The Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights) – Everything you need to know

Hey fellow Aurora fans!

After several years of research, kilometers travelled, multiple destinations visited, dark drives down foreign icy roads, snow storms, disappointment, exhilaration, several failures but more successes, here is my two cents on everything Aurora Borealis 🙂

First off, before I start I wanted to elaborate a little on the above. I’ve always held a certain fascination for the Northern Lights. My earliest memory was a documentary on the Discovery channel on Antartica when I was around 12 years old. I found them ethereal and magical and straight away wanted to know more about them and see them.

Being a 12 year old though has it’s drawbacks =) Being completely at the mercy of my parents destination wishlist meant that I wouldn’t really get to chase this dream until a little later on. So that plan was on the back burner for a few years.

So I studied, left school, and started working. At the age of 20, the Northern Lights popped into my little noggin again, and with freedom and a paycheck, I started doing my research and was adamant this time on seeing the Aurora Borealis.

I researched everything from Solar cycles, weather patterns, prediction techniques and annual aurora statistics to ideal destinations under the Auroral Oval.

I’m now 26 and over the last 6 years have seen the Aurora Borealis many times in many varieties and intensities. Those places include Yellowknife (Canada), Skibotn (Norway), Tromso (Norway), Kiruna (Sweden), Abisko (Sweden) and Ivalo/Inari (Finland). I’ve also experienced some failures along the way, and while you can never be guaranteed Aurora displays, I have learnt a few useful things along the way 🙂

What causes the Aurora Borealis?

Aaah the Sun =) The beautiful Sun! Not only does it sustain life on Earth, but it creates one of the most beautiful natural displays known to man. The Aurora Borealis happens due to the interaction between the Solar Wind and the Earth’s magnetic field.

There are a few terms worth remembering just so it’s a little easier to understand.

Solar Wind – A stream of particles originating from the Sun that travels towards us (and other planets alike). It can vary in density (i.e number of solar particles i.e. protons/electrons in the stream), and in speed. Higher speed streams will reach us faster than slower streams.
IMF – Interplanetary Magnetic Field. This is the magnetic field carried with the solar wind. Remember the sun has it’s own Magnetic field, and as the particles leave the Sun, they carry with them magnetic field lines.
Magnetopause – This is a boundary between the Earth’s magnetic field and the Solar Wind. Think of it as a sort of barrier stopping the Solar Wind from reaching us.

The Earth’s magnetic field is pointed North at the Magnetopause (this is illustrated in the image below). Think of a magnet for a second….If the IMF is in a Northern direction, then it will ‘clash’ with our own Northern Magnetic field at the Magnepause and it will repel the solar wind.

However, think of the opposite. If the IMF contains Southern facing magnetic field lines, it will ‘link’ up with our Northern facing Magnetopause and both field will cancel each other out! This in essence opens a portal for Solar wind to enter our atmosphere.

So to sum up, as the Solar Wind approaches and strikes the Earth’s Magnetopause, it causes it to bend and flex. If the IMF in the Solar wind has a southern facing direction, the Solar Wind will eventually causes a ‘break’ in the Magnetosphere and creates two Magnetotails that swing around and behind the Earth. When the Magnetotails from both sides meet up on the otherside, they ‘snap’ and slingshot the Solar Wind particles towards our poles.

The Solar wind particles collide with the Oxygen/Nitrogen atoms in our own atmosphere. These collisions ‘excite’ the Oxygen atoms. When these ‘excited’ Oxygen atoms return to their previous calm state, they emit light in the process. This results in the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

This is slightly over simplified, but illustrates the process by which Solar Wind particles reach our poles.

What triggers high intensity Auroras?

The body of knowledge on the Solar wind and it’s relationship to our planet and the Northern Lights is far from complete. But relationships have been deduced and there are things we do know with relative certainty. Before we answer this question lets specifically look at the ways in which the Solar Wind reaches us.

  • Coronal Holes – Coronal Holes are dark regions on the Sun’s Corona (sort of it’s own atmosphere) where temperatures are cooler. They act as ‘funnels’ for the Solar wind to escape the Sun and travel towards us. Coronal Holes are generally responsible for High Speed Solar Streams (and also Low speed streams). The intensity of Northern Lights caused by these streams are dependent on the IMF of the Solar Wind Stream, the number of solar particles in the stream (plasma density), and the duration of time the stream is hitting us.
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) – CME’s are sudden high speed ejections of large amounts of solar wind and magnetic field lines from the Suns surface. They are sporadic and unpredictable and originate from Sunspots on the sun’s surface. They are classed by intensities, B, C, M and X. The latter being the most powerful. Typically they also take 24-48 hours to reach us. So when news arrives of decent CME’s Aurora hunters all over the world await with baited breath and hope for clear skies =)

So what conditions can cause Geomagnetic Storms? Here are a few examples:

  • Solar Wind Streams with good southern IMF – Solar Streams with a decent southern Bz (Southern IMF of approx -5nT or less), with moderate to high Particle Density (approximately greater than 5 protons/cm3), that last for extended periods of time, can cause Geomagnetic Storms and cause intense Aurora displays. Therefore contrary to popular belief, fantastic Auroras are not just the result of CME’s from our Sun.
  • CME’s – CME’s of class C, M and X (C being the weakest, M more powerful and X are real whoppers and only happen a couple of times a year) can trigger geomagnetic storms. The higher class CME’s are more likely to spark high intensity Auroras i.e. M and X, CME’s are intensified when they carry negative IMF’s too.

