Beginner Northern Lights Photography Tips
Last year I flew to Iceland in the frigid January weather just to see the northern lights. In 3 days there, I didn’t have any luck. On top of that, my tripod blew over and I cracked my brand new camera. #EpicFail
Why I Chose Tromsø, Norway to Chase the Northern Lights
This time, I flew all the way to the north of Norway to a town called Tromsø. Tromsø is rated one of the top 10 places to see the northern lights in the entire world. Although you’re never guaranteed to see them, I thought I had a pretty good chance. Little did I know…
Welp, I guess I’m going back to Norway! Not a bad place to return to I must say.
I thought I had my mind set on a specific company to see the northern lights. Until a few weeks before my trip, I found Tromsø Friluftsenter, a smaller family owned company who have been operating since 2004. I’m a sucker for smaller family owned tours/companies because I love supporting smaller business, because I absolutely loathe being herded around like cattle on a huge tour bus, and because a smaller company usually means more personalized attention.
So I pulled a little switcheroo and decided to go with Tromsø Friluftsenter. Best. Decision. Ever.
The First Sighting
I knew it was going to be a great night when 10 minutes into our drive, we saw a glimpse of the northern lights zig-zagging across the sky. What was to come that night was extremely unexpected.
We arrived to their base camp about 45 minutes outside the city. As soon as we pulled up, we were greeted by a dashing display of the Aurora Borealis lighting up the sky in shades of neon green, purple, and pink (which turned out to be the strongest we saw them the entire night). Stepping out of the van and looking up to see this natural phenomenon that you’ve heard about since you were little bombarding the sky above was even better than I have ever dreamed about.
It left me speechless and teary-eyed, something that has happened only a few times in my travels.
Ok, back to the base camp. The base camp consisted of a few traditional Sami tents, with the mountains and the ocean nearby. It was a gorgeous snowy setting and provided many different foreground options to photograph the northern lights. Actually, this was one big factor that helped me with my decision to choose this company (as well as the near perfect TripAdvisor reviews). I really wanted to have a nice setting with cute houses or something else to frame the shot. I didn’t just want a million pics of the sky (although the sky was phenomenal on its own I realized after I arrived).
Our Sami tent had a bonfire burning and wooden seats made from tree trunks and topped with reindeer fur surrounding the fire pit in a circle. It was so cozy and cute and I couldn’t have asked for a more arctic setting! It also meant we had somewhere to run to and warm up in between shooting the northern lights, something that all the other companies didn’t have! It was freezing and I couldn’t imagine standing outside for 4-5 hours straight so this was a huge plus!
We were served coffee or tea and cake, and later roasted marshmallows over the fire. It was absolutely perfect and reminded me of the fun times I had camping when I was young. It also provided time to get to know the others on tour. We had a blast listening to all Knut’s (the owner) reindeer stories as we warmed up our fingers and toes.
Don’t Stress About Shooting the Northern Lights
On the drive over, our awesome guide Pierre gave us some quick and easy photography tips for shooting the northern lights (which can also be applied to all night photography). This was also a big plus since I have never shot night photography before so I really needed help!
Pierre also helped us with the setting or any other questions we had while we were out shooting. He wanted to make sure we all got good shots of the lights, even if everyone didn’t have a fancy DSLR camera.
Beginner Northern Lights Photography Tips
Put camera in Manual Mode (M)
Check sensitivity of sensor (aka ISO). Recommend ISO 1200-1600. More ISO means more noise (grainy).
Shutter Speed: at least 10 seconds. 15 seconds is recommended as a starting point.
Aperture (F stop). The wider the aperture (i.e. the lower the F stop number) the better for night shots.
Put on Manual Focus (MF)-to prevent blur. Activate screen of camera and zoom in to set it. Use infinity “∞” symbol on camera if you have it.
You MUST use a tripod (night shots require the shutter to be open for longer periods of time and complete stillness is needed)
*Most of my shots were taken at 1600 ISO, F4 aperture, at 15-20 seconds. However, I was so excited when I went outside and saw the lights that I forgot to put my camera on manual focus so they aren’t as clear as they could have been. Rookie mistake!
Camera Gear for Shooting the Northern Lights
The right camera gear is KEY to shooting the northern lights. However, you don’t have to be a professional and you don’t need to spend thousands. But you’re going to need more than a camera phone or GoPro. Below is all the camera gear I used and all can be found on Amazon (my obsession).
Camera: you don’t need a fancy DSLR, a mirror-less camera will do. I used my Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 16-50mm Power Zoom Lens
Wide Angle Lens: a wide angle lens is a must as it allows more light in (due to a wider aperture), which is essential for night photography. I bought mine pre-used. It cost more than my camera base but it’s SO worth it as I use it to shoot ALL my landscape shots! My lens is the Sony SEL1018 10-18mm Wide-Angle Zoom Lens
Travel Tripod: Fortunately they lent us tripods for the tour, so I left mine behind. But this is the super lightweight one I usually travel with: AmazonBasics 50-Inch Lightweight Tripod with Bag
iPhone 6: Sorry, but you can’t get good shots of the northern lights on an iPhone. I used this ONLY for a remote through the Play Memories Mobile App. This allowed me hands-free shooting without the risk of movement from manually pushing the shutter button. My trusted iPhone: Apple iPhone 6 64GB Space Gray – (Verizon Wireless)
Disclaimer: the above links are affiliate links with Amazon. Meaning, if you make a purchase with these links I may receive a tiny commission, at no extra cost to you. It’s what helps me keep this site up and running, so a special thanks!♥
All of the Lights
We didn’t just see the northern lights, we got hammered with them the entire night! They danced, they pranced, they moved, they boogied! Incredible is an understatement. I waited so long to see them, and boy did I get a show! The lights were active the entire night, and at some points they would really blew up in the sky.
