aurora borealis photography instructions

aurora photos from Lapland

About laplandphotos...

On demand of our guests we decided to provide a basic manual about "how to take photos of aurora borealis in Lapland". The Kiruna-based aurora photographer Mia Stålnacke - was so friendly to write down the tips & tricks that make her so successful. So, before taking photos of aurora please a) study the individual manual of YOUR camera first and b) read the aurora photography guide below

Thank you Mia !

a choice of Mia's photos


by Mia Stålnacke


Kiruna Aurora Tours

For a lot of people, getting the opportunity to view the aurora borealis is more than enough, for some it's been a lifelong dream. While standing there in the middle of the night, in amazingly beautiful Swedish Lapland with the aurora dancing overhead, you will probably want to capture the moment forever.
A lot of people have tried and been sorely disappointed when the pictures turned out to be nothing but darkness and a dim green, out of focus glow, when in fact the colorful lights were shining bright and dancing across the sky. If you are not used to photographing the night sky I'm here to help! Hopefully after reading this article you'll be able to take some great photos of the amazing aurora borealis in Kiruna, Lapland!


While compact point and shoot cameras have gotten much more advanced in the last few years, I wouldn't recommend relying on one for your aurora photography. If you don't own a DSLR try to ask around and see if someone could perhaps
lend you one. I personally use a Nikon D800, which is full frame, but you can get amazing shots with way less. What you need is a camera where you can adjust everything manually. Forget about auto mode and auto focus! If you've never
done night sky photography and always shoot with a pre set program it might seem a bit daunting but I promise you, you'll get it in no time


I mostly use the Nikon Af-s 14-24, f/2.8 G ED which is an excellent wide angle lens, the only down side is the price tag. You can find a good lens at a much lower price if you don't want to spend too much. There are a few things you should consider

You'll want a fast lens (large aperture) f/2.8 or wider.

It should be wide angle and as sharp as possible.


If you usually have a filter on your lens (most people use a UV-filter for protection) you'll want to remove it before shooting the aurora. Don't use any filters at all, they will mess up your photos!


Besides a DSLR you also need a tripod, using one is absolutely critical since you will be doing long exposures. Get one with foam padding on the legs or put some on yourself. You'll thank me when you're out in the extreme cold having to touch it!


A cable release or a wireless remote can come in handy to prevent camera shake and to do exposures longer than 30 seconds. Personally I never go over 30 seconds, the aurora is usually so bright and fast moving up here that the highlights will get completely burned out and the entire sky will just look like a green mess. I rarely use a remote at all, so how do I avoid camera shake? Here's my tip: bring a little piece of cardboard or a plastic lid, or anything really, big enough
to cover your lens. Hold it up in front of the lens as you press the shutter release and then quickly yank it away once your hand is off the camera. Voila! No shaky photos!


Since you'll be photographing at night it will be dark, if the moon isn't up it will be pitch black. You won't be able to adjust the settings on your camera without some sort of light. I strongly advice you to bring a flash light with red light. White light will ruin your night vision, a few seconds in the light of a bright white flash light and you will have to wait 15-20 minutes until your eyes have adapted to the dark again.

Red light will preserve your night vision!


Batteries drain quicker in the cold. Up here in Lapland the temperature can drop down to below -40C. The last thing you want is to be out in the middle of nowhere with your camera all set up and the aurora dancing in the sky and no
batteries. Keep your extra batteries and cards as close to your body as possible to keep them warm.


It can get extremely cold in Kiruna / Lapland. Ideally you'll be at a location where you have a little cabin to warm up in. Most people don't live in an area where temperatures can drop to below -40C, and therefore can't even begin to imagine what it feels like. I can tell you this: It hurts! And if you're not properly clothed it is downright dangerous. Fortunately those temperatures aren't all too common and don't occur all through winter. So how do you dress for extreme cold?
I would suggest your first layer consists of a good quality merino wool set. Don't wear cotton as a first layer against your skin! Wear a warm pair of pants over the wool undies and a warm sweater. Over this you'll wear good quality,
warm, snow pants and a warm parka or jacket. If you're shopping for your winter clothes in a warm country you might want to look online instead, and make sure you look for clothes made to withstand extreme cold weather.
A good pair of boots is essential. You'll be standing still in cold snow for a considerable amount of time. Your winter boots should not be tight at all and you should be able to fit a warm pair of socks in there without feeling squished
in. The air in there is keeping you warm. You'll also want thick, wool, insoles to keep the heat. On a lot of Lapland aurora tours there's appropriate winter clothing available to borrow. Okay, so you've got you're gear ready and you're fully clothed.

