Photographing the Northern Lights: Finding the Right Spot

Green Curved Waves Aurora Borealis

Green Curved Waves Aurora Borealis

Other than the cooperation of weather and solar activity that causes the aurora borealis, a key element of success is finding the right spot.  This may be near your home if you live in the northern latitudes, or it may be far away if you’re going on a northern lights trip. A reasonable amount of advance legwork will help you capture excellent photographs and save you from wasting your time on the night of a northern lights event. Sometimes northern lights are only visible for a few hours, so spending your time on a fruitless chase for the perfect place to photograph the Northern Lights could be extremely frustrating. Here’s a few pointers on finding the right spot:

1. Get away from the city.  The further you are from the light pollution of the city, the better your chances of capturing the lively spectrum of the Northern Lights.  Any light pollution will drastically decrease the intensity of the Aurorae, so do your best to get as far away from the city lights as possible.  Look on Google Maps and find a place away from the city with a clear northern view – keep in mind that this may be to the east or west of you.

2. Find an unobtrusive foreground. Once you’ve put some space between yourself and the city lights, choose a location that has an interesting but not overpowering foreground.  If the only natural landscape you can find lacks the visual punch you want, a tent with an interior glow or a lonely cabin will suffice in a pinch.  A classic aurora borealis scene includes a prominent tree line as a decent foreground.  Also, make sure that there will be no cars driving by as headlights can unevenly light up your foreground or flare your lens in the middle of a long exposure. Shooting the Northern Lights will require exposures of at least several seconds (or longer, depending on settings and the brightness of the event) so any extraneous movement through your frame will be blurred. Also, any unexpected appearance of headlights will leave streaks that can easily destroy your shots (or enhance them, if they’re in focus and give a nice artistic framing to the photo). The Northern Lights are the highlight of your images, but you’ll need a proper foreground to allow the Aurorae to be more than just a bunch of random waves of light.

3. Find an open space. You will be shooting one of nature’s grand spectacles so you’ll want an expansive view of the open sky. This may take some trial and error, because you will want to adjust your field of view to accommodate as much of the night sky as you can at first.  The northern lights might only be visible in the distance, however, so you may zoom in closer.  Having open space lets you make that decision on the fly. We strongly suggest that you scout locations in advance, during the day. This is especially important in winter. You don’t want to wander aimlessly looking for a place to set up your camera when it’s freezing cold.

4. Network with local photographers. If you have the chance to get in contact with local photographers.  This should help you save plenty of time as they likely have inside tips on some of the best locations to shoot the night sky undisturbed. Local camera clubs are an excellent place to network with local photography enthusiasts. With a bit of Internet research, you’ll be able to locate these organisations. Ask questions, takes note, offer your time, and be responsive to suggestions.

Town lights & Northern Lights

Town lights & Northern Lights

In areas prone to Northern Lights, locals often keep close track of aurora forecasts and are more keenly aware of the best nights to go out on the hunt.  Be open to tagging along. It may be more fun, and it can also be a safer option in any extreme environment.   A cooperative team-ups can lead to great shots for anyone and everyone on your team!

On my first night out, I had little time for planning so I ended up happily settling for a location that was not very far away from the city lights.  The place, however, had a nice open area with excellent sky coverage.  I had a great time and brought home some decent shots. With a bit more foresight, I would have found a superior spot and would have been able to capture even better memories of the northern lights in 2004.

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