There are situations when weaker CME’s or weaker Solar Wind streams can still cause some amazing Auroras! Say for example that a good Solar Wind Stream is approaching Earth with a Southern IMF, this will in effect ‘weaken’ the Magnetic Field and allow Solar Wind to enter our atmosphere. Imagine now…there is also a CME on the way behind the Stream. Even a low class CME (say B or C) could be intensified due to the fact there is already a ‘portal’ open.

So as you can see, if’s not an exact Science. I’ve learnt to get a feel for conditions and can now predict with relative confidence when to expect something decent. I hope this helps you too!

What’s the best time of the year to see the Aurora Borealis?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked about the Northern Lights. The basic answer is that, although the Aurora Borealis is always present at the northern and southern magnetic poles, we can’t always see them because of daylight hours getting in the way during the summer months at such extreme latitudes. Therefore the best time to try and see this natural phenomenon is anytime between late August – early April when the window of opportunity with regards darker skies is higher.

Statistically speaking (I like my statistics) there seems to be higher Auroral activity around the Equinoxes, that is around the months of late September and late March. This is to do with slight variations of the Earth’s tilt axis relative to the Sun’s tilt. During the equinoxes the Earth’s magnetic axis more suitably aligns with that of the Sun’s and larger deviations into negative Bz are more likely, therefore facilitating Solar Wind particle transfer into our atmosphere. Suffice to say, activity does tend to be higher around these months.

This is NOT to say that spectacular Aurora’s are not possible in the interim months, in fact I have seen fabulous displays in other months. But since I don’t get to travel as much as I’d like, I like to give myself the best chances and stick to those times.

My personal preference is February/March, due to the fact weather tends to stabilize in Northern Scandinavia after December.

Where are the best places to see the Northern Lights?

There is no one right answer for this one as there are many places you can see the Northern Lights. As long as you are situated far enough North (or south if you are thinking of the Aurora Australis) then you stand a chance of seeing the Aurora. North of 63/64 degrees latitude roughly is a good place to see them.

The Auroral OvalHowever, there is a slight catch to these numbers, in that I’m not talking about standard geographical latitude, but Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude. The Earth’s magnetic field is not perfectly aligned around our geographic poles, it deviates slightly. Therefore this ‘Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude’ is the true latitude you need with regards our magnetic field (and therefore Auroras). This is why in Europe, you need to be in Northern Scandinavia to see the lights, but in certain places in Northern US and Canada, you don’t need to be at such a high latitude. So, to sum up, North of 63/64 Corrected Geomagnetic latitude and you’re set =)

Here are maps for Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude:
Europe – http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/Aurora/globeNE.html
UsA & Canada – http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/Aurora/globeNW.html

All you need to do is click on a location on the maps linked above, and you’ll be given latitudes, most importantly the corrected magnetic latitude. If the location is greater than 63/64 you will be able to see the Northern Lights there (if there’s activity and clear skies).

The Auroral Oval over Northern US and CanadaFor some people, this might not be particularly helpful as we need specifics, easy to access towns that are close to convenient airports etc. So a more tailored answer for Aurora chasers is that any of the cities underneath the green band in these images, are good locations to spot the Northern Lights.

As for my own personal recommendations? Here is my top 5 places to see the Northern Lights. All tried and tested and I’ve had success in each one. They’re fantastic places to try your luck! I’ve listed them in order of my preference and given reasons why.

My top 5 Places to see the Northern Lights

Here are some of my suggestions for where to best see the Aurora Borealis from. These are tried and tested. Feel free to get in touch if you have other towns in mind and would like some advice.

  1. Ivalo, Finland

River Ivalo behind Hotel IvaloI visited Ivalo and the surrounding area in March 2012 when working with Aurora Hunters for a week. The landscape in this part of Finland is vastly different to that of Abisko in Sweden and parts of Norway. It is much flatter, but so beautiful in a different way!

The landscape has a very winter wonderland type feel to it, with snow capped trees, and snow mounds everywhere. Really beautiful =) The people in Ivalo and the Inari region are so friendly and welcoming. Ivalo itself is a relatively small town, with everything you need, supermarket, local pub all within walking distance. I stayed at the Hotel Ivalo for a week. The hotel is basic but more than adequate, with clean rooms and decent food. The best part about this hotel is its lovely location in Ivalo. It sits right off the River Ivalo, literally, 20 seconds walk behind the hotel down a gentle slope onto the beautiful frozen river (On the picture to the right the Hotel is on the left hand side!) Not only is this a hub for daily activities such as snowmobiling and cross country skiing, but makes a good location to view the Northern Lights if you cant get out of the city!

Being a small town, Ivalo doesn’t actually have that much light pollution, which means Aurora viewing is entirely possible within the city. In fact I was witness to a wonderful display right on River Ivalo behind my hotel for about 2 hours with several of the hotel guests.

