Photography Cheat Sheet: How to Shoot the Northern Lights

Winter is one of the best times to view and photograph the Northern Lights. To help you prepare, here’s a quick photography cheat sheet.

The grandeur of the Northern Lights is high on the bucket list of travel and landscape photographers, so we’re not surprised if it’s already on your plans for the winter. Of course, you’ll want to bring home some stunning photos as keepsakes of the spectacular experience. However, it will certainly be a challenge to shoot. Today, we have just the photography cheat sheet you need to make it happen.

The cheat sheet below is part of the tutorial put together by travel bloggers and photographers Laurence and Jessica Norah to help us get the best photos of the Northern Lights. “It’s going to be dark, which is when most cameras struggle to produce great images. It’s also likely to be cold, the lights will be moving, and even simple tasks like getting the focus right can be difficult,” they warned on the post. But with their guide — and the cheat sheet — you’ll be able to give it your best shot.

First, you’ll have to set your camera to Manual mode and make sure to set it to RAW. Your shutter speed should be between 5 and 30 seconds, while the aperture should be set between f1.8 to f5.6. Set the ISO between 1600 – 6400 and set the focus to infinity. Make sure you have a sturdy and steady tripod with you, as well as a remote shutter release (if you don’t, set the camera to 2-second timer). If your camera has a built-in flash, make sure it’s disabled. Try shooting with these settings first, and adjust the settings as necessary to get the shots you want. The sky will change, so you’ll definitely have to make some adjustments.

Now, what if your camera doesn’t have a manual mode? You can still shoot with it, but manage your expectations, as the results may not end up as impressive. To have the best chance at quality results, here are some tips you can try:

  1. Use a tripod to stabilize your camera.
  2. Check your camera for special modes of night photography, as these will let you shoot long exposures.
  3. Use the focus mode for landscapes if your camera doesn’t have manual focus controls.
  4. Disable the flash.
  5. Manually set the ISO; even if the camera doesn’t let you set the ISO yourself, look for a “High” setting to tell the camera to use a higher ISO.

Looking for more photography tips and tricks like this? Do check out our growing collection of photography cheat sheets so far!


Cover photo by Christian Hoiberg. Used with Creative Commons permission.