Photographing the Aurora Borealis
In last week’s theoretical post ‘Light and Untamed‘, we learned how to predict the aurora. Now it is time to talk about photographing the Aurora Borealis. Seeing the aurora is something magical, something special and quite addictive as well! The dancing green light is something you will remember forever. Of course after seeing such a spectacle, you might want capture it in a photograph.
You’ve probably seen dozens of northern light photos on the internet and wondered how these were made. In this blog I will try to explain this. We will discuss different camera settings, which shutter speed and aperture to use, and how to focus in the dark. Furthermore, I will try to explain why composition is important for creating an interesting image. Also, how to stay calm and focused when the sky explodes.
I hope this article will guide and inspire you. With the right knowledge and some effort, you will see that it is not too difficult to get pleasing results. And remember, don’t forget to put away the camera now and then!
Preparation is key! If you are well prepared, your chance of succes is much higher. This also means you won’t freeze or get run over by a car, but get home with epic shots instead. Preparation can spare you from disapointment. Which is why I will highlight some essential ideas.
Although auroral activity can be present all year round, it is only visible when it is dark. Therefore, the aurora season is based around the winter months (the higher latitudes won’t get dark during summertime). For the northern hemisphere this is from September to mid-April. In the southern hemisphere from mid-April to September. As a consequence, and because of the high latitude, nights can get quite cold, especially mid-winter. Therefore it is important to wear warm clothes. You’ll be outside without moving a lot, so you can get cold quite easily. When you get cold, you will get distracted. Besides that, it won’t be any fun when you are freezing your butt off.
Knowing your camera
You need to know the ins and outs of your camera by heart! You will be shooting in (hopefully) total darkness in full manual mode. Using a light will disturb your eyes and is therefore not recommended. Your eyes adjust to the darkness but this takes time. Every time you use a bright light, your eyes need to re-adjust. You also risk disturbing other viewers and photographers and that should be avoided at all cost! It is useful to do a few practice sessions at night in order to familiarize yourself with your camera and working in the dark. Knowing which buttons to press is key to success. Before you go out, set the white balance of your camera to a cold temperature of 3200 K, this will give the most accurate results. Needless to say, you need a sturdy tripod for this type of photography.
Know the location
This is not mandatory but it prevents stressful situations. Not only does it save you from racing around while the sky above explodes, it also gives you the opportunity to get to the best places before the actual show starts. If you’re unfamiliar in a certain area, start scouting locations and compositions during the day. Look for places that will be dark at night. There are some good apps (Dark Sky Map) and websites (Dark Site Finder) that show areas of light pollution as well as dark areas. It is important to stay away from big cities because of major light pollution, which will ruin everything. If you use these apps on location, make sure to set your screen as dim as possible. It can be really useful to be at your location before it gets dark, especially when you haven’t been at this location before.
When looking for dark areas, one thing that you need to keep in mind is to have a clear view towards the north. Depending on the strength of the aurora, this is where it will appear first. If it gets stronger, it might get overhead! Try looking for places that provide you with an interesting composition as well. But more about this topic later.
This may sound a bit weird but trust me, when the sky explodes and auroral displays fill up the sky, it is hard to stay calm. I know this from experience! You might lose your mind and start running around like a headless chicken. Not only is it dangerous (I ran across the main road once), but you will miss the best shots.
One of the characteristics of a good Auroral display is that is races across the sky in beautiful flares. If you try to follow its direction, you won’t be able to keep up, and most surely your pictures will be disappointing. Besides that, you will have missed most of the show because you were preoccupied with moving your gear. Focus on one composition instead, then wait for the aurora to reappear in that direction. If after a while nothing seems to happen, start looking for a different composition. But don’t loose your mind and rush!
Composing your image
The sky is clear, the predictions are good and you’re on location. You’ve done all the preparation and you’re ready to shoot! The next step is to find a nice composition. A lot of first timers get overwhelmed by what they witness and forget all basic photography knowledge as a consequence. Instead of starting to shoot right away, it might be a good idea to just watch the sky for a while. Take it all in and then start photographing.