Of course this was a happy little extra, there are other options that involve heading outside the town, to some gorgeous locations in perfect darkness. One company I can highly recommend myself is Aurora Hunters. Andy Keen and his team of Aurora hunters will do their utmost to drive you to clear skies and Auroras, even if it means driving for hours to the Russian border! They provide entertainment, warm drinks and will help out with your photography equipment too! They also know all the beautiful locations to help you get the most out of your photography, I owe some of my best shots to Andy Keen 😉

  • Pros – Winter wonderland landscapes, amenities in town, low light pollution, plenty of activities, Aurora tour guides. Furthern inland, therefore colder with more stable weather patterns.
  • Cons – Staying inside the city does have some light pollution, but as long as the Aurora Borealis isn’t too weak you will see them. So tours may be required.
  1. Abisko, Sweden

Abisko Mountain LodgeAbisko is a lovely little arctic town in the North of Sweden, nestled between Kiruna and Narvik in Norway. The scenery is beautiful with the famous Lapporten mountain range in sight, and wonderful frozen lakes nearby. The small town is offered some protection from cloudy weather due to the Norwegian mountain range, so some say there are clearer skies in this region than others in the area. I myself have noticed that it can clear up in a very short space of time in Abisko!

I stayed at the Abisko Mountain Lodge and I really can’t say enough good things about the place. Service, food, location is all top notch, and the best part of all? You just need to step outside your room/cabin into darkness to see the Northern Lights, so you can be ready at a moments notice. So there is no need to pack  your car and head out into the dark night and sit in the cold for hours on end (as I’ve done many times!). This really is a bonus to this type of accommodation  Your window of opportunity for viewing is so much higher when you can just step outside. If you’re up for something special, you can also take a chairlift up to the Aurora Sky Station for some amazing views over the beautiful Abisko region, and hopefully a great view of the lights!

  • Pros – Beautiful scenery, excellent food, wonderful hosts, no need to go anywhere to see the lights, activities organised from the lodge.
  • Cons – Can’t think of any!
  1. Kiruna, Sweden

My family and I under the Aurora in KirunaKiruna is a quirky mining town in the North of Sweden. It’s a wonderful base as from here you can get to Jukkasjarvi (where the Icehotel is) or to Abisko (my first choice).

Kiruna itself isn’t the most picturesque town, but does have a large selection of hotels, and many activities. My recommendation here if you’re not planning on staying in Abisko, is to head out to the Ice Hotel which is just a 15-20min taxi/drive from Kiruna.

Alternately you could stay in Kiruna and take nightly tours out to see the lights. But that will prove more expensive.

  • Pros – Good base, lots of activities leave from Kiruna, plenty of hotel selection. Easy access to Abisko and Ice Hotel.
  • Cons – Kiruna is a relatively large city and suffers from moderate light pollution, so you’d need to find a darker spot, either by tours, or renting a car and driving outside the city.
  1. Tromso, Norway

It’s almost a little painful for me to place Tromso 4th on the list. Tromso as far as cities go is an absolute gem. It is a gorgeous city nestled in the Arctic North. I’ve been there 4 times and loved it just as much as the time before. Some call it the Paris of the North and this title is well deserved. It is a beautiful, bustling town with every possible amenity you could think of. Restaurants, hotels, pubs, cinemas, shopping malls the lot.

City of Northern LightsThe Clarion Collection hotel is a lovely nautical themed hotel (ask for a room with a view of the harbour they’re wonderful). Very fairly priced, good food, and free chocolate waffles and coffee all day are a real plus when you return from the cold.

My personal reservation with Tromso is twofold, it is the largest Arctic city I have visited, so has the worst light pollution. It is also a coastal town, and close to the Gulf Stream, therefore temperatures are milder than you would expect, but as a result suffers more from cloudy skies.

You would likely need to drive outside the city limits to find darker skies, and further inland  if cloudy, to find clearer skies (along the E8). Alternately you could take nightly tours outside the city of which there are many. But I personally have had great success with Kjetil Skogli, a local photographer and Aurora hunter who also works tirelessly to find clear skies and Auroras if it’s at all possible. He drove us 3 hours out to Skibotn where I was treated to one of the best displays I’ve ever seen, despite a snow storm back in Tromso.

  • Pros – Beautiful city, all amenities, numerous tours and tourist activities, good Aurora guides.
  • Cons – Heavy light pollution, tends to suffer from cloudy weather
  1. Yellowknife, Canada

Blachford Lake Lodge groundsI’ve placed Yellowknife 5th on my list mostly because it’s across the pond from me 😉 So for us Europeans perhaps it’s slightly more out of reach, but for all of you over on the other side of the Atlantic I can’t say enough good things about this place, in particular the Blachford Lake Lodge which is where I spent my 5 nights in Yellowknife.

The lodge is on its own private plot of land and is accessible only by Bush plane, but oh my was it worth it! The landscape is absolutely astonishing. So beautiful and desolate at the same time, with wonderful safe forest trails surrounding the property. The lodge itself is top notch and has all the luxurious commodities you would need. The Chef is professionally trained and apart from the Abisko Mountain Lodge, I don’t remember the last time I’ve eaten better!

