Camera settings for Aurora Photography

Posted by lwpetersen | February 28, 2014 | photography tips

Night sky displaying aurora borealis corona (diverging rays) -taken near Fairbanks, Alaska“Quick! The Aurora is out! What settings should my camera be set to?”. It’s the most frequent question I see online when there is a geomagnetic storm in progress or in the immediate forecast. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a loaded question. Not all cameras or sensors are the same and the aurora is a very dynamic phenomenon; there is no simple answer. This article is about getting to know and understand your camera settings to give you a starting point on aurora photography. If you feel comfortable with camera settings in general you can skip to the examples at the end.

This guide is based on how I shoot the aurora, the way I operate my camera at night, and the thought process I go through. These aren’t rules to follow, but suggestions to get you started so you can find what works for you and your camera system. Here goes . . .

What kind of camera do you need?
Many different cameras can capture photos of the northern lights. Any camera that you can put on a full manual setting, or “M” and be able to manual focus; all DSLRs, mirrorless, and some compact cameras will work. It’s nice to have a wide angle lens so you can get as much of the sky into the frame as possible.

What controls will you have to use?
The three absolutely essential camera controls you need to know and understand are:

  • Aperture – the amount of light coming into the camera
  • ISO – how well your camera uses incoming light
  • Shutter Speed – how long light will enter the camera for

The aperture setting is the easiest decision for me when shooting aurora. I use the lowest setting possible. The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens. The highest aperture setting (or f-stop) corresponds to the smallest opening; at the lowest f-stop the aperture is wide open allowing the most light in. It’s worth noting that many lenses may have higher optical aberrations at their lowest f-stop (chromatic aberration and vignetting are typical), so it’s worthwhile testing this with your lens to see what you find acceptable.

Most kit lenses that come with a DSLR will have the lowest f-stop around f/3.5. There are a good number of mid-price, wide-angle lenses that are f/2.8 and some (usually pricey) at f/1.8 or f/1.4. The benefit of using a higher aperture setting is that you get a higher depth of field (greater distance range in focus), which typically isn’t as important when shooting the aurora.

I usually change the ISO setting very little while shooting aurora. The ISO setting controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. Think of the ISO as an amplifier, and just as an amp can take a low volume voice and blast it over a whole stadium, a high ISO setting can take a tiny bit of light and practically turn your camera into night vision goggles. This is nice because a high ISO setting means you can use a faster shutter speed and capture more detail in fast moving aurora. There is a price to pay for this amplification in the amount of electronic noise as well as a reduction in color and contrast.

The quality your images from the ISO setting is probably the most variable control across different cameras (and the largest benefit to having an expensive one). You will need to find that “sweet spot” that balances ability of speed and image quality. For instance, my Nikon D7000 looks fairly good at an ISO up to 1250 for night images, but really starts to suffer at 1600 and up [The more current Nikon Nikon D7200 or even Nikon D7100 24.1 MP slightly edge out the older model in ISO performance]. Photos from the Nikon D4 or Canon 5D Mark III push a pretty decent image quality up to ISO 3200-6400 (and up). My Nikon D90 starts to suffer above ISO 800.

I suggest testing in a dark room. Take a series of photos slowly increasing the ISO setting (bringing down the shutter speed or increase the aperture as you do to keep exposure consistent). Review them in whatever post-processing program you use and see what you can accomplish with noise reduction (see my articles on noise reduction and white balance – simple, intermediate). While there are a lot of programs out there that do a good job at reducing grainy ISO noise, you’ll always lose detail when you use it, that’s why I like to know what to expect before going out in the dark.

If you want my quick answer for ISO setting, considering a mid-range DSLR with an f/stop in the f/2.8-3.5 range: ISO 640-1600 should produce an image of reasonable quality. For high end cameras (like Nikon D4 or Canon EOS 5D Mark III) an ISO of 3200 – 5000 can yield quite good results.

In my opinion, the shutter speed is the most important thing to think about while shooting the aurora. The longer your camera’s shutter stays open the longer light hits the camera sensor . You’re probably using the lowest aperture setting, you have a fairly limited range to work with for ISO, but reasonable shutter speeds for aurora photography can be a fraction of a second up to as long as your camera will let you (typically 30 seconds without a manual release). The thing to keep in mind is motion. Taking a 5 second long of an exposure of a race car driving by is going to be a blur, the concept is no different for aurora. If it’s not moving fast, diffuse, or just sitting on the horizon it’s easy to get away with a long shutter speed. That can allow you to decrease the ISO setting and get a higher quality image. On the other hand, during a strong geomagnetic storm the aurora flickers and dances with pinks and reds shooting through, rays and coronas form and disappear on millisecond timescales. With a long exposure all of that wonderful detail is lost. That’s when I really crank up the ISO and take the shutter speed to as fast as I can, sometimes to less than 1 second!