Let's go!


Aurora in autumn
Aurora in autumn

So you're at the location. If you're lucky the sky above you is on fire! Lights dancing overhead. It's easy to get completely blown away by the incredible beauty of this phenomenon but try to quickly scope out the scene. Look around you, what do you see? Maybe a frozen lake, pretty snow covered trees or a little cabin. The foreground is half the picture!


I always shoot in RAW and I'd suggest you do the same. There is so much more information to work with in a RAW copy than a JPEG (which is processed in camera) and if you didn't get the exposure just right you can bring it out afterwards.
If, for some reason, you decide to shoot in JPEG I'd suggest you turn on long exposure noise reduction and high ISO noise reduction in your cameras settings. If you don't know how to process RAW files yet and if it's possible on your
camera you can choose to shoot in RAW+JPEG. I promise you, once you learn about working with RAW's you'll be glad you did.

I only got a couple of shots at this location before a moose came plunging through the water and scared me half to death. This was one of the test shots to get the focus right (which it isn't). I was incredibly disappointed when I came home and reviewed my few shots. It was incredibly noisy, out of focus and completely dark except for the aurora itself and it's reflection. If I had been shooting in JPEG when I took this picture it would have been immediately thrown away. But because I was shooting in RAW I could bring out the dark parts and get rid of the noise. Despite it's flaws, this picture was actually chosen as one of the best astronomy photos of the year 2014 by Swedish astronomy magazine Populär Astronomi.


Auto focus will NOT work in the dark. There are a few different techniques for getting the focus spot on, I'll go through them here. First of all, turning your focus ring to infinity won't work. I've tried a lot of lenses and it hasn't worked on a single one of them.

• Focus in daylight. Find a mountain or something else that's very far away and auto focus on that, then switch over to manual focus and don't touch it until it's time. Or mark the spot with a little piece of tape or with a marker.

• Focus on the brightest planet or star. Turn on live view and zoom in as much as possible. Now set the focus so the object is sharp.

• My way! After using a lens for a while you learn how to focus manually, it's in your fingers. What I do is turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then turn it back a tiny little bit. I know, very scientific and easy to understand, but it
works! Do this and take a test shot, zoom in on the finished picture to see if it's in focus, if not, repeat. I do this with every new lens I use and it only takes one or two tries to learn. Now I never have to look, it's programmed into my
fingers and much quicker than the other methods.


I'd advice you to turn down the brightness of the LCD screen on the back of your camera (remember the part about night vision). The preview you get after taking a picture gives you a good indication of whether or not you got a decent exposure. But you should be aware that your picture will look a bit brighter than it actually is and you run the risk of being disappointed when viewing it on a big screen. This is where the histogram comes in handy, it won't lie. Here's a link I've found tremendously helpful, here the histogram is explained masterfully:

Your settings will depend on whether the aurora is bright or dim, moving rapidly or behaving more like a stationary glow. Therefore it would be impossible for me to give you a definitive list of settings that will work every time.


I always shoot in manual mode, meaning I do all the settings myself. It is however possible to sometimes shoot in aperture priority mode, where you set the aperture and ISO and your camera decides how long the exposure should be.
On most Nikon DSLR's the aperture priority mode is marked with an "A" on the mode dial. On the high end Nikons you activate it by pressing down the mode button and turning the control dial until the "A" shows up on your top LCD.
On Canons it's "Av". Set the aperture (the f/stop) at it's largest opening, that is the lowest number you can get. On my lens that would be 2.8. Only do this if you have a fast lens (low f-number) try it out and see if it produces nice results. Otherwise just do as I do and always shoot in manual mode. ISO, shutter speed, aperture. These are the three things you will need to get familiar with.


