The most important thing is that the camera must be able to let in as much light as possible. This is done by setting the light sensitivity (ISO value) to a high value, which allows the sensor to capture more light at a time. A high ISO combined with slow shutter speed makes it possible to take pictures that show an almost real reproduction of the northern lights that you can see with your eyes.
A good starting point is an ISO of 1600, a shutter speed of 10 seconds, and an aperture as open as the lens allows (the lowest number). The settings must be changed along the way and can vary from night to night, depending on how the intensity and speed of the northern lights occur. If there is only a faint view of the northern lights on the horizon, the shutter speed should probably be around 30 seconds, but if the northern lights have high activity, the shutter speed must be shortened and the ISO increased so it matches.
For the best result, a camera tripod is absolutely necessary to keep the camera completely still during the exposure. You should also consider using a remote shutter when shooting the northern lights as this removes any chance of vibration from pressing the shutter button on the camera.
The best conditions for photographing the northern lights are when there is a bit of moonlight or during the blue hour. You will then be able to capture the surrounding landscape as well, and with advantageous settings, provide clearer and better pictures for printing and publishing.
In recent years, mobile phones have developed a better performance in the dark, and in 2019, Huawei P30pro and iPhone 11, managed to take excellent northern lights photos. Using a tripod is an advantage, but with the improvement of stabilizers for newer mobile phone cameras you can still receive good results without one.
Written by Svinøya Rorbuer in collaboration with Steven Henriksen (northern lights photographer)