Even at night you can get too much light and overexpose your photos. The camera’s sensor is more receptive to the green emission lines from the aurora than your eye. It can be easy to use too long of a shutter speed so that your sensor is over-saturated by that light. Often this makes that green aurora look too bright or even white (all details are lost) in the photo. It’s hard to come up with a simple rule to prevent this – you’ll just have to watch the monitor (or better, the histogram – article forthcoming) on your camera until you figure it out.


Scenarios

What’s the scene? Think about what the aurora is doing! Here are a couple examples:

1) A diffuse (dim) aurora that sits barely above the horizon with no visible motion or structure?

  • Go for a longer shutter speed, there are no details to capture.
  • Longer shutter speed means you can decrease the ISO for less noise

Low activity and almost no visible motion of the aurora. Just a band sitting on the horizon. Longer shutter speed to capture the light and decreased ISO for low noise helps create a smoother image, which is nice for the reflection!
Camera: Nikon D90
ISO: 640
f/stop: 3.5
shutter speed 30 seconds

2) It’s not even dark yet and the aurora is out! This is an extreme example, but it’s happened for me more than once, the aurora is bright enough to be seen even though there are barely any stars out. There’s more motion, but not much detail or color yet.

I wanted to keep a low ISO so that the brighter sky didn’t get to noisy. This case I used way lower than normal at ISO 400. ISO 640 would probably have been reasonable too, but since the aurora wasn’t moving very fast there wasn’t really a need for a fast shutter speed.
Camera: Nikon D90
ISO: 400
f/stop: 3.5
shutter speed: 10 seconds

3) The aurora is directly overhead, moving incredibly fast, with a strong corona (diverging rays shooting up into the sky), pink lower borders are flickering across the sky. Think fast!

At 1.6 seconds, this still wasn’t a fast enough speed to capture all the detail. This image probably would have benefited from using a higher ISO because I could have brought the shutter speed down to less than 1 second which would help a lot in bringing out that lower pinkish border (it moves so fast sometimes). This is a PSA for learning how to adjust your setting quickly, because these “storms” don’t often last very long!
Camera: Nikon D7000
ISO: 1600
f/stop: 2.8
shutter speed: 1.6 seconds

4) Activity is fairly high, there are multiple bands, but not quickly flickering quickly across the sky. The motion is reminiscent of steam coming out of a smokestack. The high altitude oxygen may be coming out to play casting a red or purplish hue above the green. This is kind of the typical “good” Alaska night, not the best we get to see, but certainly something to write home about.

I like this example because this is often the starting point for settings that I use before a night of aurora shooting. From here, check the monitor or histogram and adjust shutter/ISO as needed.
Camera: Nikon D7000
ISO: 1250
f/stop: 2.8
shutter speed: 13 seconds
lens: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX II (for Nikon Cameras)

I hope you find this helpful and that it gives you a jumping off point. My most important piece of advice: don’t glue your eyes to that camera! Take time to watch the aurora and really enjoy it. Go out, shoot, watch out for moose, and have fun. I’ll keep adding some more examples below with different camera/lens combinations below.

**Note there are more articles still to come on aurora shooting. Other important things at this point being focusing, understanding the histogram (more detail in getting exposure right), and using a tripod. For focus, you can start with a focus at infinity (simple), or find the hyperfocal distance for your lens (at given aperture and focal length). For now I can refer you to the Cambridge in Color site.**

All images copyright Lee W Petersen – Please contact for usage: lee@lwpetersen.com

Aurora photograph taken with Nikon D750


The full-frame camera advantage comes from the larger sensors which are able to collect more light resulting in less random noise. The aurora here was fairly active, but not very bright. Being able to increase the ISO to 2500 was very helpful to capture.
Camera: Nikon D750
ISO: 2500
f/stop: 2.8
shutter speed: 10 seconds
lens: Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM AF for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

Blog Comments

This is so cool! Very nice guide.

I am a newcomer in Canada and lucky enough to watch aurora in the month of June 2014. I use a Nikon D90/ F3.5. The given instructions by lee work great for me. Sadly, the sky is mostly cloudy in Vancouver but I am hoping that tonight I can shoot my first pictures of our lovely, glamorous and vibrant guest! Thanks Lee.

Thank you so much – wishing you clear skies over Vancouver!

