Photo Tips: Aurora Borealis
Have you ever tried to photograph or view the northern lights?
Here are a few tips to get you started.
When and where to shoot?
Obviously, you need to find dark, clear skies to be able to view the northern lights. Plan to shoot between the months of September and April, when the nights are longer and darker. Summer nights are shorter but northern lights are still possible. Aurora can be visible as soon as the sun has set and can be visible all night. Some moonlight can help illuminate your foreground, allowing for more composition options, but viewing is better when the moon is in it’s smaller or new moon phases. In most of Saskatchewan, finding dark enough skies means driving only a few kilometers out of the town or city you live in. Since you will be shooting towards the north, head north so you can avoid your towns light pollution. Typically, displays are sporadic and go through quiet and active periods. You will not see the aurora if you are clouded over so keep an eye on weather conditions. Also, if you are a night owl, hunting for aurora will come much easier for you!
There are a few factors that contribute to the strength of the northern lights but the most important one, from a beginner stand point, is the KP Index. The index ranges from 0 to 9 where 0 is no activity (quiet) and 9 is extreme activity (storm level). Knowing the KP index forecast can help you plan your shoot. Just like weather forecasts, KP index forecasts can change frequently and aren’t always accurate. Sometimes patience is the key to capturing the aurora. Keep in mind, a KP index of 2 or higher is needed to see the aurora in southern Saskatchewan and a KP index of 5 can result in a great show!
Space Weather Live and Aurora Service are two great websites with lots of information on space weather, including short and long term forecasts. You can even sign up for email alerts to notify you of good aurora possibilities! There are several free phone apps that work really well and can give you real-time notification and KP index forecasts. My Aurora Forecast, Northern Eye Aurora Forecast, and Space Weather Live, to name a few.
Several items you will need to have a successful aurora shoot
A camera that allows you to control it in manual mode
full control of your shutter, aperture and ISO are required
Wide angle lens
not a necessity but if you plan to include any landscape in the shot, wider is better
A lens with a large maximum aperture
f/2.8 is ideal but you will be able to capture images at f/4
A sturdy tripod
you will not be able to hand hold your camera during the long exposures that are required
Remote trigger/cable release
to eliminate camera shake and allow you to take sequential shots without constantly pushing the shutter. Your cameras 2 second timer can work in a pinch but you will have to press it for every shot
condensation can form on the front element of the lens on cool, humid nights
you can shoot at pretty much any focal length you choose
I prefer to shoot between 16 mm and 35 mm
use an aperture between f/2.8 and f/4.
wider apertures are better because they will let in more light and allow you to use shorter shutter speeds
depend on how bright the lights are, the amount of ambient light and how much of the aurora you want in the frame
start in the 5 or 10 second range for fast moving aurora
15 - 25 seconds for slower moving aurora
greatly depends on how bright the lights are and how well your camera handles noise
a good starting point is ISO 800, adjust as needed
I recommend shooting in RAW instead of JPEG for maximum control over editing
shooting at values between 2800 and 4000 (Tungsten, Fluorescent or Kelvin depending on manufacturer) for JPEG shooters
white balance isn’t as important to set in camera when shooting RAW because it is easily changed in post processing
focusing at night can be tricky
you will need to set your cameras focus to infinity, which on most lenses is the figure 8 logo
don’t rely on the figure 8 mark to manually focus as it isn’t always 100% accurate
auto focus does not work well at night because the camera relies on contrast to focus
auto focus on a distant light source, like a street light, yard light or the moon
use live view and zoom into a bright star and manually focus
or you can wait until the aurora gets bright enough to auto focus on
another option is to set your focus during daylight and make sure not to bump it
after you have your focus set, turn off the auto focus so you don’t try to refocus
Aurora photography takes place at night and typically during cooler temperatures. Be prepared to spend some time outside as the aurora does not always cooperate and you may have to wait a while to see them.
Check the weather forecast
you’ll need clear skies to see the aurora
Check the KP Index
the index will help you decide whether or not you will head out to shoot
Dress for the weather
you will most likely be shooting when its cold outside
Bring a chair and a blanket
if it is nice enough to sit outside, you may as well be comfortable while watching the skies
Bring a snack and something warm to drink
if you do not, you will be hungry…trust me. Also, a warm drink on a cold night makes the night a little better
Let your eyes adjust to the darkness
limit the use of cell phones, flashlights or interior vehicle lights. Your eyes take 30 to 45 minutes to adjust to the darkness. This is something to keep in mind for any type of night photography
Let someone know where you are going
in case you get stuck or have vehicle problems or really anything unplanned happens
you may be waiting a while for the aurora to get active. Bring something along to pass the time. If you have enough batteries and memory card space, shoot a star trail image while you wait. You can also create a a time lapse with those same images. Even if you end up without any aurora images, you won’t go home empty handed.
Shooting the northern lights takes some practice and learning what works for your gear. With these tips, you will be well on your way to creating some great aurora images!
Feel free to fill in your info and hit the subscribe button at the bottom of the page!