Night Sky and Northern Lights Photography tips

by Anthony D. Cliffe

So I thought I’d do a quick little photography blog tonight! Barb my awesome cousin in Canada is lucky enough to be off to the Yukon soon to hopefully see the Northern Lights and she asked me about what camera settings I used to photograph them in the heart of Iceland. A few people have asked me this exact same question, so I thought I’d do a little tutorial about how to photograph the Northern Lights or if you’re not lucky enough to go to a place to see them, then these tips will work for any starry night sky shot. Sure there are tons of other online tutorials on how to do this but I thought I’d offer an insight to what I did and what I found works for me. I hope this tutorial is easy to follow because while I like my photography I’m certainly no expert or speak much in expert speak!

What do I need?

Well firstly and well obviously you’re going to need a Camera! While any camera is capable to some extent of taking star or Northern Light pictures, yes even your smartphone is capable! Although they won’t be anywhere near as good as a proper camera. DSLR type cameras are the best for this kind of job. I’m a Canon guy although Nikon etc. are just as good. This tutorial will follow an outline for Canon cameras and although Nikon use different symbols, the process is the same. You can also use a compact camera providing you have the option to manually change the settings. The camera I use is a Canon 1200D which is a pretty solid but entry level DSLR and I bought that a few years ago for around £300. So you have yourself a camera? That’s a good start!

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My camera gear minus the tripod

Next you’re going to want a lens that has a wide focal length or field of view. Imagine that as a lens that can grab as wide a picture as possible. Most DSLR or compact cameras zoomed all the way out will have quite wide fields of view. The lens I use for night time shots is this stock 18mm to 35mm lens that came with my Canon 1200D.

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My Canon 1200D with a small lens on. Any DSLR or compact will do the job providing the lens is up to the job.

Most importantly though you’re going to want these two inexpensive items, without them it doesn’t matter if your camera costs that of a small car, you ain’t going to get any good shots! Those two items are a Tripod and a remote shutter. The first is essential! While I highly recommend you buy a remote shutter (£10 if that) you can get away with not using one proving your camera has a timer but I’ll explain why you should use a remote shutter later on. A Tripod though is fundamental! I have a good one from Amazon for around £15 that folds up neatly into my camera bag and that’s been on countless trips. They’re great for normal photography too! So invest!

If you have all those items then we’re good to go! Before you venture out into the wilds of Iceland you’re going to want to practice in your back garden and you’re going to want to use these settings! If you just want the basics without the explanation then here they are, below that is a more detailed explanation!

  • Manual Mode
  • Manual Focus
  • Lens zoomed out
  • F-Stop 3.5 or lower
  • ISO 800
  • Shutter Speed 10-25 seconds
  • Shoot in RAW

Settings

If you have a DSLR or a compact camera you’ll often have a little twist dial with different letters and pictures. On my Canon it is as shown below. Whatever camera system you use (read the manual if you have too!) you’re going to want to put the camera into Manual Mode. If you’re an avid photographer already then you’re probably well used to this mode however if you’re not then this mode can feel a little daunting. It allows you 100% control over whatever the camera does which is both scary but ultimately rewarding as it’s all about your skill to get the picture rather than the camera’s brain. It’s really important that you get familiar with this mode and not rely on other settings as in the dark the camera’s brain will work overtime and won’t produce what you want in your image! For me, my Manual Mode is designated by the letter M.

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Putting the camera into Manual Mode via the dial.

Now that you’re in Manual Mode firstly you’re going to want to zoom your lens all the way out for example mine goes all the way out to 18mm. Make your lens go as far as possible to the lowest setting. The second thing I want you to do and this may be a button on the camera or you may need to go into the camera settings once it’s switched on and turn your Focus to Manual Focus.

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Lens zoomed all the way out to 18mm. My auto/manual focus button is on the side of my lens.

Turning the camera on now it’s time to navigate the settings to get it set up for some night sky photography. There are certain things you’re going to want to change.

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Manual Mode Settings page. Here is where you’ll change the following settings.

