The Art of Capturing Northern Lights without a DSLR

First of all, a big thanks to anyone who has ever complimented me on my pictures of the Northern Lights! To be honest, I'm not fully pleased with any of them. I always think that if I had a DSLR or a more expensive compact camera, my Northern Lights pictures could be so much better.

But I don't and although I'm saving up to finally get one, for now I'm shooting all my pictures with a Panasonic Lumix FZ 100 that I got used off Ebay three years ago. Lucky for me (and you) though, you don't need to have a DSLR to capture the Northern Lights. In fact I know people who manage to capture them with their smartphone! 

And while I would advise you to bring at least a camera, really any camera will do, if you plan on seeing and shooting the Northern Lights in the Arctic - the pure fact that it is possible to capture the lights with a phone shows that you don't really need a DSLR (even though I really really want to have one...)!

Anyway, I thought I'd let you in on my secrets as to how I shoot the lights without a fancy camera today and hope you can use my tips on your own trip to the North!

Go to a dark place

You've probably heard this before: In order to see and capture the Northern Lights, you need to leave town and all its artificial lighting. While this is true on a night with weak activity, there are days when the Northern Lights are so strong that it's absolutely no problem to see and capture them in the middle of town. 

Shot on the balcony of a hotel room in Svolvær, Lofoten

Shot on the balcony of a hotel room in Svolvær, Lofoten

In fact, 90% of all my pictures have been shot from the city simply because Simon and I don't have a car which makes it difficult to leave the city lights behind. However if you've never taken pictures of the Northern Lights before and/or have a very old/weak camera, you might need to go somewhere as dark as possible. 

Even on a night with strong Northern Lights, being away from the city lights will increase your chances of shooting a nice picture by probably 80%, especially if you don't have a fancy camera! Also, don't even try to shoot one of those "Northern Lights over Tromso" pictures - in order to get a clear image of the Northern Lights AND the city at night, you definitely need a good camera and some practice, otherwise your pictures will look like this:

Oh so pretty...

Oh so pretty...

You need to have a tripod

As with any camera, fancy or not, the most important thing to bring is a tripod. Shooting the Northern Lights means working with long exposure so your camera needs to stand still for at least 15 seconds if you want a clear picture. Of course you could try to find a rock or hill and put your camera on a backpack or something but trust me, having a tripod makes things so much easier!

Quit auto mode

So you bought a good camera but always shoot on auto mode? Forget about it! In order to capture the Northern Lights, you need to get familiar with ISO settings and exposure time. Most cameras make it pretty easy for you and offer a starry sky or fireworks mode which you can try. If your camera doesn't have that or this setting doesn't give you the perfect picture, try to play around with ISO and exposure manually.

Start with an ISO at around 800 and adjust it if necessary - go higher if the lights don't show clear enough but not too high so that your picture gets all noisy. When it comes to exposure, start with around 15 seconds and adjust it according to how fast the lights are moving. If they move fast, try 5 seconds - if they are slow, try 20-30 seconds.

I know it can seem like a lot at first but you'll only learn by trying!

It's okay to edit

Anyone who gives you a hard time for editing your picture is an idiot. There, I said it. Of course, I'm the first to admit that in real life, the Northern Lights rarely will look like those glossy pictures you see on Pinterest. But that doesn't mean that all pictures you see are heavily photo-shopped. Instead, the human eye can't see the lights as well as your camera lens.

It's something about being able to absorb light I think but anyway, don't feel like you're cheating by editing your pictures because they didn't turn out as well as you had hoped. Mirror-less cameras in particular don't work as well in the dark as during the day so it's perfectly fine to adjust the brightness of your picture later on.

Now for my daytime pictures I use Picmonkey 90% of the time, simply because I don't need to do much with them unless the lighting was really bad. However for my Northern Lights pictures, I swear by Adobe Lightroom! Just have a look at the following pictures and you'll see why (before on the left/after on the right but I guess that's pretty self-explanatory, duh!).

This is what happens when your ISO setting is too low or you use a long exposure time even though the lights are moving fast

This is what happens when your ISO setting is too low or you use a long exposure time even though the lights are moving fast

You can get Lightroom in the Adobe Photography package for $10 a month and I'd recommend you to buy some presets as well as those that come with Lightroom aren't exactly the best.

If you don't want to buy it however, there's lots you can achieve with Picmonkey too. Adjust the brightness of the picture and crop it, that's what I did with this one:

The colours came out fine after adjusting the brightness level on Picmonkey, however the stripe of light on the bottom looked ugly so I simply cut it

The colours came out fine after adjusting the brightness level on Picmonkey, however the stripe of light on the bottom looked ugly so I simply cut it

What to consider before going on a Northern Lights hunt

Despite common belief, having clear skies is unfortunately no guarantee to see the lights. You could be really lucky to have sunny days all throughout your trip but still don't get to see them. This is because the solar storms that cause Northern Lights don't happen at the same level every day. Sometimes there can be a huge solar storm causing the Northern Lights to be visible as far south as England and sometimes they are so weak that you can only see them at the North Pole. 

Therefore the thing you should take into consideration before embarking on a Northern Lights hunt or safari beside the weather forecast, is the Kp index. This index is going from 0 meaning zero Northern Light activity to 9 meaning very strong lights and you can find it on countless Northern Lights forecasts and apps. 

Now if the index is between 1 and 4, you should definitely find a really dark place whereas everything higher than that indicates that you can see the lights quite clearly even from the city centre but of course, the darker the better! If you decide not to go on a guided safari, which if you can't afford a DSLR, you probably won't have money for anyway - these tours are so expensive! - you could rent a car and drive out to the fjords or mountains. 

If you come to Tromso on your trip and want to embark on a Northern Lights hunt on your own, the Finnish border near Skibotn is considered one of the best places to see them in the area - especially on a cloudy night. The nearby Lyngen Alps act like a rain shadow so that your chances of seeing clear skies are at their highest close to Finland. If you're on a very tight budget though and don't want to rent a car either, there's quite a few places on Tromso Island itself that are great for a Northern Lights hunt like for example the beach Telegrafbukta.

If you'd like to read more about the Northern Lights in Tromso and fancy a list of the best places to see them on Tromso Island, you should have a look at my guidebook below:

I hope this was of help to anyone visiting the Arctic Circle without fancy gear! Let me know if you have any questions or a particular topic you'd like me to cover!

Have you ever seen (or photographed) the Northern Lights? Tell me all about your experience and share your best pictures below! 

PS: Make sure to check back for replies!

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