Photography guide to capturing the Northern Lights

Hey everyone 🙂

I thought it would be a nice follow up to my previous post on everything to do with the Northern Lights (or as much as I could think of hah) to lead with a tutorial on how to capture them.

What equipment do I need to capture the Aurora Borealis?

First off lets get through the basics, what do you need? Talking bare minimum, you need the following:

  • DSLR or Digital Camera – As long as the camera allows you to manually control the cameras Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO settings then you’re good.
  • Tripod – Essential to Aurora Photography. A lot of Northern Lights photography relies on short to long exposure times, anything from 1-2 seconds to as much as 20-30 seconds. So being able to keep your camera stable the entire time is of utmost importance, or you’ll end up with 00gly blurry pictures.
  • High aperture lens – You’ll need a lens with a low f number (known as high aperture). Anything smaller than f4 is perfect. The smaller the number the more light is allowed into the camera, so the shorter your exposures will need to be 🙂 I use a Sigma 20mm f.1.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens.

And some more recommended pieces of equipment:

  • Remote Switch – This can be either remote or cable release. Extremely handy as it allows you to take pictures on your camera without having to touch the camera. Stops those jitters and shakes from translating to blurry shots (cold can do that to a person!) Here’s an example – Nikon D40, D40x, D60, D80 & D90 Digital SLR Cameras,
  • Intervalometer – If you’re interested in creating timelapse movies of the Aurora Borealis, you’ll need an Intervalometer. This is a device that takes pictures on a timer, a repeated number of occasions, so you can collate them together later to create a video.
  • Spare Batteries – If you’re outside waiting for the Northern Lights, chances are it’s darn cold! The cold eats away your batteries life like nothing else. Highly recommend keeping 1-2 extra spare batteries with you, and keeping them close to your body (like in an inside pocket perhaps). When the battery in your camera is running low, switch for one of your warm batteries. Your used battery will regain some of its battery life inside your pocket again and once again you can switch etc.

What settings should I use?

As with most things Photography, this isn’t a precise science. Rest assured, you do have quite a bit of lee way with regards settings, which will still give you nice Aurora shots. Getting the perfect Aurora Borealis photography is all about tweaking your settings around a ‘baseline’ depending on the current conditions. Such as Moon Phase, speed of the Aurora, intensity of the Northern Lights, light pollution etc. Generally speaking the below will give you some nice shots:

  • Aperture – The wider the aperture the better. This is the f number on your camera. Aim for f4 or wider (i.e smaller number than 4). I use f1.8 on my Sigma 20mm and f2.8 on my Nikon 14.24mm.
  • ISO – You should be able to find this setting in your cameras menu. Start off with an ISO of 600-800 and see how this fares on your camera. Certain cameras handle high ISO’s better so you may be able to raise this number. ISO is basically your camera’s sensitivity to light. So by raising this number you allow more light into the camera (therefore reducing the shutter speed or the amount of time 1 shot takes) BUT you risk more ‘image noise‘ in your shot. It’s all compromise.
  • Shutter Speed – This one has a wider range as it depends on the brightness of the Aurora. Generally speaking the following are good guidelines:
    1. Weak Aurora – 10 to 30 second exposure.
    2. Moderate/Active Aurora – 5 to 10 seconds
    3. Active Aurora – 1-5 seconds

So how to set the shutter speeds? You can do this in one of two ways:

    1. Set the shutter speed manually to the number of seconds desired (2 seconds would show up as 2″, 3 seconds as 3″, etc)
    2. Set the Camera to ‘Bulb’ Mode. In this mode you control the shutter speed simply by holding the shutter release down for the amount of time desired.
  • White Balance – You can find this in your camera menu too. Even though on most DSLR cameras you can shoot in RAW Mode, and adjust White Balance later on, this isn’t always an option with Digital Cameras. Set your White Balance to Auto. This should handle most situations well.
  • Focus – A lot of people struggle with how to set their focus. It’s pitch dark outside, and it’s hard to get your camera to focus on anything. The rule of thumb with Astrophotography and Northern lights photography, is to set your camera’s focus ring to ‘Infinity’. This will appear as the ∞ symbol on most focus rings. This should mean the stars are in focus, which is what really gives Northern Lights shots their sharpness.
    NB – On certain lenses, true Infinity maybe be ever so slightly off the ∞ symbol. Test this out on a dark night anywhere. Set your ring to infinity, take a shot, then zoom in on your viewfinder and see if those stars are sharp. Then remember that focus ring spot 🙂

Settings close to the above will give you some nice Aurora shots =) From there it’s just tweaking things by yourself once you get a feel for it.