Aperture

Aperture is a setting which tells the camera how much light the lens will take in, for night time photography when its well… dark you’re going to want as much light hitting those tiny camera sensors at the back of the lens as much as possible. In order to do that you’re going to want the lens to open as wide as possible. Imagine you’ve woken up at night and you’re trying to find the light switch. Your eyes will open as wide as possible to gain as much light as possible, that’s what the camera needs to do. On the flip side in bright sunlight your eyes squint because it doesn’t need as much light for example. Some lens and cameras can go lower than F3.5 but 3.5 is a good setting to use. Any higher and it doesn’t really work. If you look on your screen you’ll see a number with an F on it. Use your navigation buttons, highlight the F number and lower it to as low as it will go.

Shutter Speed

One of the most important things for night time photography is not only the eye to be as wide as possible to collect light but it needs to be open for a long time to capture as much light as possible. Between 10 and 25 seconds I find perfect for night time sky photography. Any longer than 30 seconds then due to the earth’s rotation the stars will begin to move and have a streaky effect across the sky. While that can be cool, we want nice sharp stars!

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You don’t need to head out to the countryside to photograph sharp stars! This was taken from my back garden in a town last summer.

If you’re unsure where to change your shutter speed settings then it’s usually next to your F stop and is a number with a / in it for example 1/1000th (Which means the lens will stay open for 1000th of a second. Of course that’s too quick we want 10 seconds at least! So change that until it reads 10. Usually it will go up in 5 second blocks). You may notice that mine says Bulb instead of a number. On my camera the bulb setting means the lens will stay open for as long as I let it until I tell it to close. This is one reason your remote shutter comes in handy. You may find 10 seconds is too dark, 15 seconds too light but 13 seconds perfect. So you have that control.

ISO

Out of all of the items so far you’re probably most familiar with the terms ISO and then seeing some numbers after it. I won’t explain the complexities of ISO numbers but set it as 800!

RAW over JPEG

Your smartphone and your cameras default shoots in JPEG. JPEG is an image were your cameras brain takes the information from the sensors and produces a picture. While this is perfectly fine, you’re very limited to what editing options you can do to it once you put it on your PC. I always shoot in RAW. RAW is an unedited version of what the camera sees so you have complete control over all aspects of the image in the editing phase. As you can tell us photographers are a controlling bunch! If you don’t want the hassle of editing in a software editor then use JPEG but be warned you can’t make your images really pop! You can set your camera to shoot in both however if you want to.

Other settings

If you change those three settings then you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a decent star or Northern Lights shot! So start out with those. However if you really want to go the extra mile, your camera may have a white balance setting. I usually use Cloudy to enhance colours of the Northern Lights but if you’re just shooting stars I recommend the florescent white balance.

Why use a remote shutter or a timer and a tripod?
So that question you ask yourself, why do I need a tripod and a remote shutter or timer? Well as mentioned above the camera will have the lens open for a long time. It’s impossible even for top Snipers to hold a camera for 15 seconds completely still! Any movement within those 15 seconds will make the image blurred and the light source streak across the image, ruining it. Tripods are excellent to make the camera nice and stable and free from movement. Even if you have a tripod, the very act of you physically pressing the camera shutter will move the camera body slightly, introducing movement. Even though it is brief it can cause that issue. That is were a timer or a remote shutter takes that movement away but with a remote shutter you have that finer control over the time.

Okay so you’ve survived that complicated set up…I hope you’re still following with me! Now it’s time to go outdoors and put all of this into action. Get the gloves, hat and coat on oh and your shoes and lets head outside.

So we’re outside, the camera is on the tripod and all your settings are in place, don’t forget to take that lens cap off! (I can’t begin to tell you the amount of times I thought my camera lens was broken only to realise I left the lens cap on). Doh!

With the camera switched on you’re going to want to manually focus your camera on an object. Be that a tree, a bush, a lamp anything! I always try to have something in the shot as it gives it a sense of scale and looks better.

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Night Sky is good to capture

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Night Sky Photography is far better with a landscape in the photograph or a foreground.

Take a few pictures and keep manually focusing until your images look sharp and in focus. Once you find that sweet spot do not touch the focus or the lens. Leave it as is and move the tripod around and snap away! You’ll want to change the shutter speeds each time to see what you get. On a night shoot I may take over 400 pictures and maybe 20 will be any good. It’s all about practice, changing things and keep trying! You have to keep trying and you will find at least one brilliant picture in there!

So good luck! I hope you get some cracking pictures of the northern lights or the wonders of the night sky! If you’re shooting in RAW and want some editing tips then follow this link to my editing blog post here: Editing Northern Lights Pictures: How do i do it?