  • Pros – Amazing location with stunning scenery, private (no chance of overcrowding tourists), food to die for.
  • Cons – Hard to get to, no roads so you’re completely at the mercy of the weather.

Some other recommended locations are:

  • Norway – Lyngen, Alta, Kirkenes, Malangen
  • Finland – Inari, Nellim, Utsjoki
  • Sweden – Jukkasjarvi
  • Alaska – Fairbanks, Bettles
  • Canada – Churchill (Manitoba), Gillam (Manitoba)

Can the Northern Lights be seen further South?

Another common question is from people wanting to know whether they can see the Aurora Borealis from a little further south. This is entirely possible to a certain extent. I mentioned earlier that a good location for Northern Lights viewing was approximately North of 63/64 Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude, and in my opinion it is if you want to see the Aurora as brightly as possible, in all its glory, directly above you. (Personally I prefer to be bang underneath it at 65-67 Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude).
But this isn’t to say it’s not possible to see the Aurora to a different degree further south.

The general rule of thumb is that the further south you are from the Auroral band, the further North, and the lower, the Aurora will appear on the horizon. Keep travelling going South and eventually it dips beneath the horizon and we can no longer see it.

So how can you know if its possible for you to see it from your location?
Check out the latitude maps I linked earlier again:

Europe – http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/Aurora/globeNE.html
UsA & Canada – http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/Aurora/globeNW.html

Roughly look at the location in question, and then see where you’re positioned relative to the coloured lines in the image. These are the KP Index lines. They roughly tell you what KP Activity number the Aurora needs to have, for you to be able to see it at the location in question.

The current KP Activity index can be seen here.

How many nights do I need to stay to see the Northern Lights?

The more the better! This is a little obvious, but really I always say the same thing. For most people trips to the Arctic Circle are a rarety, and expensive. All things considered I feel that since we’re going through the effort to travel so far, we might as well give ourselves the best shot! I strongly advise anyone that is serious about wanting to see the Aurora, to stay ATLEAST 3-4 nights. More really is better. There may be activity, but cloudy skies, or clear skies, and no activity, so stay as long as is possible.

According to the scientists in Kiruna, Sweden, you have about an 80% of seeing the auroras if you stay in the area for at least 3 days. This is likely too for any destination at similar latitudes (like those listed above).

I tend to spend between 5 and 7 days in any one location, and I’ve had a lot of success with this timeframe.

Can you actually see the Northern lights with the naked eye? Or is it all camera trickery?

The definite answer is YES! Yes you absolutely can see the Aurora with the naked eye. You can more than see it, when it’s active enough it’s so bright, intense and fast that your eyes won’t be able to keep up! You’ll want to stop time just to take it all in.

The problem is, there’s a common misconception that because Aurora photography can sometimes use long exposures to enhance the Aurora’s, that this is infact untrue to life, and it isn’t. When the Aurora borealis is weak, long term exposure photography is handy because it allows the camera to capture light over time, and as result you get a nice green band in your photos, much brighter than perhaps you can see yourself.

But this is just because the Aurora is weak. Infact it may appear to you (when your eyes have fully adjusted to the dark) as a pale green/ almost white band of light in the sky, immobile, and very faint. SO much so that you might think to yourself, is that it? Is that the famous Aurora Borealis?

Take the two shots below as examples, the left shot was a 2 second exposure, the right an 18 second exposure!

Aurora Borealis over Nellim, Finland

2 second Aurora Exposure

Weak Aurora over Skibotn, Norway

18 Second Aurora exposure

The left hand picture looks almost identical to the naked eye as the photo, whereas the right hand picture really looks nothing like it did in real life and infact appeared to me as a very VERY faint, and pale band in the sky. Just remember, photos with short exposures are more true to life, longer exposures enhance what we see.

It’s important to note, the Aurora Borealis is present in a great variety of intensities, from it’s lackluster weaker form, to it’s in your face, vibrant, dancing from one side of the sky to another in 2 seconds flat form. The latter will literally take your breath away, so much so the camera might be the last thing on your mind. You will just want to stare and take it all in.

So please, don’t be put off by any weak Aurora’s you may have seen, or any stories about how it’s all long exposure trickery. The Northern Lights are by far the most beautiful natural phenomenon I’ve witnessed. You just have to be lucky and catch her right 😉

Below is some video footage I captured of the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada back in March 2008. I’ve sped it up quite a bit as the display was over 2 hours long! But rest assured the movement is very fast at normal speed too! Apologies for the grain, it’s actually read video footage, not time lapse images.

Will the Full Moon affect my Aurora viewing?

Short answer, not much. I used to be put off by the Full Moon, and always booked my Aurora hunting trips around the New or Crescent Moon, but there really is no need for this and it really limited the times I could travel!

Contrary to popular belief and suggestions, the Full Moon or Gibbous Waning moon will only affect your viewing of the Northern Lights if they are WEAK. In which case, it will make it harder to see the pale green bands in the sky. But honestly? If the Aurora has any decent level of activity it really matters very little, and it’s those impressive Auroras you really want to see =)

I actually PREFER the brighter moon phases as the Moon lights up the landscape beautifully and brings out all the details in my photographs. Just remember, even the Full Moon pales in comparison to a moderate to active Aurora, and it gives beautiful photographs 😉

I guess what it boils down to is preference, and for us photographers what it is you’re after from your shots. If you want a nicely lit landscape, the Half to Full Moons actually help us out (as long as the Aurora is of moderate activity). If you want more of a Star-field, or want to capture the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis, then plan your travels around a New or Crescent Moons as the moonlight does obscure the star field.

