What I Wear When Photographing The Northern Lights

Dressing right is essential when photographing the skies on a winter night at the edge of the Arctic. You cannot capture great photographs of the night sky and the Aurora Borealis if your fingers are freezing. The wind moving over exposed skin can create dangerous conditions even at relatively mild air temperatures. I bring enough layers along to cover every inch of exposed skin when I go out shooting in this kind of environment. I may not wear every item all of the time but dressing right for winter photography fun is all about layering.

Wool, fleece, and down layers are the way to go on this expedition. Cotton is a killer when it gets cold. Wet cotton fibers draw heat away from the body. Leave your usual casual cotton clothes at home when packing for this workshop. Snow pants, long johns, and fleece layers are perfectly appropriate for our meals and class time at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Watching The Aurora Borealis At The Churchill Northern Studies C

Before I get into the specifics about what I will wear on this adventure may I suggest that you can save a lot of money on your serious winter clothes by shopping around at places like Amazon, Zappos, or Sierra Trading Post. In my town there are often tremendous deals on excellent winter clothing at our local Army / Navy Surplus store. This article is full of links to products at Amazon but I urge you to compare and save $$ wherever you can.

You want to plan your outfit from the top down starting with your head for serious winter photography. When I am going out to shoot in the cold, I start with either my supper warm Rabbit Fur Aviator Cap or an insulated fleece hat. I also like to keep a fleece neck warmer, or a Arctic-grade balaclava inside one of my coat pockets.

If it gets windy while I am out working then I’ll put the balaclava, or the neck warmer, on under my hat to cover my face. Covering everything protects against frostbite when the temperatures dips way below zero. A pair of cheap clear ski goggles are not essential but are nice to have on when the wind howls. The point is that I will wear whatever it takes to keep my head, neck, and face warm and adequately covered so that I can stay outside safely until the Northern Lights are done for the evening.

Aurora Borealis and Flag Tree

I like to wear layers of wool, or synthetic, long underwear on my upper and lower body to keep my core dry. I have been using synthetic long johns as my “go to” base layers for many years but these days I am slowly moving my winter wardrobe over to the new generation of ultra-soft wool products. I have no brand loyalty, or particular favorites, when it comes to base layers as long as the product is not made of cotton. Name brand wool base layers can be expensive so please shop around for products like these Men’s Midweight Wool Bottoms or Men’s Midweight Crew Top. Sierra Trading Post is a great place to look for sales on this type of layer.

I usually wear a mid-weight fleece jacket or a puffy down sweater over my base layers. I prefer synthetic puffy jackets over down for long-term durability but you can’t beat down filled clothing when it comes to weight and compressibility. Fleece jackets are great insulating layers too, and much less expensive than down products, but they are bulkier.

A big insulated park or down jacket goes on top of everything else. Arctic-grade winter parkas like the Canada Goose Expedition Parka are super-expensive but a warm jacket like the Carhartt Down Kalkaska Parka or the Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero Parka are perfectly adequate for our journey. Don’t worry about brand names. Just find yourself a big warm jacket that will fit comfortably over all of your other layers. Remember that the most important parts of a serious winter jacket are a high collar and a deep hood.

Aurora Borealis Over Rock

Like with parkas, you can spend a lot of money on high-end mountaineering pants to cover your legs. Down pants are wonderful but they are ridiculously expensive which is why I am wearing a pair of these cheap military surplus Military Field Pant Liners. These Army surplus liner pants look ridiculous but they are incredibly warm. They are a fashion disaster but nobody will ever see them since they go on in between my long johns and my snow pants. A thick pair of fleece pajama bottoms is a fine alternative too for very inexpensive extra leg insulation.

I finish off my lower body layering system with a pair of snow pants. Brandname pants like the Mountain Hardwear Returnia Snow Pants are great but something much less expensive like the White Sierra Men’s Insulated Bib Snow Pant will do just fine for our week together. Anything that will keep the snow and wind out of your lower layers is fine as long as you have sufficient insulation on underneath. What will not work well for a night out in the Arctic are blue jeans or cotton sweatpants!

Keeping the hands warm while photographing is always tricky. Mittens are much warmer than gloves but the loss of dexterity can be a problem when you are trying to work with the camera. My solution for shooting in the cold is to wear a thin pair of touch fingertip liner gloves inside of a pair of convertible fleece mittens. When its really cold out I go even further and slip my glove-inside-of-a-mitten-sandwich into a pair of gigantic Army Surplus Arctic Mittens. Add a set of disposable hand-warmers into the mix and my hands are all set for hours out in the cold!

Aurora Borealis After Processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Dr. Jim Halfpenny, our expedition leader, spends a lot of time out in the cold. Jim likes to cover up his hands with a thin pair of liner glove and then a pair of electric heated mittens. Check out the Volt Heated Mitten system or these battery heated gloves and mittens from for more options.

Finally, for my feet a pair of warm boots are essential. Favorites include the Sorel Caribou Snowboot and the Baffin Colorado Snow Boot. Those Baffin Colorado’s are the boots that Jim and I will wear on this trip. They offer tremendous warmth without a lot of weight and bulk. Skip the cotton athletic socks too and put on a good pair of Heat Trapping Thermal Winter Boot Socks inside of your snow boots.

Other than my snow boots I am going to bring along a pair of down slippers to wear around the Northern Studies Centre. There is a small workout room at the Centre so a pair of running shoes might be useful if you want to get in some exercise during our stay but there is no need for any other additional footwear. When we are outside, or on our trips into town, we will be wearing our snow boots. No need for dress shoes or high-heels on this one!

I hope that this all of advice will help you prepare for our upcoming workshop. If you have any questions please give me a call at 406-356-6279. Remember that warm and dry is the way to go in the winter. See you soon!

About the Author
David Marx specializes in landscape, travel, mobile, and night photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in both Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop CC with more than 15 years of experience in the field teaching digital photography. David loves sharing his knowledge with others, whether in person or online, and his entertaining teaching style works well for photographers of all skill levels. In addition to field workshops, David’s extensive library of video tutorials on image processing and mobile photography are available at