Aurora display over mostly frozen Knik River near Palmer, Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

Many night shots like this aurora display near Palmer, Alaska are done with a wide angle lens because the aurora fills the sky. However on this scene the ice and open channels on the river were reflecting the color of the aurora so I gave an equal amount of real estate in the image to the water as I did the sky.
Canon R5, Canon RF 24mm/f1.8 lens
ISO 4000, 20 seconds @f2.8

 

You need four things to come together to get really good aurora imagery. The first 3 are out of our control and largely a matter of luck and placing yourself in the right location at the right time. The fourth takes the most effort and skill to execute.

1. Obviously you need clear skies or at least clear skies where the aurora displays will be – usually in the northern sky. I use windy.com to see graphical displays of forecasted clear sky areas. I often compare 2 – 3 models to see if they are forecasting clear skies at the same time for my area of interest. If they are all singing the same tune, I have more confidence in the forecast. Sometimes clouds make night shots more interesting, especially if they are thin layers in the mid and high cloud range. A little moonlight makes them even better. The cloud forecasts displayed on windy.com tell me what range and what coverage my clouds will be in.

Aurora seen through some cloud cover. © Michael DeYoung

Aurora displays can still be seen with some cloud cover as is is the case here in this display above a lake along the Denali Highway. The scattered mid level clouds add visual interest and texture to the sky.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 20mm/f2.8
ISO 3200, 15 seconds @f2.8

 

2. Favorable Aurora forecast. It’s so much easier than it used to be. In the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s it was (no pun intended), a shot in the dark. If it was clear, you just went to a desired location, stayed up all night shivering and hoped for the best. Many nights I came home empty handed. Today, we have lots of tools and data we can access on our phones in remote areas that are, in the short term, fairly accurate. Spaceweather.com is a good resource to follow and hear about geomagnetic storms that may produce a good display. The app, Amazing Aurora, gives easy to follow parameters on whether a viewable display is likely to occur in the next few hours. On Facebook the Aurora Borealis Notifications Group is a great source for info about aurora displays. Join and follow for great images all around the northern hemisphere.

3. Moon Illumination. Bright moonlight diluting aurora displays is just a myth. My 2 best selling aurora images that have each generated 5 figure royalties in commercial sales were both in full moon light. Moon adds nice illumination to the foreground, shortens exposure time to minimize noise and keep sharp pinpoint stars. More moonlight also makes for easier night focusing. You should still shoot on moonless nights though. However, my preference is 50% – 75% moon illumination. If you are lucky and flexible enough to be somewhere with a viewable display when all these 3 things are in phase, you are ready to focus on the component you can control to make the best aurora images possible.

Northern lights dancing above a lonely stretch of the Richardson Highway. © Michael DeYoung

I love lonely highways as part of the landscape. This is the Richardson Highway, Alaska looking north toward Fairbanks with a near full moon.

 

4. Foregrounds. The biggest challenge in creating a nice aurora image is finding and composing a compelling foreground that adds context and a sense of place to your image. We put a lot of thought into finding target rich areas on both our personal and guided photography outings. The things I look for the most to place in the foreground are:

  • Open water
  • Mountains
  • Winter wonderland forests where trees are cloaked with snow or frost, and
  • Any compelling human element or structure
Aurora reflecting in a roadside lake in Interior Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

My favorite aurora foreground is mountains and reflections. Even better when you have both as seen here along the Denali Highway.
Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon EF 20mm/f4
ISO 3200 10 seconds @f3.2

Aurora over the Alaska Range. © Michael DeYoung

Foregrounds are important to me with aurora photography. I like to give my images a distinct sense of place such as this view of the Delta River and Alaska Range.
Canon R5, Canon RF 24-105mm/f4 lens at 29mm
ISO 1600, 10 seconds @ f/4

Northern lights illuminate the sky over a cabin. © Michael DeYoung

Whenever possible I try to include interesting human elements in my aurora images in addition to the majestic landscape. These are the cabins we stayed in on our March aurora tour near Delta Junction, Alaska.

 

CAMERA TECHNICAL SETTINGS FOR AURORA

Photographing aurora or any night sky is an all manual thing – manual focus and manual exposure work best.

1. The biggest challenge is finding focus especially on moonless nights. Most lenses have a variable infinity setting so just don’t turn your focus ring to the end of its range and call it good. Take test shots and check your focus on a recalled image to see if you have your infinity set exactly where it needs to be. Then, leave it there and check it periodically. If using a zoom lens, if you change your focal length you will have to re-adjust your focus. For this reason, I use prime lenses for aurora shooting.

Photographers capturing the aurora above Donnelly Dome near Delta Junction, Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

Photographing the aurora over Donnelly Dome near Delta Junction, Alaska. Sharp and successful aurora images require a sturdy tripod (it is often windy at this location), and a fast, sharp wide angle lens. Most exposures are in the 5-15 second range with lots of moon illumination. It is possible to shoot much longer exposures but you don’t get pinpoint sharp stars much beyond 20 seconds.

 

2. My ISO setting is usually 1600-3200. My exposures are in the 10-20 second range at f2.8. Exposures vary widely with the brightness of the aurora and moonlight.

3. Do NOT trust your LCD brightness to verify exposure. Use your histogram. Often an aurora image looks great on your screen. But the histogram shows all pixels in the darkest zone on the left side of the histogram which means a lot of noise to deal with. Noise reduction software is good but not a miracle cure. Start with the best file possible. For night shots that include some landscape get your histogram at least into the middle zones.

 

Example of a good histogram for an aurora image. The brightness of your screen on a dark night can fool you into thinking you have a good exposure. Learn to ignore LCD brightness and trust the histogram of the image you just shot. Make sure that not all of your tones fall into the darkest zone to the left.

This is the processing to bring out the best of this aurora image as I remember seeing it.

Northern lights low in the sky above a stretch of the Copper River near Glennallen, Alaska. © Michael DeYoung

March isn’t exactly a spring month in Alaska. However, an earlier warm spell left a stretch of open water on the Copper River, in Alaska giving hope that winter’s end is on the horizon. March is also the month with the most frequent aurora displays. I was able to exploit the snow and open water to capture and reflect the colors of the aurora displays above.

 

At high latitudes like Interior Alaska, you don’t see displays from late April until mid-late August. Further south you can see aurora displays all summer long. I first saw aurora in central Montana in early August decades ago. Displays peak in March and October which drives our decisions of where and when to conduct aurora tours and shoots in Alaska.

 

2025 Alaska Aurora Photo Tour Details >

 

Frozen condensation on camera.

My Canon R5 is frequently subjected to extreme weather. You can see condensation from my breathing from hours of shooting at sub-zero temperatures in Alaska. I also use L series lenses and both body and lenses are weather sealed and I have little concern for damage.