest possible value ( f/2.8 works great ), and dialing in the maximum exposure time while still maintaining nice detail in the Northern Lights. 

Increasing ISO degrades image quality, adjusting aperture and exposure time do not!


How to Edit / Post Process Your Northern Lights Photos in Lightroom & Photoshop

Now that you have captured some awesome images of the Northern lights it's time to edit those images in Lightroom ( or Adobe Camera RAW ) and Phtoshop! I've provided another tutorial on this topic which includes a free video, click the link below to watch!
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How to Edit / Post Process Your Photos in Lightroom & Photoshop

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