Shutter speeds will have a significant effect on the outcome of your Aurora photography, in particular the shapes and sharpness of the Aurora. You may have sometimes wondered or heard people say that the camera picks up the Aurora’s telltale green colour better than the human eye. This is true to a certain extent. A camera picks up WEAK Aurora’s when we cant. For this reason, a lot of people are able to create beautiful Aurora Borealis pictures by having very long shutter speed / exposure times i.e. 25 seconds +. This allows the camera plenty of time to ‘absorb’ all that green colour. So while very long exposures are not true to life visually, they sure can be pretty =)

Rest assured, the Aurora can be insanely bright and fast! So much so that you need really short exposure times so the Aurora doesn’t overexpose in your shot and look white! Here are some examples of some of my shots at different exposures:

2 second Northern Lights exposure

4 second Aurora Borealis exposure

12 Second Aurora Borealis exposure

NB – If at all possible shoot in RAW mode. DSLR cameras should all have this setting in their menus where you can choose the image mode i.e. JPEG Fine, JPEG Normal, RAW. Shooting in RAW mode means you will have much more flexibility later on to edit the image’s color balance, exposure, contrast etc. Jpegs compress the images as soon as you take them and you therefore lose a lot of the data that allows you to make changes.

How will the Full Moon affect my shots?

A lot of people are wary of travelling to see the Northern Lights during the Full Moon. As mentioned in my post about the Aurora Borealis, I love the Full Moon! Unless you’re dealing with a very weak Aurora, Half to Full moons are pretty awesome in that they light up the landscape beautifully and naturally. Here are the pros and cons to different moon phases, and how you might have to adjust your cameras settings :

Gibbous – Full Moon

  • Pros – Lights up landscape naturally. Give’s more foreground detail so you don’t end up with black foregrounds. Allows you to use a lower ISO or alternately you can shorten the amount of time you’re taking a shot for (exposure).
  • Cons – Capturing the star field and/or the Milky way becomes very difficult due to moonlight obscuring the universe from us.

Aurora Borealis during New Moon

Aurora Borealis during Full Moon

New Moon – Half Moon

  • Pros – Easier to see weak Auroras. Allows for more stars in your pictures, possible Milky way if you’re pointing your camera at the right place.
  • Cons – Foregrounds tend to be very dark with less detail in the other elements of your shot. You may need to compensate and higher the ISO, or increase the Exposure time of your shot.

Here are two examples showing some of my Aurora shots during the Full Moon, and New Moon respectively. Both shot’s are interesting in their own way, but I personally prefer to make my Aurora shots better ‘all around’ pictures, and not just about the Northern Lights.

Worried about your camera in cold weather?

This was initially one of my worries. The first time I really exposed my camera to true cold was when I travelled to Tromso to see the Northern Lights for the first time, back in 2007! At the time, I was using a Nikon D80 and I have to say I’m really proud of how it held up! It saw many cold spells, spent hours outside in the cold, practically got frozen solid but here it still is working perfectly fine =)
There are some simple tips you should follow, and if you do, you should have no problems whatsoever.

  • Battery Life – As I mentioned above, the cold will eat away at your battery life. So have more than 1 battery, and keep them on rotation. Placing the battery in a pocket close to your body will keep it warm and will also revive a drained battery giving you more time for precious shots =)
  • Condensation – This is the true danger when it comes to potential camera damage. When you’ve been outside in extreme temperatures, and you go back indoors again, there’s a sudden increase in temperature which can cause condensation on your camera. If you’re unlucky this could damage the electrics of your camera (has happened to a friend so it’s no joke!). A simple trick to avoid this is to place your camera inside a re-sealable plastic bag, or alternately the camera bag. Then take it inside. Don’t remove the camera from it’s temporary casing for a while, let it gradually acclimatize to the new indoor temperature.
  • Don’t breath on the lens – Easy mistake to make! Try and keep your face away from the front of the lens, it can steam up your lens pretty fast and ruin potentially great shots (doh!).

How to make your Aurora photos stand out

This is probably the most challenging aspect of Aurora Borealis photography. The single most important thing (aside from Auroras ofcourse) is an interesting foreground.