What colour are the Northern Lights?

The most common colour of the Aurora Borealis is shades of green. Different colours start to appear depending on what elements are interacting with our Earth’s magnetic field. As the Solar Wind becomes trapped in our Magnetic Field at the poles, the solar particles collide with atoms and ions in our atmosphere and become ‘excited’. It is the settling down of this excited state that results in the emission of ‘light’. If the excited particles in question are Oxygen, we typically see the green/yellow light, however, if the Oxygen particles are at very high altitudes, a more seldom seen Red light colour is emitted at the top of the Aurora. If it’s Nitrogen particles, we are more likely to see a blueish tinge to the Aurora. Purples, whites, blues occur often in coronas (coronas appear as almost spindle looking shapes directly above, as if reaching directly down to you), but overall green is the most common =) There isn’t a geographical place where specific colours occur, its all totally random and depends on the activity of the Auroral oval over different parts of the world.

Can we predict Aurora Borealis activity?

A lot of people message me with dates they have in mind to travel to certain destinations, and they ask if there’s anyway to know if there will be Auroras (often times these dates are months in advance!)

The truth is, predicting the Northern Lights is a tricky business and there’s never an absolute guarantee. Predictions are always most reliable the closer we are to the dates in question (much like the weather).

To be specific, it takes approximately 24-48 hours for solar wind to travel the distance from the Sun to Earth (depending on the speed of the Solar Wind or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). So relatively accurate predictions can only really be made in that time frame, 2-3 days ahead. Here are a few useful resources for gauging general Aurora activity currently and over the next few days:

Geographic Institute at Fairbanks University – A popular general prediction model. Good used as a general guideline but not updated everyday. Predictions are made for 5-6 days ahead, however if an event occurs on the Sun, this prediction model will not account for new activity due to it’s update intervals. Take with a pinch of salt.

SWPC Prediction Center – Ovation Model – A good realtime model showing the Aurora Borealis’ current oval over the Earth. The brighter the green (or white) in the model, the more intensely the Aurora can be seen over the estimated geographical location underneath.

SWPC KP Model – The Kp model is an indication of fluctuations in the horizontal component of our geomagnetic field, also referred to as the Kp value over a 3 hour period. Kp values of 3+ are considered to be conducive to Geomagnetic storms and more intense Auroras. However, Kp’s as low as 1/2 can sometimes spark some wonderful Auroras, especially if you’re situated directly underneath the Auroral band. This is because there could be isolated substorms that do not last for a long enough period to register as a high Kp number, so the average will be lower.

Astronomy North – These guys tend to be pretty accurate with predictions and likely monitor events on the sun as well as current solar wind data.

Longterm forecasts tend to be unreliable, but there are ways to see what potential long term activity COULD be. There is a method known as the Carrington rotation (you can see an example of this on the Gedds page) which is based on the Suns rotation pattern. The Sun fully rotates on its own axis every 27 days. If there is an active Sunspot that is causing Solar Flares or CME’s, there’s a chance that 27 days later, that same Sunspot could still be there and could dish out similar levels of activity.

The problem with longterm forecasts, is that Sunspots decay and die, and their activity wanes. So the Carrington rotation is not always reliable, and when the Sun rotates completely and is facing the Earth again, a particular Sunspot might not be there anymore.

Aurora Borealis activity is never guaranteed, unfortunately it’s a little like playing the lottery. Many people are blessed with days of fantastic displays, while others leave their holiday destinations only to hear of Auroras the day they left. (Personal experience! Very frustrating).

The most important thing to remember with the Aurora is that you need to be patient. She could make you wait hours but it will be totally worth the cold and frustration when she finally puts on a show for you.

I personally use a combination of current Solar activity and Solar Wind readings from the ACE satellite, and generally know when to head outside to within an hour of activity. But the above should get you on the right track 🙂

Here are some photographs I’ve taken over the last 5 years or so, all of which are in the locations listed above. I hope you enjoyed my article! Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll try and answer =) You can find my full Aurora stream here

All photographic images and written content are copyright protected and are the property of Natalia Robba. If you’d like to order some prints, use my photographs, or republish my written content, please email me at natalia.robba@gmail.com to request permission.

 

Time Lapse Photography Tutorial – The Do’s and Dont’s

After several months of practice and trying to perfect my technique I thought it was time to share what I’ve learnt. Hopefully with the help of this tutorial you’ll all be creating beautiful timelapse movies in no time!


What is time-lapse photography?

Basically, time lapse photography is the process by which multiple photographs are taken, at fixed intervals over a certain period of time. Normally the idea behind time lapse photography is that you can capture something that normally happens over a large time frame, and compress it into a short, high speed movie. In this way long term changes are much easier to see! Plus it’s a really cool effect. Examples are sunsets/sunrises, cloud movement, milkyway movement across the sky, flowers opening, night time photography, to name just a few.