Nice guide, I recently moved to Alaska and didn’t pack my camera. I have never shot the aurora and wasn’t aware so many steps needed to capture aurora’s. I’m hoping you could give me some tips, I have borrowed a Minolta Maxxum 400si, its a film camera. I have set it to manual, aperture to 4.5 and shutter speed to 15 sec.

Thanks

Film will definitely be a bit tougher since you can’t change the ISO on the fly. Do you know what kind and speed (ISO) film you are using? I’m guessing with an f-stop of 4.5 you’ll need to use at the very least a 15 second aperture. If your film is @ ISO 400, more like 30 seconds.

The film i got was 400, I can change to a 30 sec. would it help if i change the f-stop higher?

You wouldn’t want to increase the f-stop, since that would decrease the amount of light let into the camera. If you can, try decreasing it, unless 4.5 is the minimum. I would probably, in most cases, increase the shutter speed. Probably to the 20-30 second range, maybe even longer if the aurora isn’t very bright. You could also try experimenting with a faster film for your next roll – maybe something like Kodak Portra 800 or Fuji Superia 1600. Good luck!

Thank you for this wonderful article. I’ve been researching aurora photography for weeks…there is no better essay on the Internet…of that I am convinced. I live in Anchorage, but was lucky enough to be in Fairbanks for the show last night. What a way to bring in the New Years. In researching “Lights” photography the only thing I’ve had a hard time finding is directions to safe parking spots. Last night, by luck, we found a perfect pull off along the Parks Highway, about 10.5 miles south of the first/last gas station in Fairbanks.

Thank you so much, I’m glad you found it helpful! And that you got to see last night’s display! I’m currently working on a few more articles pertaining to safety, both roadside and backcountry, and also some of my favorite places to view in the area. Thanks again and best wishes for the new year!

I have a Canon 6D. Can you recommend the best lens for me to take pictures of the aurora Borealis?
Is a wide angle fixed lens f/1.4 24 mm better, or a zoom lens like EF 16-35 mm f/2.8. I don’t have any wide angle lens, and want to invest in one for this trip.

Both would absolutely be suitable. The f/1.4 may be faster, but could also be more than necessary when the sensor on the 6D will be fine in regard to noise at higher ISO’s. I’d probably lean toward the 16-35 mm for aurora, but that’s personal preference. Often times I like to try to get that “full-sky” image, and the 24mm just isn’t wide enough. I hope this is somewhat helpful.

Hi,

I have SONY CYBERSHOT and I dont really see a lot of the settings related to exposure time. I am able to set the ISO to 800 in manual mode and focus on landscape (infinity). Also I am able to set the White Balance to Auto. If you have had any experience with a CYBERSHOT camera do you have any other recommendations or suggestions.

Specs are as below of the camera –
https://www.google.com/shopping/product/3538742673560490482/specs?q=sony+cyber+shot+dsc+h200&oq=SON&ie=UTF-8&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j69i59l3j0l2.2924j1j7&sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&bav=on.2,or.&bvm=bv.113943164,d.dmo&biw=1366&bih=628&dpr=1&tch=1&ech=1&psi=GMy7VrvXBMy1equ9jZAJ.1455148057064.3&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi73O_4sO7KAhVFPz4KHSsCDGYQuC8ImwE

Hi Abhishek,

Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience with the Cybershot. Although, looking at the specs, since it has a full manual mode, you can adjust the shutter speed to get a longer exposure (up to 30 seconds in this case).

Here is a relevant link in the user manual: http://docs.esupport.sony.com/dvimag/DSCH200_guide/en/contents/03/03/07/07.html#l2_manual exposure shooting

Item number 3 will tell you how to adjust both the exposure and aperture (f-stop). I’d probably start with the lowest f-stop you can, f/3.1 when not zoomed in (corresponding to the largest aperture opening). I’d also start with a long exposure time (shutter speed) at 20-30 seconds, and make adjustments as you go and learn. Don’t forget to use a tripod!

I hope this is helpful. Much luck to you, thanks for stopping by!

-Lee

LW,
Living in upstate NY, near VT, it’s still frustrating trying to get shots of the aurora due to light pollution. My wife and I will be leaving on a 6 night trip to Iceland in a few days with a new Canon T5i, 18-55 f3.5 kitted with tripod, extra batteries, intervalometer, etc. Found your website very informative. Please give your thoughts on my expected results, given clear sky, and a show above.
Thanks.
Tom

Correction: T6i, not T5i
Tom

Sorry for my late reply, I’ve been quite busy the last few days.
You should be able to get fine images with the T6i! It doesn’t have a great sensor for low-light, so try not to push the ISO up too high, but it’s more than adequate to get some great shots. Maybe do some test shots at ISO 1250, 1600, 2000 to see how much noise you get. I haven’t shot aurora with it, but my guess is you’ll want to stick to ISO 800-1250. I would maybe consider a slightly wider lens (maybe a rental if time?). 18mm isn’t bad, but you’ll probably find yourself missing some of the swath of sky you want to get! Anyway, good luck and have an excellent trip, I’m so jealous of your Iceland trip!

