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When selecting a location, if possible use a small lake or pond to reflect the lights across the entire scene.
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A good camera is essential. Aurora photography doesn't require the most expensive camera; nevertheless, the camera should have a wide-angle lens which functions properly outside, in low light and in cold weather.
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Select the largest lens aperature (which is the smallest F-stop setting). This will give you the fastest possible shutter speed. Because the aurora is constantly moving, longer exposures tend to brush out any detail showing within the aurora.
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Looking north, include an intruiging foreground subject, like trees or a dimly lit cabin, in the shot.
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Focus your lens at infinity. You must do this manually. A simple trick is to focus the camera on a distant light and then lock the lens with tape before heading out into the dark.
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Shooting with an aperture of f/2.8 at ISO 800, I normally use exposure times of 10 to 30 seconds, although the duration varies depending on the amount of ambient light.
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How I catch the northern lights
With the recent increase in solar activity, now is a great time to get outdoors and photograph the northern lights. This heavenly light show can be an extraordinary phenomenon to photograph if you are lucky enough to be aware that the auroras are active in your region in the first place. Solar activity, which drives the northern lights, occurs in 11-year cycles and 2013 is the peak of the current cycle.
It has been awhile since the last solar maximum, when there were also some amazing light shows. Back then, digital photography was in its infancy and digital nighttime photographs were usually grainy and dark. Today, however, digital camera quality has greatly improved, as has the ability to predict the time and intensity of auroras. With the start of a new cycle, the chances of capturing the elusive northern lights are better than ever.
With just a few simple steps, you will easily capture the extraordinary aurora displays when they appear at your location. By being prepared, you will greatly increase your odds of capturing some of the most incredible astronomical phenomena that can be observed on Earth. As an old Roman Thinker stated: “Luck is what occurs when preparation meets opportunity.”
I always apply the following six steps to my planning process prior to photographing the auroras:
- Understanding the northern lights
- Getting notifications and alerts
- Choose an optimal location
- Use the right equipment
- Effective camera setup
- Post-processing tools
1. Understanding the northern lights
Understanding what triggers the auroras and how they form will help you to know when they are likely to occur.
The northern lights were once believed to be the result of ice suspended high over the Earth’s atmosphere. The aurora is actually an electrical phenomenon, caused by interactions of the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere, an upper layer of our atmosphere that is constantly in flux, determined by conditions in space. The sun sends out invisible clouds of plasma that trigger the auroras; this plasma is also known as the solar wind. This wind travels through several hundred miles of space every second.
When this wind reaches the Earth, it excites gases inside the atmosphere, eventually causing the actual emission of light. The primary colors are generally green and red due to oxygen, with the fainter blue and violet caused by nitrogen. The colors come in narrow ribbons of light, often streaming across the northern skies.
Much like stars, the aurora is present in the daytime as well as the night, even though they cannot be seen during the daylight hours. As the sunlight fades, the northern lights become obvious in the darkened skies. Looking from space, the lights appear mostly within a band around each magnetic pole, where Earth’s magnetic field is strongest.
2. Getting notifications and alerts
There is no sure guarantee that you in fact will see the auroras. Nevertheless, there are some effective strategies that will greatly increase your chances of success. Obviously, you cannot stay up and watch every night; however, by being tuned into solar activity and subscribing to a few of the aurora alert systems, you will be kept in the loop on possible activity.
Weather on Earth is an important factor. If clouds roll in, it doesn't matter if the northern lights are active or not – you will not be able to see them. Paying attention to the weather forecast is all part of the planning process. Cloud cover has been a culprit in my missing many aurora photography opportunities.
Ambient lighting is another crucial issue. During the summer months at high latitudes of the United States and Canada, there are only a few hours when effective celestial photography can be accomplished. The moon is another source of light that interferes with northern lights photography. A bright full moon creates enough light in the atmosphere to hamper the long exposures needed for nighttime photography. This is another event to consider in your planning process.
There are many tools available on the Internet to help your planning process and that will alert you to a high potential of northern lights appearing in your area.
I use the following Internet resources to help me track real-time details to analyze the likelihood of aurora activity.
- Space Weather Prediction Center
- www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast – Good short-term aurora estimations pertaining to Alaska.
- iPhone as well as iPad software LightTrac or Darkness offer location-based info regarding sun and also moon rise/set.
- More info on solar menstrual cycles can be acquired on Wikipedia.
3. Choose an optimal location
When selecting a location to photograph the aurora, scout it out in the daytime and visualize the aurora displays. Looking north, try to use trees, people, a camping tent or a small cabin dimly lit from the inside. If at all possible, use a small lake or pond to reflect the lights across the entire scene. Snow, for instance, will often take on the color of the aurora.
Try to set up your camera away from city lights, yard lights, TV towers and other sources of distracting light.
Safety is another consideration. You will be moving around in the dark, so bring a headlamp to keep your hands free. Avoid areas where there may be other threats to your safety, and always let someone know where you are going and when to expect you back.
As a result of extended nights, winter is often the best season for aurora photography.
4. Use the right equipment
A good camera is essential. Aurora photography doesn’t require the most expensive camera; nevertheless, the camera should have a wide-angle lens which functions properly outside, in low light and in cold weather.
A wide-angle lens with a focal length of 24mm or less is preferable. Plus have extra batteries and camera cards.
A good tripod and shutter release are also essential to successful nighttime photography.
5. Effective camera setup
The aurora display can change quickly, showing up and disappearing and then flaring up again. Get familiar with your camera settings; otherwise you will be fumbling around in the dark with cold fingers trying to remember the proper settings. Have the camera already set, to the extent possible, before you arrive at the location.
Lower your display brightness. This action will help you retain your night vision and also preserve battery life.
Shoot within a RAW file format. RAW format allow you to extract every bit of information from the digital image that is possible.
Select the largest lens aperture (which is the smallest F-stop setting). This will give you the fastest possible shutter speed. Because the aurora is constantly moving, longer exposures tend to brush out any detail showing within the aurora.
Choose the maximum ISO with which your camera will still give good results. I have found 800-1600 works well. Also, take into account the size of any prints you could possibly desire to make.
Don’t lose your Focus. Focus your lens at infinity. You simply must do this manually, since your camera will not lock focus on an aurora and it is very difficult to manually focus a wide-angle lens on the aurora. A simple trick is to focus the camera on a distant light and then lock the lens with tape before heading out into the dark.
Use manual exposure mode. As I mentioned earlier, set your aperture wide. This will help you set as short an exposure time as possible and ultimately well below 30 seconds. Shooting with an aperture of f/2.8 at ISO 800, I normally use exposure times of 10 to 30 seconds, although the duration varies depending on the amount of ambient light.
Don’t frost your camera. While working with the digital camera in cold conditions, do not breathe on any kind of surface where you do not want ice crystals to form – including, most commonly, lenses and viewfinders.
Become familiar with top-quality approaches to noise lowering in post-processing, and how to manually change the color temperature as well as shade of your image files to match the actual landscape you observed.
Just seeing the northern lights is an awesome experience, let alone having the ability to capture an image of the heavenly display. Observing these few guidelines will greatly improve your chances of capturing this wonderful phenomenon.