How to Photograph the Northern Lights

by Peter Forister

Tips and tricks for Mid-Atlantic and other Mid-Latitude aurora Spotting

How can you photograph rare aurora storms in Virginia and other Mid-Latitude locations? This article offers some practical advice I've put together from my experiences - the necessary gear, settings, and forecasts for northern lights spotting.

Although difficult, a photograph of the aurora in an "unexpected" location can be a massive prize. Many people are shocked that the lights can be visible from places like Shenandoah National Park. However, although rare, the northern lights have been witnessed many times over the past centuries in this region. There is a rich history of aurora observations in Virginia, including during key moments of American history such as the Revolutionary and Civil wars.


Camera technology has only advanced to a point which is able to easily support aurora photographs in the past decade or so. Before the mid 2000s, northern lights were rarely captured by digital and film cameras. The older camera technology was tricky to work with at night, and only provided grainy, dark images that couldn't be adjusted after being captured.

Since then, camera sensor technology has exploded. Massive, sensitive, and powerful full-frame digital sensors are now widespread and affordable on the consumer market. This accounts for the sudden and recent increase in northern lights observation in the mid-latitudes, and is even advancing our scientific knowledge of the aurora in ways we hadn't expected before!

So, let's dive in. How can you use this technology to spot the lights locally? Will a phone camera work, or do you need something more? Let's talk about all those details.

Mid-Latitude Aurora

Let's set a basic understanding of what's going on up there in space. This will help inform your decision making! 

I've photographed the northern lights over a dozen times since early 2022. Over half of those instances were from Virginia, Missouri, and Nebraska. These states are considered "Mid-Latitude" locations.

Magnetic latitude is relative to the magnetic poles, which are offset from the normal rotational poles that are generally referenced. Here in North America, we're fortunate that the magnetic north pole is quite a bit further south than the rotational pole. Thus, we see northern lights more easily further south than other parts of the planet. 

Geomagnetic "Mid-Latitude" locations are most common in the middle United States. Graphic courtesy of SpaceWeatherLive.com

Geomagnetic Storms - The KP Scale

The northern lights are caused by "geomagnetic storms" in the earth's magnetosphere. These storms may only occur a handful of times in a year.

Put simply, a stronger storm equals aurora visible further to the south.

Nothing, however, is simple about the geomagnetic interactions that drive these processes. Geomagnetic storms are driven by ejections of matter from the corona of the sun. The "Coronal Mass Ejections" (CMEs) and solar wind send high-energy particles hurtling towards earth at hundreds of miles per second. When, and if, they impact the earth's magnetic field, they can either bounce off (which is what happens most of the time) or get absorbed. Correct orientation and sufficient energy of the particles is required to generate the aurora.

Now, I'm simplifying this process a LOT. This should, however, set the fundamentals for what we need to forecast the northern lights.

Geomagnetic storms are observed on the earth using a constellation of satellites and ground-based instruments. They are measured using the KP and G scales: KP is measured KP0 - KP9, and G is measured G1 - G5. In both cases, a stronger storm equals a higher number. 

Description of the G scale from the Space Weather Prediction Center. Note that a "cycle" is equal to 11 years, or ~4,000 days. Click the image for the SWPC site.

Anything below a KP5 or a G1 storm doesn't matter for our purposes. KP 0-5 will only have effects on far northern latitudes. Any sizeable geomagnetic storming requires an extended period of favorable magnetic field interactions with the solar particles, something that can be very tricky to forecast more than an hour or so in advance.

However, when those solar particles align with the magnetic field, the KP number and G scale will rapidly rise. The onset of the stronger CME events may see a jump from KP1 to KP8 in minutes. Or, in an extended period of favorable solar wind, it could take a few hours to climb into storm conditions. 

Using the KP/G Scale for Spotting

Okay let's put all this information about the geomagnetic storms to use. What KP or G level do we need to see northern lights in the mid latitudes? It's not a simple math equation (KP level = lights), but we can use it as a good baseline.

In my personal experience, we need AT LEAST a KP6/G2 or higher storm to photograph the northern lights in the mid-latitudes, and AT LEAST a KP8/G4 to SEE the northern lights clearly. Let's break that down.

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Observing Aurora - Tips Everyone Should Know

Whether you are an advanced photographer, beginner photographer, or someone who just wants to go out and enjoy the show without any technology, here are the things that EVERYONE needs to know before going out.