Can aperture and shutter speed be on manual and Iso settings on auto .. Does it work well?

Technically yes, but then you will lose control of the exposure since the camera will adjust the ISO depending how the light metering is done in camera. At night, this may mean the camera will automatically adjust to fairly high ISO (unless it allows you to set a limit) and go beyond the bounds of acceptable noise. I’d say it would be better just to practice on full manual in different lighting conditions at night. Definitely, do some tests in the dark to see what the noise levels are like with your camera system at increasingly higher ISO settings, and then set some kind of a limit.

I only have a few ISO settings that I’ll use with any given camera. With my D7100 ISO 2000 is my upper limit for noise. I’ll use ISO 800 if I’m needing long exposures anyway since any motion will already be drowned out and gradually move up as I need shorter exposures because of the activity level. ISO 1250 and 1600 are my most used with that camera (given I have a fast lens on it). I’ll only push the ISO higher when I need less than 1-second exposures.

Hope this is helpful. Happy shooting!

Hi, thanks for your useful article! I will like to seek your advice on which camera will be more ideal for shooting aurora:

1) nikon dslr d5200, with lens AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm, f3.5 – 5.6.
2) canon powershot s120, zoom lens, 5.2 – 26 mm, f1.8 – 5.7. It has manual function that allows me to adjust the iso, focus etc.

Lower aperture seems to be more ideal in general, so it seems like the powershot is better relative to the d5200 of that lens? Am really new to all these photography stuff, and grateful for any advice! Thanks!

I would say it would depend on what you want to do most with the camera. The D5200 will allow more versatility with a wide option of available lenses and easier controls for adjusting manual settings (dials instead of menus). I would prefer having the DSLR, especially in night shooting. But, DSLR’s are not for everyone, they are big, heavy, and not the easiest to use without some experience and practice. If you want to have a camera that you can keep in a small bag or a pocket, and occasionally use to shoot some night scenes, the powershot will be sufficient for photographing the aurora. The quality of the images you can grab by either will be roughly the same, but the larger lens on the 18-55mm will most likely lead to better sharpness and less vignetting. The D5200 will allow you more room to grow as a photographer, if that’s what you want. Maybe now, you can only get the 18mm f3.5 lens, but you can always upgrade (or expand your collection) later.

I hope these points are helpful! Happy shooting!

Thank you for the reply! I brought both cameras but mostly used the dslr for shooting the aurora. Lucky enough to see it for one of the nights! Thank you:)

I’m a newbie to photography and would love to see the aurora hoping to in Moray Scotland later this year. Following your guide I might even get a few photos!

Thankyou very comprehensive.

Really well done, especially for a beginner to the hobby. Going to Iceland in November ’16 and wanted some good tips. Most interested in getting decent shots with a simple Coolpix Nikon s9700. I’ve taken big game Africa with DSLR but on this trip I’m not there long enough to bring a lot of equipment. I think with your guide I just might get by with simple equipment. Thanks

How did the Coolpix work? Did it take OK pics? That’s the camera I have but am debating if I should invest in a DSLR for my trip in January.

I’ve only shot with DSLR’s, haven’t tried a Coolpix. It’s ISO range is a bit low, so I suspect there will be a fair bit of noise at higher ISO’s. You could run into some other problems like autofocus issues. That said, it should be capable of taking photos of the aurora. If your goal is aurora photography then I’d probably move to a DSLR.

Thank you. I decided to get a DSLR.

Hi there,

I have found your article very informative but am curious about recommended settings for shooting the aurora under a full moon which I will have on a trip to Yellowknife next year! I am currently using a 6D and 14mm Samyang f2.8 lens and have some previous experience shooting aurora, but not with a full moon and don’t want to lose any colour or definition.

Many thanks, Matt

Hi Matt,

It’s awesome shooting aurora with moonlight! The snow is so reflective that it’s usually bright enough to walk around without a light. My best suggestion is to shoot away from the moon taking advantage of the foreground illumination. At f/2.8 I usually need to shoot pretty fast (most of my examples are around 2.5 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 1600). A diffuse aurora might be hard to shoot, but typical bright bands like you can get in Yellowknife should be good. If the aurora is bright and active you’re already shooting fast – you won’t lose details and definition. Good luck, have a fun trip!

This is exactly the kind of guide for photographing auroras that I was looking for! Thanks!

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