How to photograph the Aurora Borealis in Scotland
The Aurora Borealis is a phenomenon that has filled mankind with wonder for thousands of years. Also called the Northern Lights, Na Fir Chlis (the Nimble Men) and Mirrie Dancers in Scotland they are a spectacular sight to see in the Northern hemisphere.
These “dancing lights” are caused by solar wind from the sun sending charged particles towards the Earth. They react with our atmosphere and magnetic field causing it to emit beautiful lights in a variety of colours.
Scotland is not the best place to view the Aurora Borealis (try the North Pole instead!) but on rare occasions, we do get a Scottish light show worthy of mention. Scotland is actually on the same latitude as Norway and Alaska so there is a good chance of a decent show! Most of the time we only see a faint milky band in the northern night sky, but other times you can see green and red shimmering lights. One display looked like an enormous heartbeat, pulsing in the sky. In this article, I'd like to offer some advice, tips and information on how to photograph the northern lights.
Where is best to photograph the Northern Lights in Scotland?
To photograph the Aurora Borealis in Scotland, the further north you are, the more chance you have of seeing the lights. Places like Orkney, Shetland Islands and Caithness (north of Wick would be ideal) are much better regions than locations in the central belt such as Perth and Edinburgh, although some photographers have snapped the Northern Lights from Calton Hill over the capital city. The western Scottish Isles / Outer Hebrides such as Harris and the Isle of Skye would be good locations too with their nice dark skies. The west coast would also have fantastic foregrounds like the Old Man of Storr. Aberdeen is not ideal for the light pollution and being on the east coast you don't have a great angle to take north facing shots from the beach.
In the southern areas of the UK such as England and Wales, it will be very difficult to see the Northern Lights.
I am based on the Moray coast in northeast Scotland and have seen fantastic displays around 4 or 5 times in 30 years, so they are rare, but you will never forget seeing them. The Moray Coast is a good place to photograph the Northern Lights as the beach faces north and gives great coastal foregrounds for your photos.
Dark Sky Parks in Scotland
Dark Sky Parks are areas with very little light pollution. In 2009, Galloway Forest Park in south-west Scotland was officially awarded the status of ‘International Dark Sky Park', only the fourth in the world. There are also parks in Tomintoul and Glenlivet - the Cairngorm Dark Sky Park - which is the darkest and most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world.
The best time of year to spot the Northern Lights in Scotland is autumn and winter, on a cold clear (cloudless) night, looking to the north, in the darkest possible place you can find. If you are very lucky you might see the Northern Lights in Scotland when you are on the North Coast 500 trip, particularly the further north you get. The far northern coast might be the best place on the UK mainland for photos.
Light pollution / street lights
Light pollution will be your worst enemy when trying to view the Northern Lights. You need a dark sky / dark skies discovery site, you can find some sites on this website: Dark Sky Discovery.
Can the Northern Lights be seen with the naked eye in Scotland?
Many a photographer who has never seen the Northern Lights don't believe you can see the lights with the naked eye in Scotland, believing you can only see them strongly in places like Iceland and Norway. This is incorrect, I have seen the Northern Lights on 3 occasions where they were incredibly bright and look like the shots taken in other countries. It might be rare but it does happen.
However try not to be disappointed if your first Aurora doesn't live up to expectations, you can still get some vibrant colours with a long exposure on clear nights.
Photography equipment needed for Aurora Borealis photography in Scotland
In terms of photography equipment you will need the following:
- A sturdy tripod.
- A good camera with manual mode, capable of taking long exposures. I used a Canon 5Dmk3.
- A wide angle lens with a wide aperture.
- Shutter release trigger cable/remote.
- Spare batteries as cold will sap them quicker.
- Warm clothes, heat up hand warmers can help too on cold nights.
It might sound obvious but a tripod is a must as you will be taking long exposures and the camera must stay perfectly still to stop your photographs from being blurred.
Next up a good camera is important before for the facility to take long exposures but also have an ISO quality that doesn’t add too much grain to your images in low light. The ISO setting is how sensitive your camera sensor or film is to light. It should be capable of at least ISO800 without too much grain. The better the camera the better the ISO quality should be. Experiment with different ISO values when you take your shots to see which works best for your camera.
Wide-angle lenses are best for capturing the Aurora as it will bring in more of the scene, displays can take up all of the sky/horizon. 10mm-24mm is a good focal length if you have it.
The wider aperture you have on the lens the better as they bring in much more light, the value for this is an f-stop or f-number on the lens. Ideally, you would want f2.8 or wider such as f1.4; these are very expensive lenses. For my photos on this page, I used a Canon 24-105Lmm f4.0 lens, which isn’t the best lens for photographing the Aurora, but it is the widest lens I have with the widest aperture. However, I am happy with the way this lens has performed.
Finally, a shutter release cable or remote trigger is very useful to cut down shake on your camera. When you press the camera button to take the photo you can inadvertently move the camera, blurring your image, or at least making it not seem as sharp. A trigger will stop this as you are triggering the shutter without touching the camera.