1. Track the KP/G level.

Things can change fast, so it's important to watch the data and keep updated on whether or not a geomagnetic storm is actually happening. You can't go out on a night when the KP level is 3 and expect to see something - it just won't happen. BUT, things can change VERY fast, especially with the onset of a strong CME. Keep an eye on the forecast at the Space Weather Prediction Center and use your favorite space weather tacking app/website to stay updated with conditions.

- I use spaceweatherlive.com most frequently. You can also download their mobile app. (Good for all user levels)
- The SWPC Dashboard is a good place to track current conditions and the latest official forecasts. (Best for intermediate and advanced users)
- The SWPC Real Time Solar Wind page tracks the latest active satellite data streams at the L1 observational point. (Best for advanced users)



The Spaceweatherlive.com main page during an extreme geomagnetic storm event

2. Look north in dark skies.

I get this question a surprising amount.... "Which direction do I look?" The answer is nearly always north ("northern" lights), but can sometimes require some careful planning. Not only do you need to look north, you need to look "away" from light pollution domes.

Find a spot that is offset from any towns and cities to the immediate north. I use the lightpollutionmap.info interactive map to plan locations.

For example, if you live to the south of Washington DC you could go due south to the James River to get into decently dark skies. However, because the urban lights are in between you and the northern horizon, you won't be able to clearly see the northern lights when they happen. It's important to drive to a place where a city isn't in between you and the horizon.



Avoiding light domes and finding a dark northern horizon is important 99% of the time. However, in the extremely rare occurrence of G5/KP9 events, aurora may be visible directly overhead in Virginia. Dark skies are still necessary for the best visibility. 

Put simply, even if there's a lot of media hype for a big geomagnetic storm, you still need to find dark skies away from a large city! For those living in the DMV metro, it's best to go west or cross the bay. For other parts of VA, especially central and southern VA, just get out of the center of your local town/city. Think about any place where you would go stargazing on a normal night. 



3. Be patient.

Even with extreme geomagnetic storming conditions (G5/Kp8+), the northern lights may not be immediately visible.

Bright bursts of aurora often occur in what are called "Substorms." These substorms are sudden and dramatic explosions of aurora which produce the brightest colors and tallest pillars. A strong substorm is your best chance to see the aurora with the naked eye. They are *completely* unpredictable. In my experience, they may occur every 1-3 hours in strong geomagnetic storm conditions, and last between 15 and 30 minutes.

Patience is key for observing these substorms. Pick your spot, set up, and then wait several hours!

Here is some time lapse video I shot during a Kp6/G2 storm from central Virginia. An aurora substorm happens over the course of an hour. Watch how quickly the pillars and bright lights appear from a very faint background glow. 

4. Manage expectations.

Digital photographs make the aurora look MUCH brighter than they actually appear to the naked eye.

You've probably seen videos on social media of incredible, bright, and green northern lights dancing directly overhead. In Virginia, that kind of show happens once or twice a century. This isn't Alaska or Iceland, so the lights might not be quite what you imagine.

My photographs are all long exposure (something that I'll discuss at length here in a bit), which means that the camera captures more light than what our human eyes can see. Bright aurora in a 10 second exposure might only be barely visible to the human eye.

So what can you expect to see? The most frequent observation I've made in the Mid-Atlantic is a red haze on the northern horizon, punctuated by a few slightly brighter vertical pillars of light. They move slowly across the sky, as if a distant glow walking across the landscape.

Personally, I find ANY view of the northern lights to be a spectacular experience. However, many will find the naked eye show quite underwhelming.

Carefully weigh if the trip and the very late night is worth the experience. The answer will be different for every individual! Again, we're not in the Arctic, so the lights will not be like what you see on social media. Mid-Latitude aurora are best experienced if you have a camera to run long exposures and the experience to get good nighttime photographs.

So let's talk about taking those photographs....

What a camera sees (3 second exposure) vs what the naked eye sees

Photographing Aurora - Camera gear and Settings

How can you capture beautiful photos of aurora? It's easier now than ever before in history! 

However, it still remains a technical process that requires some intermediate photography experience. It also strongly depends on the gear that you already have or are willing to purchase.

Here's a breakdown of what you can capture based on the gear you have.

1. Phone Cameras