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#TUTORIAL SERIES XXL Northern Lights Photography – The Definitive Guide

Hello and welcome to a new 


and also welcome to a new series of guiding you through the knowledge base of how to northern lights photography.

This part 1 of the new series I wanted to do and share the best tips and tricks in preparing, doing, and after work your photos, when you want to do northern lights photography.

So here we go with the guide and today let's start with the following topics:

  • Planning and camera equipment

Northern Lights Photography – Planning

Planning ensures you don’t waste night after night hoping to get some shots of the northern lights. Use the following steps & start creating great photos. If you want to learn more about this topic please continue reading the following steps, otherwise scroll down the step 1b.

This step-by-step written guide and video tutorial walks you through the entire process of planning for Milky Way, star trails, and night sky photography. Guaranteed great photos!
Learn how to use the best websites, apps, and computer programs, essential to taking beautiful photos of the stars, milky way & night sky.

Step 1a: Calculate the Moon Phase

Our Moon rotates around our Sun approximately once every 27.3 days. This means we will see approximately the same views of the Moon once each 27.3 days.
During the New Moon, when the sun lies directly between planet Earth and the sun, is the best time to photograph the Milky Way.  Due to the New Moon’s location between us and the Sun, there is no light cast on the side of the moon which we can see from Earth.  In turn the Earth will receive no Moon light on these nights for a short period of time.
That being said, the night of the New Moon will provide the longest and darkest hours to photograph the Milky Way. There are also 5-6 nights on either side of the night of the New Moon which will also work great for photographing the Milky Way.
During these nights there will be no Moon visible in the sky for a minimum of 1-2 hours a night and a maximum of approximately 10 hours a night. These 10-12 days fall directly before, directly after, and include the night of the New Moon.
Star trails and Northern Lights photography are much more forgiving. You can capture star trails or Northern Lights photos with, or without, the Moon visible in the sky. Both situations will yield different and unique results.

Step 2a: Find Dark Skies
Blue Marble Light Pollution Map – 2014 Edition works very well for this. Black areas on the map are great for shooting the night sky, while white areas on the map are light polluted and should be avoided.

Step 3a: Find Clear Skies – Predicting the Weather
Without clear skies it will be impossible to get a clean view of the Milky Way, stars, or Northern Lights. This doesn’t mean there can’t be a few clouds. Sometimes clouds here and there add to the “interestingness” of the photo, but complete cloud cover won’t allow you to see the night sky.

Outside the USA: I use and recommend MeteoStar Weather Website.

 Inside the USA: I use and recommend NOAA ( National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration )

It provides in depth weather forecasting data for all of the United States.
Here is a great way to go about finding cloud cover percentages using NOAA. I also show you how to do this in Video I – Moon Phase, Dark Skies and Weather, above.
  1. Visit
  2. Type in a city and state near where you would like to shoot. It just has to be close. We can re-adjust in the next step!
  3. Once you search for your city and state, a new page will come up.
  4. Using the map on the new page, zoom out as required, then, click the exact location where you would like to see the weather forecast. Click Here to see where I’ve done this for Mount Rainier, Washington.
  5. Now, scroll down the same page until you see the Hourly Weather Graph on the right hand side. Click the Hourly Weather Graph graphic.
  6. Now you can decide the date, time, weather, and precipitation elements which you would like to view. Use the checkboxes to turn them on and off.
  7. Using the Sky Cover Percentage ( % ) you will be able to predict how many clouds will be present at any specific time! Ideally aim for 0-20% cloud cover. 21-60% is also acceptable. Shooting with 80-90% cloud cover is possible, but will not yield many great shots.

Step 1b: Find Dark Skies

The easiest way to find an area with dark skies is to check the Blue Marble Light Pollution Map which is a Google / NASA collaboration.
The black areas are free of light pollution, while white and grey areas have high light pollution. Shooting in dark areas will provide the best results, most vivid colors & detail.

Step 2b: Find Clear Skies

Next, it’s time to find clear skies. You can photograph the aurora on partially cloudy nights, but the results won’t be quite as good as nights with 100% clear skies. Check the local weather and find a night with cloud cover between 0 and 20%. If you want to take your photography planning to the next level, learning this information is really going to help! It’s also quite interesting.

Step 3b: Check the Aurora Activity

Next, check the aurora activity for the night of your shoot. There are many different resources for checking aurora activity, which all depend on your location.
Usually it’s best to aim for nights with KP-index of 2 or greater, otherwise you really won’t see much aurora in the sky.
The aurora activity index ( Kp-index ) ranges from 0-9 with 0 being the lowest amount of activity and 9 being the greatest.  Kp-index ratings of 5 or great are considered a storm.
Provided below are a list of great websites which will help you to learn more about aurora activity as well as get the current forecast:
  • Space Weather Live OVATION Auroral Forecast A really nice visual website which provides the current aurora forecast as well as other interesting facts which will help you to capture a photo of the Northern Lights.
  • NOAA POES Auroral Activity WebsiteThis site provides aurora forecast predictions as well as basic information which will allow you to be better informed prior to going out on your shoot.
  • Iceland’s Vedur Aurora ForecastIf you’re going to be shooting in Iceland this is the site for you. You can also use the aurora activity predictions from this website when visiting Norway, Sweden, Greenland, or anywhere else in the close vicinity. Obviously it will be most accurate when shooting in Iceland.
  • Space Weather Aurora Forecast Another great website with a broad overview of the aurora forecast for a multi-day time frame. Space Weather’s website is worth spending some time visiting!

Northern Lights Camera Equipment

Minimum Requirements

Tripod – A sturdy tripod that doesn’t shake or slip over a 10-20 second exposure. Many low quality tripods produce terrible image quality due to movement creating out of focus images.
Camera with Manual Mode Functionality – Manual mode allows the independent camera setting adjustments of ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed.

Recommended Gear

Full Frame / 35 mm Camera: Full frame cameras provide better overall image quality with lower noise, when shooting in low light situations.
The Nikon D810Sony a7R II, are the best full frame northern lights photography cameras.
A Wide Angle Lens: A wide angle lens allows you to capture vast landscapes with the northern lights overhead.
When selecting a wide angle lens, ensure  minimum f-stop values of f/2.8-f/4, with f/2.8 being recommended.
Shooting at f/2.8 produces a very wide aperture opening, in turn, allowing more light to hit the image sensor over a standard exposure time.

That would be the first part, it was about a little bit of technical information but it is needed to do the right and best shots.

Be safe, be classy, be an artist, Catie. Happy Sunday, the next part follows on Tuesday.
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