If you use a DSLR with a moving mirror inside, the slap of the mirror can also make you get soft shots. Most cameras have a mirror lock-up mode that will move the mirror first, then take the photo when you are ready.
You can use similar settings to photograph the Milky way galaxy.
Pre-plan your location for Aurora photography in Scotland
Think before you head out on where you can set up to take your photograph. As mentioned above it’s important to find a very dark (no light pollution) night sky, north-facing vantage points to take your shot, but it can also be nice to have a pleasing foreground for your shot. For example the beach, mountains, lighthouse, castles, stone age standing stones or trees, it can bring a lot of interest to your shot. If you can remain still enough you could be in the photo too! As you can see in my example above I used the Bow Fiddle Rock in Portknockie with the Aurora in the sky behind/above it.
Have a location in mind so you can head straight out and go there as soon as the display starts. Speed is essential as some displays can not last very long and you might miss your opportunity. Cloud cover can also roll in and cover the sky and spoil the fun, a cloudy night has often spoiled strong displays for me. Scottish weather is also your enemy. You can also have your camera already set up on the tripod in your car so you can set up quickly and get your picture.
How do I know when the Aurora Borealis is active in Scotland?
There are many apps available that will notify you when there is an active display over Scotland or a greater likelihood of when there might be a display. I used one called My Aurora Forecast available on Google Play store here: My Aurora Forecast.
What is KP Index?
An important value to understand for Aurora watching/photography is the KP Index. The index is a scale of numbers from 0 to 9, the higher the number the further south/stronger the Aurora activity is. So if it's KP5 you should see this in north Scotland, KP6 visible in all of Scotland and KP7 visible in England / remaining UK. A KP Index of 9 would indicate a major geomagnetic storm and solar activity, with Aurora visible over northern Europe and even Spain!
So when you receive your Aurora activity alert, if it's KP5 or higher, it's worth heading out to try and get photographs in Scotland.
What causes the colours in Aurora?
The Northern Lights can be seen in a range of greens, yellows, reds and blues. These colours are caused by electrically charged particles from the sun exciting molecules present in the Earth's atmosphere. Excited molecules are unstable and lose their energy in the form of light. Different gases in the atmosphere such as oxygen and nitrogen, emit different colours.
It's likely that others will also be looking to see the Aurora and have had the same idea as you to head to the beach or local landmark to get their photo. Remember if other photographers are there, do not shine lights from torches, cars, car interiors as you will ruin their pictures, especially if they are taking a long exposure.
Be friendly and courteous with other photographers, they may give you some great advice/tips for your own photo.
Best plan is to figure out your own off the beaten track so you can take your photo in peace.
Photographing the Aurora Borealis steps
Here are the steps I would take when setting up to taking pictures in Scotland.
- Head to your predefined dark sky site with a north facing view.
- Set up the camera on a tripod facing north.
- Set your ISO to between 800-1600. Experiment with higher if you like.
- Manually focus your lens to infinity. Most good lenses have a manual focus ring you can turn with an infinity symbol. This helps focus on the Aurora.
- Experiment with different shutter speeds, start with 1 second and work up to 3, 10, 30 and see what gives the most pleasing result for you. Shutter speed trial and error is essential.
- Recommend white balance is between 3500 and 4000 K, but just shoot in RAW so you can alter this later.
- Don't ruin your night vision with a white torchlight, bring a red or amber light version.
The longer you keep the shutter open the brighter the Northern Lights will become but it may look “too much” if you keep it open very long. You want to capture what it looks like, not what the camera sees when the shutter speed is too long. There are many terrible Aurora photos that are overexposed with neon blasting lights!
If you can only see a slight milky band with the naked eye of Aurora in the north night sky, you will be amazed at what your camera can see when taking a long exposure, so it is worth trying to get a photo even with weaker displays in Scotland.
It's also worth noting you should always choose RAW format when trying to photograph the Northern Lights. It will give you many options when editing your image, i.e. boost the exposure or change the white balance.
Can I use a smartphone to photograph the Aurora Borealis?
Yes, you can get photos using your smartphone, however, the quality won’t be on par with a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera. If you have the latest flagship Samsung, iPhone or Huawei, you will still get a passable photo as a souvenir if that’s all you have at hand.
Use similar settings as listed above and try and prop your phone on something that will hold it steady towards the north sky. Long exposure and keeping it perfectly still are key. Try to dim your screen to block any unintended reflected light pollution from your display. Phone tripods are also available to purchase.
Can I see the Northern Lights tonight?
It's unlikely, many factors have to come together to be able to see them. The best idea is to download a notification app and just be notified when there is a display.
Photograph Aurora Borealis in Scotland
The Northern Lights are a fascinating subject for photography and can add some nice variation to your image portfolio. Each photographer will have their own artistic interpretation of the Northern Lights. Everyone loves to see stunning photos of the Northern Lights, especially if taken locally and they go down a treat on social media and local news. Aurora hunting makes for a good winter photography project in those long dark winter months.
Please also see my article on Noctilucent Clouds.
Get out there and give it a try!