Before you point your camera towards the sky, take a look around. What elements are there to work with? Rocks and trees can be useful. A nice road leading into the frame, or if there is a lake, try to get a reflection in your composition! There are often many possibilities. It is wise to choose a foreground that is not too dark, otherwise it won’t show up in the photo. This can be done by blending multiple exposures, but I won’t discuss that in this article. In order to get the elements and the sky in the same composition you need to use a wide-angle lens. Using a wide-angle lens has another important implication which we will discuss when we talk about exposure.
When composing an image, keep the predicted Kp index in mind. If the activity is weak (low Kp), the aurora will probably be visible only towards the north, but if the Kp is higher it might get overhead, or even towards the south. It might be useful to bring a compass.
What is the correct exposure?
The answer to this question depends on the speed, brightness, and intensity of the aurora. And these can change really fast when the show is on! There are a few things that you need to keep in mind in order to get pleasing results. I will give a basic set of rules by which I work. It may take a while to get used to, but for me this works really well. You can practice back home at night, because these rules also apply when shooting the Milky Way.
To successfully photograph the Aurora, you want a fast wide-angle lens. The faster the lens, the wider the maximum aperture. This is good because you want all that light on your sensor. This parameter is simple! We go with the widest aperture our lens has to offer and stick with that during the session. In my case, my aperture is always set to F/2.8.
As you know, ISO is the light-sensitivity of your sensor. This is one of the parameters that will be manipulated. Because you are working in the dark, you want a relative high ISO. But know your cameras limits: cranking op the ISO introduces noise; the higher the sensitivity, the more noise. Don’t go above 3200 ISO. This is especially true when working with an entry-level (commercial) camera. The sensor in these cameras will have more problems with high ISO than a professional camera. Keep this in mind when setting the ISO.
This parameter depends on a few factors. The speed and brightness of the aurora, and the focal length of your lens determine which shutter speed to use.
The focal length of your lens determines the slowest possible shutter speed before the stars start to turn into star trails (due to the rotation of the earth). To get this number, we use a really simple calculation, named the “500 rule”. This means we divide 500 by the focal length of the lens (don’t forget the crop factor of your sensor when you’re not using a full frame camera). The outcome is the maximum amount of seconds before the stars turn into trails. For example, my camera is a full frame camera with a 24 mm lens. Applying the rule gets me a maximum shutter speed of 500 / 24 = 20,83 which is 20 seconds. If you have a camera with a crop sensor of 1,6 and you use a 17 mm lens, the calculation is as follows: 500 / (17 x 1,6) = 18,38. Thus your maximum speed will be 18 seconds.
The shutter speed is determined by the speed of the aurora. When it races across the sky, you want a fast shutter speed, let’s say 6 seconds or even slower, otherwise the photo will look like a green blur and you will lose all shape, detail, and sense of motion. If the aurora is fast, but not too bright, I crank up my ISO in order to get a faster shutter speed. And, if the aurora sits in the sky without moving, you can use a longer shutter speed. But remember the calculated maximum. You want to keep the stars nice and crisp.
Finally, the brightness. If the aurora is bright, you want a fast shutter speed and a lower sensitivity (e.g. 800 or 1600). You don’t want the bright spots to be burned out. The best way to determine what shutter speed works best is by regularly previewing images. Using the histogram to check for burned-out spots can be really useful.
How to focus
Last but not least, I want to talk about focusing. Because you are working in total darkness, focusing can be quite a challenge. The auto focus is useless when it is dark, and even more useless when photographing the aurora, so we need to focus manually.
One way to get sharp images is by looking for a bright star (or planet), a far away light, or the moon. Next, aim your camera towards this light source, and use live-view to zoom in. Now it is quite easy to focus. If you’re unable to see the star in your screen, you can crank up your ISO, but don’t forget to lower it after focusing. Make sure not to touch your focus ring afterwards, because then you need to start all over.
Another method involving trial and error, is to use the infinity sign on your lens. Focus to infinity, take a photo and zoom in to see whether or not you need to adjust your focus. If so, focus to near infinity and do the same until satisfied. This method works quite well and can be used when you don’t have a live-view function on your camera.
Thanks a lot for reading!
That was it guys! Thanks a lot for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and I hope it’ll help you getting amazing aurora pictures. If you have any questions, you can always contact me! Good luck with aurora hunting!
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I would like to thank Cody Fjeldsted for proofreading my article! Your help is awesome, thanks so much.