Here’s an example of a time lapse of Casemates square in Gibraltar


What do I need to create time lapse movie?

  • DSLR / Digital Camera – You’ll need a DSLR camera, or any camera that allows you manual control over ISO, Shutter speed and aperture.
  • A tripod – The camera needs to remain completely still while taking snaps. Any movement of the camera will become really obvious when you try to create your final movie. So steadyness is key!
  • Intervalometer – An interva wha? This is a nifty little device that lets you program your camera into taking pictures at certain intervals. For example, I can use my intervalometer to tell my camera to take a picture every 5 seconds, and to use a shutter speed of say 2 seconds. I can also specify how many times I want it to do this i.e. 100, 500, 1000. There are certain DSLR cameras and digital cameras that have one of these babies built in! Like my trusty D700. So check first you might not need one.
  • A computer – Sounds obvious but you will need to transfer all your pictures onto your computer afterwards.
  • Software – There are many software solutions out there that allow you to create time lapse movies. A quick google should reveal a few good ones. Personally? I find the quickest and easiest way to create these movies to be using QuickTime Pro (Thanks to my good buddy Tony Loewen for this recommendation! Such a simple program to make time lapses got me started in no time!) Another good solution is a program called VideoMach which not only lets you create time-lapses but allows you to add video effects, transitions, music and watermarks. I’ll walk you through the simple steps for both programs later in this tutorial. Finally, theres a third alternative, VirtualDub (I like this one too as it has a deflicker plugin you can use)

And that’s it! If you’ve got all of the above you’re ready to go.

What’s my first step?

NB – Before we get into specifics, its very important that you have your camera set to Manual mode so you have control over apertureISO and shutter speed. Otherwise your camera will start making it’s own adjustments to the environment and it’ll just mess stuff right up. Also set your White Balance manually  (anything that looks good to you here, just don’t leave White Balance on AUTO as it’ll also cause fluctuations in our final video).

Ok so you’ve got all of the above and you’re ready to go. You might be thinking, I’ve no idea what shutter speed, interval, ISO settings to use for my timelapse arrrgh!

Worry not =) There are good generalised guidelines as to what settings to use for certain scenarios. Good news is, these guidelines produce pretty nice results! You can always tweak them yourselves once you get the hang of it. Trust me, after your first time lapse things will really start to make sense and you’ll get a feel for all of this and will adjust settings accordingly. So here are some general guidelines for certain scenarios you might wish to capture:

Night Time Photography (Shutter Speed – 2-5 seconds, ISO 400-800, Interval 5-10 seconds)

This could be anything from the movement or vehicles and people during the typical night, or the passage of the moon across the sky. It’s quite a fun subject as you can get those cool car light trails that you see in long exposure night time photography, or the blurry movement of people on a night out.

Daytime crowds, slow moving clouds, city life etc (Shutter Speed – 2-5 seconds, ISO 100-400, Interval 1-5 seconds)

Crowd movement is always a pretty awesome timelapse subject. This could be the London underground, the streets surrounding you, local market. The movement of clouds in the sky over a landscape is also lovely to watch, in fact I always prefer when its a little cloudy for time lapse photography, it makes it all look so much more interesting.

Star / Milky way movement  (Shutter Speed – 10-30 seconds, ISO 800-1600, Interval 15-30 seconds)

A personal favourite of mine. It is so amazing to actually be able to see the movement of our universe. This type of time lapse requires much higher shutter speeds and ISO’s, since we’re trying to get the camera to take in as much light as possible from the stars. We can’t go over 30 seconds shutter speed or each photo will begin to show star trails, we need each photo to have stars look as pinpoint as possible. Nice and sharp =)

Plants flourishing (Shutter Speed – 1-5 seconds, ISO 100-400, Interval 90-120 seconds)

Possibly one of the coolest time lapses! Time lapses have an amazing way of showing us movement where we don’t normally see it. This is more obvious in the movement of the moon, or clouds, but never obvious with the opening and closing of petals lets say. We need a larger interval time here so that there is a difference in position of the petals.

How do I program my camera to take these timed shots?

So to get into the specifics of any of these subjects, we may decide we want to capture a typical night of activity on our local streets, so we decide on a shutter speed of 3 seconds, an interval of 5 seconds, and an ISO of 800, we’re basically taking a 3 second exposure photo, every 8 seconds (8 seconds? Why 8 seconds?) Basically, the interval is the time between the camera finishing one shot, and taking the next one, so if the interval is 5 seconds…and the camera is taking a 3 second exposure, you’re looking at a photo every 8 seconds.

NB – If using an external intervalometer, you must match the shutter speed on your camera, to the set shutter speed on the interval, or they wont match up. On most intervalometers the shutter speed is the ‘Long’ setting.

Bear in mind, all of the above settings can be tweaked to your requirements. Later on in this tutorial there are examples of the common pitfalls and/or visual imperfections that can occur in timelapse…and how to tweak your settings to sort them out.

So there are two ways to actually program these settings.

My camera has a built in intervalometer

If this is the case great =) You should be able to find the Intervalometer settings in your camera’s menu. It should look something like the first image below.

