Brian Peterson: How to photograph northern lights

  • Article by: BRIAN PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2012 - 5:45 PM

Photographing the northern lights requires patience, the right equipment and a bit of knowledge.

If you live in Minnesota and spend any time Up North, you undoubtedly have witnessed or heard someone tell you about a spectacular display of northern lights. Capturing this magnificent display of nature can be a tricky proposition.

The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are on the upward side of a 10-12-year cycle that is expected to peak in 2013-2014. Recent solar activity has presented the patient observer with some of the best since 2004.

In Minnesota, the dark winter months are best for viewing the northern lights. Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are the most active, but it's possible to see activity any month of the year.

Here are a few tips to help you capture with your camera the magic of the experience:

• Most important, you need to find a dark place, away from city lights, with a clear, moonless view of the northern horizon. The farther north you go, the better your odds.

• Southern shores of large lakes and open hilltops are good options.

• You will need a camera capable of manual exposure. Preferably a digital SLR with a f2.8 or faster lens. My favorite is a Canon 24mm f1.4 wide angle. It's a little pricey, but a simple 50mm f2.0 or 1.8 can be purchased for most DSLRs for about $100 and will do just fine.

• A steady tripod and cable release or remote trigger are a must for long exposures.

• Set your camera to manual exposure and your lens to its widest aperture. Switch your camera to manual focus and tape the focus ring on your lens to the infinity mark on the range scale, to prevent accidental bumping in the dark. Bring a flashlight to see your camera settings.

• I like to start with an ISO setting of 1250, aperture at 2.0 or 2.8 and shutter speed of 15 seconds. Monitor the exposure on your LCD screen and adjust from there. You must keep your exposures below 20 seconds to prevent star trails.

• Don't want to lose a night's sleep or the possibility of a 4 a.m show? Use an intervelometer or electronic remote trigger. This will allow you to automatically record images at 30-second intervals throughout the night. It's also a great way to capture images for spectacular time-lapse video. (See online time-lapse video.)

• Most nights you will be happy to see more activity on your camera than you were able to see with the naked eye.

  • related content

  • Northern lights in Minnesota - For "How to shoot pictures of Northern...

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Minnesota 94 FINAL
Philadelphia 103
Houston 93 FINAL
Boston 87
Portland 99 FINAL
Atlanta 105
Sacramento 90 FINAL
Cleveland 101
Toronto 127 FINAL
Brooklyn 122
Dallas 93 FINAL
Miami 72
LA Clippers 103 FINAL
New Orleans 108
Golden State 100 FINAL
Utah 110
Chicago 55 3rd Qtr 6:17
Phoenix 62
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL(SO)
Carolina 2
Nashville 0 FINAL
Colorado 3
Buffalo 2 3rd Prd 13:43
Vancouver 4
Chicago 3 3rd Prd 15:03
Anaheim 0
Harvard 75 FINAL
Princeton 72
Quinnipiac 57 FINAL
Canisius 63
Brown 49 FINAL
Cornell 57
Siena 79 FINAL
Manhattan 87
Marist 65 FINAL
Niagara 61
Dartmouth 51 FINAL
Penn 58
Oregon 68 FINAL
Arizona State 67
Yale 63 FINAL
Columbia 59
Monmouth 60 FINAL
Fairfield 59
Western Ill 63
Oregon State 34 FINAL
Arizona 57
Kent State 55 FINAL
Buffalo 80
Canisius 75 FINAL
Monmouth 58
Butler 67 FINAL
Providence 59
Cornell 65 FINAL
Brown 52
Columbia 47 FINAL
Yale 55
Coll of Charleston 47 FINAL
Drexel 64
Penn 55 FINAL
Dartmouth 39
Elon 60 FINAL
James Madison 89
(19) Princeton 96 FINAL
Harvard 46
(9) Florida State 82 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Quinnipiac 87 FINAL
Siena 62
Richmond 54 FINAL
Rhode Island 50
Loyola-Chicago 58 FINAL
Southern Ill 64
Georgetown 52 FINAL
DePaul 93
Villanova 75 FINAL
Marquette 59
Wichita State 70 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
Xavier 65 FINAL
Creighton 74
Bradley 58 FINAL
Illinois State 55
Missouri State 89 FINAL
Drake 94
Arizona 48 FINAL
Utah 62
(11) Arizona State 68 FINAL
Colorado 60
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question