Pictures of the Aurora Borealis are plentiful, but the real gem’s are the ones where the Northern Lights are NOT the main feature of the image, but an complimenting feature. All of my favourite pictures from other photographers involve beautiful foregrounds i.e frozen lakes casting the auroras reflection, pebbles on a lake, cabins, churches etc etc. It’s a challenge because it’s hard enough travelling and searching for the Aurora without having to also find the perfect spot to shoot from! Trust me though, if you can map out your area in the daytime, come night time you won’t need to do it and can just focus on capturing the Aurora.

I’m victim to this myself, the first time I saw the lights I was completely trigger happy! I look back at those early shots now and think ugh! Each time I go back there I like to think my shots get a little better as I try and incorporate interesting foreground elements.

The good news is, it doesn’t even really need to be a lake, or a cabin, anything interesting in the near foreground will do wonders for your shot! Some ideas of stuff you could use if you don’t have a beautiful natural foreground:

A bench, a snowmobile, your camera on a tripod (if you’ve got a spare), log pile, heck even yourself sitting on the snow, your dog, friend, snow prints, snow mounds…the list goes on. Seriously, having something in the foreground gives the photo real depth and it therefore looks less ‘flat’.

I’ve added some of my older pictures below beside some of the newer ones with more interesting foregrounds so you can see what I mean…

and now some of my later work trying to incorporate the basic steps above.

Dress for the cold weather

Chances are…if you’re hunting the Northern Lights, it’s cold!! Unless you’re in Iceland in which case it might just be decidedly nippy 😉 Either way, you need to make sure you’re comfortable, and dressed safe as you’ll probably be spending hours outside.

So lets start layer to layer basics:

  1. Thermal Underwear – To start it all off you’ll need some good thermal underwear. That includes a thermal top and thermals pants.
  2. Mid Layer – Over your thermal undies you’ll need a good mid-layer. This can be wool, polyester, synthetic fibres, however it must NOT, under any circumstances, be cotton. Cotton is a big no no when it comes to the cold as it absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry. I tend to stick to polyester or woolen shirts and hoodies. They keep my snug and dry 🙂
  3. Outer layer – This is the outer jacket over you mid-layer. This layer has to be wind proof/waterproof. A lot of the better jackets are breathable and use materials such as Gore-Tex.
  4. Socks – This ones pretty important 🙂 A lot of times when I’m shooting the lights, the first part of my body to feel the cold are my feet. Invest in good socks! Honestly, the best socks are those made from 100 percent wool. I use a pair of thermal socks, covered with a loose pair of woolen socks. It’s important not to buy tight socks as your feet need room to ‘breath’ and retain warm air in your boots.
  5. Boots – Pretty self explanatory 🙂 Get some waterproof shoes, snow wets up those shoes fast! So definitely invest in some waterproof boots. The ones with higher ‘heel’s keep your feet warmer as they’re further away from the cold floor.
  6. Gloves – Get yourself some good gloves/mittens. As with the socks, let them be big enough that your fingers have a little breathing room and warm air can build up. I know it’s necessary sometimes to remove your hands from gloves to play with camera settings but try and keep the spells short or they’ll start getting pretty numb =D
  7. Hat – Always wear a good hat. We lose a lot of hear from our heads and our ears are prone to the cold so always keep am covered up.

As far as the camera goes, if you’re not going to be using it for a while, take it off the tripod and keep it close to your body, it will preserve the battery life.

Word of caution! Don’t touch the tripod legs without your gloves on! (Unless you’ve got padded legs in which case you’re golden). If it get’s cold enough can be pretty painful touching such cold metal with bare hands!

When to head outside?

Predicting the Aurora Borealis is tricky business, I go into this subject in some detail in another of my blog posts about the Northern Lights. Like the weather, Aurora Borealis predictions become more accurate the closer we are to dates in question. It takes 24-48 hours for solar wind to reach us from the Sun when Earth facing Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) or Solar Wind Streams leave the sun. So when either of these events are occur we can expect some Auroras.

There are a few websites that give you a good general indication as to present and future activity:

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 the current Aurora’s activity level 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.

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 🙂

To conclude, I really hope you find the above information helpful and are now well on your way to producing your own Aurora Borealis photographs. I would love to see any attempts and am happy to offer advice/suggestions.

Clear skies and Auroras to you all =)