The Northern Lights are Mother Nature's best light show leaving a lasting impression on anyone fortunate enough to cast their eyes towards the sky to see the phenomenon play out. Here are some tips on how to take the best photos of the dancing, jiving Aurora Borealis.
Tripod: First and foremost you will need a steady photo. If there's any movement to your camera, your photos will be blurry and trust us, you won't be able to hold it still with just your hands for this length of time no matter how hard you try.
Camera: Make sure you have a DSLR camera with the function to change the shutter speed. You will find this listed as "TV" (time value) on a Canon, or S (for shutter speed) on a Nikon. If you have another brand be sure to look for a shutter speed of at least 10 seconds.
Countdown Timer: Use this built-in feature to allow for time to rest after the inevitable movement to the camera that pressing the push-button to take the photo creates on the tripod.
Fix your camera to the top of the tripod at the widest zoom possible; you want to capture as much of the night sky in the image as you can.
Set your camera's shutter speed to 10 secs
Set your camera's countdown timer to 5 secs minimum.
Take the photo.
The camera will count down for 5 secs, followed by 10 secs of exposure. During this time the lens of the camera will open, allowing plenty of light to hit the sensor. At the end of the 10 secs, you should have a photo of the northern lights.
If the image you see is still too dark, consider setting the shutter speed to a longer duration such as 15 or 20 secs. Alternatively, look to adjust your camera's ISO value (light sensitivity). Set this to a value of ISO 800 to begin with and work up incrementally until you're satisfied with the result.
So, why 10 seconds?
A normal photo captures the night sky for a very brief moment (generally 1/100 of a second) and this is why night photos tend to come out dark. Giving the camera 10 seconds of exposure gives it more time to absorb light, thus creating in a brighter image of the night sky.
So that's a quick overview of photographing the northern lights. There are other tips and tweaks you can do to ensure better images, but they're far too many to cover here. Many resources can be found online explaining these techniques in greater details, along with further tutorials for post processing to really make your photos pop.