Pierre would constantly check outside and come get us when they were exploding! We immediately grabbed our tripods and dashed outside. Pierre loved shooting at the nearby beach and would hurdle over there quickly in the snow. We couldn’t keep up at times he was so enthusiastic about it! It was funny to watch and it kept our energy high, especially when it was getting late.
The best part is that Pierre took several hundred photos of us and the lights, and we were given access to them via Flickr. So even if you don’t have a camera with you. You will get some awesome shots of the lights so your memories will last forever!
We were also given a tripod and a warm jumpsuit to wear if needed. They only had size large and X-large so I was tripping on mine at some points, but hey, it kept me pretty warm!
Overall, this might have been my favorite tour I have ever taken! The crew was awesome, the base camp was unique and fun, the setting was just perfect and had a lot around to use as props for our pictures, and the light show was just out of this world!
We got lucky as Pierre said this was the strongest show he had seen all year. You’re never guaranteed to see them, but boy did we get smacked in the face with a spectacular show from Mother Nature.
I would 110% recommend you to check out this company if you come to Tromsø. I had a special night with them I will never forget. They also do whale watching tours which I would have loved to do, however, that season ended in January unfortunately.
Note: I read on their site that visiting the base camp isn’t always guaranteed. On nights when the activity is low, you will drive around to different spots and “chase” the lights. But as the activity is pretty solid in this area, I would assume you have a good chance of visiting the base camp.
Disclaimer: I was a guest ofTromsø Friluftsenter; however, my opinions are my own and as you can tell, I freakin’ loved them! I would confidently recommend them to my family, friends, and anyone else visiting Tromsø. Hell, I would take this tour again if I ever return to Tromsø!
Click photo to PIN for later♥
What great advice! I’m always so intimidated to shoot night or on manual…but you break it down so easily! Also, I’ve totally been eyeing that wide angle lens!!! Would love to know more about it xo
Honestly, I’m very intimidated to shoot at night too, but they made it so easy and it worked!!! The wide angle lens i use is awesome! It’s expensive but SO worth it. I use it for all my outdoor landscape shots! It’s also great for shooting cityscapes and skyscrapers when you turn it vertical! And of course it’s ideal for night photography too due to the smaller f/stop. I use it way more than my other lenses and it’s my favorite by far!
This sounds like such an amazing tour! I’ve been really lucky to have seen the northern lights in the US, but I would love to see them in Iceland! The Sami tent you stayed in sounds magical. I usually don’t take tours, but I’m definitely interested in this. It sounds like a perfect vacation!
Ya I usually don’t prefer to do tours either, but with the northern lights I feel like they know where to find them! Ohhh, and where did you see them in the US? That’s so cool! I’m assuming Alaska?
I’ve actually seen them a couple times in northern Minnesota. I bet Alaska would be an incredible place to see them too though.
Wow, didnt know you could even see them from Minnesota!
This is such a good post and love the pictures! I got to see the northern lights in Iceland and it was all so exciting but the sky wasn’t as clear as you experienced. The tents and mountains are gorgeous. I’m saving this post and hopefully will get the chance to travel here and chase the lights!
Thanks so much! Ya, it’s definitely worth it to go here for a second viewing, they were literally blasting the sky for like 4-5 hours straight. It’s something I will never forget <3
Oh my! This is like dream come true!! Needless to say your photos are incredible and I can’t even imagine how surreal the entire experience must have been! I haven’t heard of Tromso but was thinking of visiting Lapland hoping for a spectacular light show! But Tromso looks beautiful and I’m going to research further right away!
Yes Tromsø was beautiful and you have a really great chance of seeing the lights! I also went to Lapland right after this and saw them randomly in Levi when I was going to eat….although I took a tour there and didnt see them on the tour haha. But honestly, I would say Tromsø to give you better odds!! Good luck 🙂
Thanks for the tips! Seeing the Northern Lights is on my bucket list, and this will definitely come in handy.
Good luck and I hope you see them! It’s so surreal!
Amazing pictures! I would love to do this at a certain point in my life :)) The only thing that would discourage me is the cold and snow :-d
Haha yes, it was definitely cold, but this tour had a cute little (big) hut with a fire inside so we could warm up whenever we needed. It was a game changer!
I didn’t even realize that there was a list for the best places to see the Northern Lights. Your photos are so amazing that they hardly look real! I’m hoping your tricks will work for me as well. Thanks for sharing!
It was my first time ever shooting at night so I’m sure they will work for you too! Good luck 🙂
Amazing tips! It’s never too early to share this post because I’m really hoping to see the northern lights this season! Saving this in hopes that I get to 🙂
Yesssss. I heard they are going to get dimmer after this year so it would be a good time to try to catch them! I don’t know how accurate that statement is but i keep hearing these rumors haha
Holy crap! I’m heading to Iceland this October. I needed these tips! 🙂 Thank you!
Yay!!! Good luck and I really hope you get to see them!!! It felt like a dream!