I've touched on this subject in the paragraph above. The aperture is what is called "f" in your camera settings. The smaller the f/number, the larger the aperture. Simply put, aperture controls the amount of light travelling through the lens. This picture by Mandy Jones, The Photographer Blog ( explains it perfectly:

As I've mentioned before, for aurora photography, all night sky photography really, you'll want the largest aperture possible on your lens (smallest number).


Changing the ISO is changing your cameras sensitivity to light, the higher you go the more sensitive your sensor will be. When shooting the aurora you'll need your camera to be very sensitive and gather as much light as possible.

Two example shots. 1st one at ISO 400, 15 sec
Two example shots. 1st one at ISO 400, 15 sec 2nd at ISO 1600, 10 seconds. Both at f/2.8.

ISO, aperture and shutter speed are really the three pillars of photography, understanding how they work together is very valuable, you could even say it's absolutely necessary. So we now know to use the lowest f/stop possible (f/2.8 for me) and I've said we need the sensor to be very sensitive to light. This does NOT, however, mean that you should set your camera to the highest ISO setting possible. Newer DSLR's go up to over 12'000, in comparison you only need 100-200 for
daylight shots.


So how does all of this effect the shutter speed? Well, the larger the aperture and the higher the ISO, the shorter your exposure will be. If the aurora is moving rapidly you'll want to capture the rifts and shapes and therefore you'll want to keep the exposure as short as possible. So why not push the ISO up to it's absolute maximum and just fire away? That's when the massive downside to ISO comes in, noise! The DSLR's today typically do very well with noise even at pretty high ISO's but when you go above 800 you will definitely start seeing noise and when you go higher still it will become very apparent. I talked about shooting in RAW format before and this is a situation where you'll be so glad you did.
Trying to reduce noise in a JPEG in post processing is horrible. If you do shoot in JPEG only you'll want to turn on high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction before your shoot.


If you follow my advice and shoot in RAW you'll need software able to process those files. I prefer Adobe Lightroom but there are free alternatives. If you're shooting with a Nikon there is a program called Capture NX-D Downloads here:

For Canon users:

Of course, Google has their own version called Picasa:

With these programmes you'll be able to adjust the white balance, reduce noise, brighten up the foreground and much more. Out of these three alternatives to Lightroom I've only briefly tried Nikon's software so I can't say much about how well they work but they are free.

Two versions of the same shot. ISO 800, 6 seconds, f/2.8. This was taken on a moonlit night, the moon can really help to bring out the foreground but it was still a bit too dark for my taste. The first one is completely unedited, straight from the camera. On the second one I've brightened up the shadows a bit, increased the contrast a tiny bit and applied a some noise reduction.

Now you know about the key settings, it's time to start practicing! I told you in the beginning to forget about auto mode and I stick by that. There is however a great use for it while you're practicing. Put your camera in auto mode and take a few shots in different lighting conditions and observe how the settings change. Doing this was a great help to me when I first started out. I knew absolutely nothing about doing manual settings and it all seemed very daunting to me, but I love to learn! After studying how the settings changed depending on the scene, things started making perfect sense to me. I never thought of looking for a guide like this because my favorite method of learning is by trial and failure. That's exactly what I'm encouraging you to do after reading this guide! Get to know your camera, before you know it you won't even have to think before turning those dials. Go out at night and practice shooting the night sky, see if you can get the stars
in focus, if you're in a light pollution free zone maybe you'll manage to get a shot of the Milky Way.

Fair warning though, once you've started doing this you'll be hooked!

You can

- follow me on Twitter:

- like my Facebook page if you'd like to see aurora pictures on your news feed:
Feel free to get in touch on either of those sites, I'd love to see your photos!

Good luck and welcome to Kiruna Lapland, Sweden!

Mia Stålnacke for Kiruna Aurora Tours

February 2015