Photographing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Let me start off by saying that I am completely thrilled with these set of images! Around mid-September a couple of buddies of mine hopped onto a plane to Alaska and then shot off in a car to hunt down the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights.) The lights are an incredible natural phenomenon that can only be seen near the North and South poles of the planet. They also only show up during certain seasons when solar flares are going off. As a Southern California native light pollution is everywhere –I consider myself lucky enough to even see stars in the sky! Seeing the grandiose spectacle in person quickly became a bucket list item for me.

Here are a few tips if you have these guys as a bucket list item too!

1. Weather

Weather is one of the biggest factors for determining whether or not you’ll see the lights. Ideal conditions include a clear night sky, solar storm activity on the sun, when the Moon is in its new moon phase (if the moon is full its light will drown out the auroras.) Check out the video below for a more thorough explanation on what causes the auroras. might be the best guide for predicating where and when the lights will show up.

2. Location

You will need to be way up north and in an area free of light pollution. For my trip we headed up to the mountains in Fairbanks, AK where we first spotted the aurora near the Chena Hot Springs resort .

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Once the our initial overzealous excitement for the lights relaxed we jumped back into the car and proceeded to drive around the mountain to look for other locations that would better frame the skyscape. I personally wanted to find some natural element to frame the lights as foreground.

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Local Tip!

Don’t be shy! Talk to locals along the way to see if they know of areas where the lights have been spotted recently.

3. Camera Gear

A tripod and camera with manual settings (or at least low light settings) are a must! I used an Olympus OM-D E-M1  with a  12-40mm f/2.8  on a  Joby Gorillapod. This combination worked swell for because of the camera’s small weight, wide angled lens, and the gorillapod’s ability to turn anything into a tripod.



Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

You want to have the camera locked down on a tripod to avoid camera-shake and blurry images at long exposures.

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Since the lights blanket the a large portion of the sky you’d want a wide angle lens to ensure that you can capture all of it in a frame while getting some land based foreground elements. Otherwise you’d capture mostly sky.

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

And just to be safe make sure you pack extra batteries. I noticed that long exposures in low temperatures seemed to drain the battery.

5. Camera Settings

Since going to be near pitch black where you are shooting be sure to set your camera to a slow shutter speed this will drag out the shutter and let more light bleed into the photo.  Also, whenever needed, increase the ISO on the camera. Raising the ISO settings will make the camera more sensitive to light. Capturing the Northern Lights is one of those situations where you’re really going to test out your camera. You’re going to want to set the camera’s focus to infinite and use the self timer to trip the shutter. Using the self-timer will prevent any camera shake from depressing the shutter button with your finger.

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Most of my images were shot at 25-30 seconds at f/2.8-4 ISO 1600.

6. Stay Warm

Baby it’s cold outside. When my travel companions and I were driving around Fairbanks searching for the lights temperatures reached 30°F (-1.11 °C.) Technically that’s abysmally freezing to us Californians, however depending on where you area, weather conditions, and the time of year temperatures can drop even lower! Be sure to layer up with thermals under your jacket, a scarf and hat to avoid losing heat from your head, gloves/mittens for your fingers, and long socks or high top shoes or boots. During this trip I was running around in my Nike Pegasus, which are regular running shoes that don’t cover your ankles. I quickly felt the cold seep in.


My group also kept blankets and hot chocolate in the car for an added luxury of warmth.

Northern Lights by Melly Lee (

Equipment Used:

OM-D E-M1 Mirrorless Mro Four Thirds Digital Camera
M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO Lens
Joby Gorillapod


Aurora Borealis Notifications –

Epic Northern Lights Photographer, Ronn Murray –

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