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How to photograph the northern lights

The mesmerising colours of the northern lights that flicker across the Arctic sky is a special sight to witness. Watch it from a mountainside or the seashore, through the glass roof of a warm and comfy igloo, or get a front-row seat at the observation deck on one of the Norwegian coastal express Hurtigruten’s ships as it sails under the auroral oval. And you brought your camera, right?

Learn how to take pictures of the northern lights

When the light show brightens up the sky, the moment is definitely worth freezing. The 27-year-old photographer Christian Hoiberg has loads of experience with eternalising aurora’s fleeting beauty in images.

“Photographing the aurora isn’t that difficult when you have some basic knowledge of your camera. The hardest part is actually to find her, she can be quite the tease”, says Christian.

Here’s his northern lights photography guide for beginners.

1. Get away from the lights

No, not the northern lights, but the city lights. If you stand too close to them, your photos won’t be that good. Find a good spot away from the city centre. Your chances of getting the perfect Instagram pic can increase considerably if you join a local northern lights guide who knows the best lookout spots. In any case, don’t use a flash when you take your pictures.

2. Pay attention to forecasts

Remember to check the weather forecast (you want clear skies) and the aurora forecast (so you know when she’ll be dancing). Imagine sitting by a bonfire with a warm cup of coffee, ready to witness the greatest light show on earth – and then it starts to rain. Not your idea of a perfect evening, right? Again, it might be wise to join a guided northern lights trip – the guides always have first-hand knowledge of the local weather conditions.

For easy access on the go, install the northern lights forecast NorwayLights on your iPhone, Android, or Windows.

3. You’re in the Arctic – wear warm clothes

The winter in Northern Norway is cold. Shaky hands and frozen fingers are no use when you want to get a good picture, so wrap up in many layers of clothing. It doesn’t matter if it makes you look like the Michelin man’s chubbier cousin – aurora will be the star of your photo anyway.

4. Keep the camera steady

You might call blurry images artistic, but I guess that is not what you want here? Use a tripod, and your photos are less likely to look like they were taken after a few too many craft beers. If you don’t have a tripod, find a big rock, the hood of a car or something else to keep the camera still. A remote trigger or cable release can also come in handy.

5. Use manual settings if you have them

Yes, automatic settings make life easier, but they are not your friend when it is dark. Worst case scenario, aurora won’t be in your photo at all!

The right camera settings for photographing northern lights vary with time and place, and from camera to camera. Still, manual settings are always the best. They allow you to adjust focus, shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. A great advice is to familiarise yourself with your camera’s settings before you travel to increase your chances of getting that perfect aurora shot. Read more about camera settings in the fact box on the side.

6. If you only have a phone, find the right app

Wondering how to take pictures of the northern lights with a smartphone? The results will not be the same, but don’t worry. You can still get a decent shot if you download an app to help you change the shutter speed on your camera. Or maybe your phone has artificial intelligence to help you get good images at night?

The best conditions for photographing the northern lights with your phone is a bright moon and an aurora with colours so strong that she almost knocks you off your feet. Find more tips in the fact box above the slideshow.

7. Make aurora a part of your image, not the only thing in it

People often aim their camera towards the sky. Aurora is a beauty, so that is understandable. But you need more to create the right feeling in your image.

The picturesque landscape in Northern Norway is perfect! Place a mountain in the background. Add a beach or a bonfire in the foreground. Then last, but not least, leave room for aurora in the top – and wait patiently for her show. Hence, the best lens to use when photographing the northern lights is a wide-angle lens. Then – voilà – you have your winning shot!

The best time and place

Nature provides the lights, you have the camera, so it is time for action. The best times and places to witness the magic are north of the Arctic Circle in late autumn and winter, as well as early spring (September to late March).

When you plan where to watch the northern lights from, you can check out the local’s favourite viewpoints by yourself or join a guided tour.

If you want to see the aurora from the sea, book a trip with Hurtigruten. They sail directly beneath the auroral oval and even have a northern light alarm to make sure you don’t miss the magic – also if you are sound asleep when aurora decides to go dancing.

Capture the polar night lights

In the northernmost part of Norway, the polar night is characteristic of the winter months. The contrast between night and day gets blurred as weeks can go by without the sun ever rising above the horizon. Perfect if you’re chasing aurora, as sunlight won’t obscure the northern lights.

But the polar night doesn’t mean you’re stuck without a glimmer of light during the day. Unless you visit the Svalbard islands, that is, where it is pitch black for a few weeks mid-winter. In the northern parts of the mainland, it is just a different kind of light. On clear days, you can see beautiful sunset colours in the south, and a deep blue tint in the north.

During “the blue hour” at twilight, the landscape is covered in what seems like a thin, blue veil. This can actually last for more than an hour and creates a strange feeling. It’s dark, yet not completely. It’s cold, yet the warm lights from all the houses make it warm and cosy. Definitely worth capturing with a camera!

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