For my Nikon D700 it’s in the Shooting menu and is called Interval Timer Shooting. Press OK.

 

The next screen (or the second image below) is where you tell your camera how often you want it to take a picture. The time format is HH:MM:SS where H is hours, M is minutes and S is seconds. So if you’d like it to take a shot every 5 seconds, just change the last 2 digits to 05. Or if you’d like your camera to take a shot every minute, change the middle 2 digits to 01 etc etc.

On the last screen you just tell you camera how many shots you actually want it to take. My camera gives me the option to take upto 999. You’re all set! As soon as you enable this time your camera will get started.

I have an external intervalometer

These little things are pretty similar to the settings on your DSLR’s menu, theres just a few small differences. On most Intervalometers you’ll notice the words Long, Interval and possibly also Delay on there. All of the below are in the format HH:MM:SS

  1. Long – The shutter speed of each shot (This must match the shutter speed setting on your camera)
  2. Interval – The amount of time inbetween shots NB – This is the time between a completed photo, and the start of the next one. So if the interval is set to 5 seconds, when the camera completes each shot, a 5 second timer is started before the next photo is taken.
  3. Delay – This is just a timer you can use to delay the start of the whole time lapse procedure. I normally set this to 5/10 seconds to eliminate any camera shake that might have occured from me touching the camera or tripod. Really just to give the setup a chance to stablize.
  4. There will be a fourth setting, on my Nikon intervalometer its the letter N, and it’s how you set the number of photos you want taking.

Photos taken…now what?

Ok great! So you’ve got all of your photos ready. Could be 200, 500, 1000 or many more! Next step is to connect your camera to your computer. I normally prefer to copy all of the images files off the camera to a folder on my PC. The computer will read it faster that way.

For the purposes of this tutorial I’ll be creating time-lapses in both Quicktime Pro and VideoMach so you can decide which program you prefer. Quicktime really has everything you need for a quick and simple timelapse, VideoMach has a few extras that let you customize the timelapse afterwards.

Getting your images ready for time lapse software

NB – Before we use any software, here’s a nifty little trick to stop you running into problems when trying to load all your lovely new images. All of the time lapse software requires images to be named sequentially, i.e. image001, image002, image003 you get the idea =) Unfortunately cameras don’t always do this for you and this could result in the time lapse program not knowing which the next image is!

  1. In the folder where you’ve saved all your time lapse images (I normally stick them on a folder on desktop), select all of your images, right click on any one of them, and click Rename.
  2. Type anything you want that represents the timelapse i.e. sunset, or busstop. Anything will do. The moment you press enter with all the images selected, all of the images will automatically be assigned numbers. Presto!

Creating Time Lapse videos with Quicktime

  1. Click on the File Menu, then click on Open Image Sequence.
  2. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo.
  3. Select a framerate from the dropdown in that same window. You want it looking as smooth as possible so around 24/25fps will look good.

Quicktime will automatically move on from the first image sequentially and create a movie, this might take a few minutes but once the next Quicktime popup opens, you’ve got your video!

Press play check it out 😀 This is the best bit!!

Now all you need to do is Save the video and hey presto you’re done.

Creating time lapse movies with VideoMach

Once you’ve downloaded this free program, open it up and you’ll be presented with the window shown below:

VideoMach Screenshot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here do the following:

  1. Click on the File menu, then click on Open Media Files.
  2. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo.
  3. Make sure to select ‘Open entire sequence starting with this image‘ when prompted. Then press OK.
  4. Now you should notice on the bottom left window, 1 line that should have in brackets (sequence of xxx images). xxx being the number of images in your sequence. Right click on this line, and then select Speed and Direction.
  5. Now you can set the frame-rate of your movie, 25 fps is a good value to use for PAL devices.
  6. Click on the floppy disk icon which is the Save button.
  7. A new window will open up, with 3 tables, Files, Video and Audio. Most of the time we don’t need to bother with the Audio tab so for the purposes of this tutorial we can ignore this. In the Files tab, select a video format (i.e. MPEG, Avi) and select where you want to save your video.
  8. Then click on the Video tab on top, and in there click on Final Resize. In here, underneath the Output heading, change the height to 1080 and press enter. There is no point going anymore high rest than this as 1080i is pretty much the highest TV’s go at the moment.
  9. Press Start. You’re done!

Creating Time lapse movies with VirtualDub

VirtualDub has the added benefit of a deflicker plugin that you can download. So if you really wanted to capture a sunset or sunrise (more info on how to do this here), and wanted to use Aperture priority mode, then you could create your time lapse here, and apply the deflicker filter to sort any shutter discrepencies.
  1. After downloading VirtualDub, extract the contents anywhere you like. I like to keep it simple and extract to somewhere like C:\VirtualDub
  2. Open up VirtualDub. You’ll be presented by an ugly bare grey screen. Don’t be put off, it’s pretty easy 🙂
  3. Click on File, then Open Video File
  4. Navigate to the folder you copied all of your time lapse images to and select the very first photo. Make sure the ‘Automatically load linked segments’ checkbox is ticked.
  5. Now we’ll change the frame rate, click on the Video menu on the top then click Frame Rate. Set this to 25 fps (or whatever fps you’d like to have in your time-lapse).
  6. We now need to resize the images. Click on the Video menu, then on Filters. When the new window pops up, click on the Add button. Navigate for the resize filter and press OK.
  7. Where it says New Size, click on the Absolute (pixels) radio button, and set the height to 1080. Then press OK, and OK again to close the Filters window.
  8. Save your video! Click on the File menu, then Save as Avi, give your file a name and save. You’re done.


