I am brand new to the DSLR scene; I just purchased a Nikon d3400. I'm going to Alaska next month to hopefully catch my first glimpse of the Northern Lights. I understand that the d3400 may not be the best for night photography but it was the only one in my price range. I have an 18-55 mm lens and a 70-300mm lens and am still figuring out aperture, shutter speed, and all that jazz. I have extra batteries for the cold weather and a tripod.

I've seen a ton of photography sites out there, are there any that are better for beginners to get tips? Or do any of you have tips for a beginner hoping to get some decent shots of the aurora borealis? Some of the sites I've seen have been pretty technical and I'm not quite there yet.

  • I rented the 85 f/1.2 for my trip - and I'd highly recommend doing the same. Rent something with a super big aperture, if only to have it available.
    – OnBreak.
    Jan 17 '18 at 23:31
  • 2
    Start with the aurora-borealis tag.
    – dpollitt
    Jan 17 '18 at 23:54
  • @CrazyDino Thank you for the link! I checked it out but it was a little technical for where I am right now. I am John Snow, I know nothing :) I'll definitely refer back to that post once I brush up on my skills a bit!
    – Stef
    Jan 19 '18 at 2:02

I just got back from Iceland and we did get one night where the lights were visible (and not dancing behind clouds). The image below was shot at: 85mm f/2.0, 2", ISO 6400.

Having never shot the Aurora before, I took tons of exposures using the 85 f/1.2 and a 16-35 f/4.

I preferred the shots at wider apertures, personally, as smaller and more stars were able to be captured. Outside of this - I'd say that you really just have to play with it.

Aim to have your ISO between 800 and 6400, f/stop between wide open and f/5.6, and shutter speeds up to the full 30 seconds.

Things you should absolutely do:

  • Get a shutter release cable (keeps the camera a bit steadier and you can use it with your hands in your pockets [gotta stay warm!]).
  • Use mirror lock up.
  • Use a good sturdy tripod and weigh it down if it gets windy.
  • Use Manual mode to set your settings and then just go for it. Take a look at your shot and the histogram and adjust accordingly.

And don't forget to just sit back and just stare for a bit - it's a wonderful thing to see.

enter image description here

  • You may think it is obvious, but you should specify the use of a tripod. The original questioner is a rank beginner.
    – Eric S
    Jan 17 '18 at 23:33
  • @EricShain right you are
    – OnBreak.
    Jan 18 '18 at 0:09
  • The Nikon D3x00 series do not offer mirror lockup as a feature. For why that probably doesn't matter when shooting longer than about 1-2 seconds, please see: Why mirror lockup on long exposures?
    – Michael C
    Jan 18 '18 at 4:05
  • @MichaelClark, MLU isn't necessary for certain shots, but I know I was running the gamut on exposures while I had the chance. Everything from 1/60 to 20". Better to have it on and not technically need it than the other way around. Mute point though, since the D3x00 lacks the feature
    – OnBreak.
    Jan 18 '18 at 6:01
  • @Corey Thank you so much! I'm going to practice intensively before the trip. It's also a good reminder to take a step back, knowing me I would worry too much about everything else to appreciate the borealis.
    – Stef
    Jan 19 '18 at 2:00

When shooting the night sky, I recommend the following:

  • Use a tripod and shutter release cable or remote to minimize vibration.
  • Wear an indiglo wrist watch for timing the shutter without needing too much light.
  • Coat and place to sit.
  • Practice these directions indoors with your manual before heading outside.

Take your first photo using the camera's maximum ISO setting in program / automatic mode. I would use the 18-55 lens set to 18. Observe the following to make adjustments.

1) Do you like the framing of the shot? Adjust your zoom and aim and take more shots until you like the framing. Then don't touch it.

2) Is the photo in focus? Did the camera have trouble finding focus? I typically set the lens to manual and infinity and observe my test shots and make an adjustment as needed.

3) Turn on the histogram when you review your test shot. You cannot trust the camera display with your eyes in the dark. The image will always look brighter than it is.

Being a night shot, most of the histogram. Will be on the left side (black). That is ok, but you will want some distribution across to the right.

4) Now that the framing and focus is set, I set the camera to manual and take a ten second exposure at ISO 12800 at f/4 and review the histogram.

If the photo is too dark, you can double the exposure by dropping to f/2.8 OR opening the shutter for 20 seconds and check again.

Your camera has 3 ways to brighten/darken the image:

  • ISO setting (sensor sensitivity) high numbers are more sensitive, but noisy.
  • Aperture: low F numbers (F/2.8 or F/4) mean the lens is more open (more light) than at F/11 or F/22.
  • Exposure Time: longer time = more light.

Your photo likely looks decent, but noisy. You need to drop the ISO for a clearer picture. Let's say test shot was 10 seconds at ISO 12800. If you drop to ISO 6400 (less sensitive, less noise), you must double the exposure time for same result (20 seconds). ISO 3200, you multiply by 4: 40 seconds. ISO 1600 multiply by 8: 80 seconds. ISO 800 would be 160 seconds.

Play with your settings, but only change one thing each shot so you can observe the difference.

Note that star travel will start to be visible at a 1 minute exposure or longer. For artistic reasons, you may want a longer exposure for longer star travel or a more saturated Aurora. To do so, keep dropping the ISO or try a higher F/stop to allow for longer exposure time.

Have fun and stay warm!

  • Thank you for the advice and keeping in mind that I know next to nothing. I will absolutely practice indoors first. Also, thank you for the change one thing at a time advice, I probably would have tried to fiddle with everything and gotten nowhere.
    – Stef
    Jan 19 '18 at 2:06
  • There is too much to keep in mind on your first trip. Practice at home if you can. But know that someone gave me similar advice once upon a time and it took me many tries and many memory cards full of photos before it all made sense. Have fun. Be sure to take a couple of automatic photos. Jan 19 '18 at 2:10
  • and above all, stop a moment and just look at it with your eyes and make a good memory. Have fun. Jan 19 '18 at 2:11

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