Common Problems

Why is my video flickering?

So you grab all your shots, stitch them together and when you play the video you notice there’s some sort of flicker effect. There are 2 main reasons for timelapse flickr:

  1. Aperture is too high – The fixed aperture used to take all the photos was too high (e.g. f22 being high, f2.8 being low). Basically, when at rest the cameras shutters are wide open. If you choose an aperture that is too high, the shutters have to move a greater physical distance for each shot. This results in minor fluctuations of the shutter blades each time a shot is taken, and can result in time lapse flickr. To avoid this, stick to wide apertures i.e. apertures less then f8. Basically lower f numbers are better.
  2. Shutter speed is too short – Being a mechanical device, there are small fluctuations in the exact amount of time it takes for a cameras shutters to complete one shot, even when set to a fixed shuterspeed, there will always be little teeny differences.  These are much more noticeable when using a fast shutter speed. So generally, any shutter of 1/100th or longer will reduce the effects of shutter speed flickr.

A camera that is left on Automatic mode will also almost surely result in time-lapse flicker as the camera will attempt to make light compensations in the scene. For best results always ensure you are working on Manual mode, or at worst Aperture mode if you really want to capture scenes where there are light changes i.e. Sunset, Sunrise.

My video appears to stutter, objects appear to move too randomly

This could be because your interval time is too high. If you’re timelapsing moving traffic, and you leave too long in between shots, the vehicles will have moved too great a distance inbetween shots and when watching the movie will appear to just appear in different parts of the viewing area.

To avoid this, play around with your interval settings. Try lowering it a little maybe from 10 seconds to 5 seconds for example.

NB –  For time lapse photography, since there are always gaps in motion between shots, it really helps to add a little blur to your photos. This is why shutter speed in time lapse photography generally isnt any quicker than 1/100th of a second. The slight movement blur in your shots does a really good job of giving the impression of fluidity in your final video.

I just don’t have enough space on my memory card for so many shots.

A pretty common problem with time lapse photography is that it can require many shots, depending on the subject. You’ve got 2 options…either get a bigger memory card, or more practically, don’t shoot in RAW (change to JPEG Fine). You could further increase the amount of photos your camera can take by reducing the resolution of each shot in your cameras menu. This should help a ton! Also relieves your computers Hard drive a little, those RAW files can get pretty cumbersome!

My camera seems to run out of battery before I’ve finished my timelapse! 

Time lapses can be pretty power intensive and a real battery drain on your camera. Especially if the weathers cold (the bane of all Aurora photographers!)

A piece of equipment called a battery grip can help out with this. It allows you to add a second battery to your camera, effectively doubling your shooting time!

Or, if you’re feeling lucky, you could always replace the battery in your camera for a newly charged one in between shots! But that runs the risk of moving the camera, so steady hands people!

What if I want to timelapse a Sunset or Sunrise?

Due to the changes in light during both of these scenarios, using full manual mode on your camera will result in either underexposed, or overexposed shots are some point in your video.

The way around this is to use your cameras Aperture priority mode. This way, the cameras aperture remains fixed, but the shutter speed will change accordingly. Therefore, the camera will make the necessary adjustments so that your shots are always correctly exposed. Make sure your cameras ISO is set to manual though! You don’t want that changing too. You might have guessed by now, variations in shutter speeds may result in time-lapse flicker, and you would be right. However, there really is no way around this for scenes where the light changes so drastically, and fortunately, you can always fix this type of time-lapse flicker later.

What if I want to create a fixed duration time-lapse?

Say you want to make a time-lapse movie that’s 1 minute, or 60 seconds long.We need to do a little mathematics here, don’t worry it’s not too bad 🙂

First thing to consider is what frame rate your time-lapse movie will have. The average time-lapse should be around 24fps (or 24 frames per second). So if you want a 60 second video, and each second of video footage has 24 frames, then you need a total of:

24 frames x 60 = 1440 frames (or 1440 photos)

Quite a lot of photos in there. You’ll notice if you browse around, time-lapses don’t tend to be that long, unless they are a mesh of several different time-lapses  My average timelapses last around 10-30 seconds. This if of course entirely up to you and how fast you want events to unfold in your video.

If you increase the interval between shots, you lessen the amount of shots required to capture an event, but dont increase the interval too much, or you risk jumpy movement in your videos.

You could lower the frame rate to 15fps, therefore you’d need only 900 shots instead of 1440, but the video will be a little less smooth than the 24fps version.

Or you could just have as many frames as you wanted 🙂 You’re only limited by the space on your memory card really…

It’s all playing around with settings to see what works for you =)

I hope you’ve found this tutorial helpful and are on your way to making your own time lapse videos. Please feel free to leave constructive criticism on how this can be better structured.  Any questions just ask 🙂