How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis – Nature’s Night Light

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The Valkyrior, the “Dance of the Spirits,” polar lights, Goddess of the dawn, the mythical firefoxes of Lapland, the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis. By any name, Aurora has intrigued, scared, excited, and fascinated humans since the dawn of time.

Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, in Northern latitudes, they are known as the Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights), in Southern latitudes (e.g., Antarctica, South America, New Zealand, and Australia), the Aurora Australis (or the Southern Lights).

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

These phenomena are commonly visible between 60 and 72 degrees north and south latitudes, which place them in a ring just within the Arctic and Antarctic polar circles. Aurora sightings, while occasionally seen at lower latitudes are not as common. Thus, making the trek to extreme Northern or Southern latitudes is a necessity if you want greater viewing opportunities along with greater success in photographing the Aurora.

If you are interested in learning more about exactly what the Aurora are, where they come from, and what produces the various colors that often accompany an Auroral display, there are countless books you can read and websites that one may search for this information.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

This article will provide you with insider tips on how to successfully photograph the Aurora. Return home with lasting memories and images of one of life’s most amazing experiences.

Okay, I am ready to photograph my first Aurora – now what?

Observing and photographing the Aurora is subject to local weather conditions, patience, geographic location, dark sky venue, patience, minimal ambient light, patience, being in the right place at the right time, patience and some luck.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

You see a central theme developing here, patience. If you are not willing to spend time in the field, sometimes in extremely cold weather, your opportunity for both bragging rights and capturing that awesome image, will be severely limited.

When all is said and done, you are at the complete mercy of the Sun, Earth, solar winds, nature and space. The Aurora is not a man-made light show, the cosmos rule here.

So, beyond patience, what does it take to capture that jaw-dropping image of this wonderful phenomena?

Location, Location, Location

Your first challenge is getting yourself to the right location in either the Southern or Northern hemisphere that will maximize your potential and opportunity to see the Aurora.

The best Northern hemisphere latitude is within the Auroral zone – between latitude 65 to 72 degrees. In the Northern hemisphere, you will need to head to destination cities laying on or slightly above the Auroral zone (also referred to as an Auroral oval, is centered about the magnetic poles) and north of the Arctic Circle.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

You will stand a good chance of viewing the Aurora, if you head to Tromsø, Norway, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada or Bettles, Alaska. Other excellent choices are Svalbard, Norway, Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, Kakslauttanen, Finland, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland and Reykjavik, Iceland. This is only a representative list as there are many Northern latitude cities, which make good Aurora viewing destinations.

Under the right conditions, you can see the Aurora Australis from Ushuaia, Argentina, Tasmania, Australia, Stewart Island, New Zealand and the Southern tip of South Africa, all destinations more easily accessible in the Southern hemisphere.

Estote Parati (Be Prepared)

Photographing the Aurora by its very nature requires heading out at night. Here are some things to watch out for and prepare.

  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are visiting unfamiliar territory, a foreign country, or even your own neighborhood park.
  • Take extreme caution when walking in deep snow, ice, and across frozen bodies of water. You may not be able to see or identify potential hazards.
  • Team up with someone as excited about viewing and photographing the Aurora as you are or who is just willing to sit in a nearby warm car, in case you need support. Always ensure you head out with a full tank of gas.
  • Conduct visual reconnaissance during the day, identify potential ground hazards, layout a destination path and test snow and ice conditions en route to your evening’s photographic destination.
  • Let someone know your planned photographic destination(s) and anticipated return time, especially if you are headed out on your own.
  • Don’t count on your mobile phone working if you are far from service towers or in a foreign country.
  • At all times consider your intended shooting location and ensure that you comply with all local laws regarding access to properties (private and public), lakes, bridges, etc.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

Dress for Success

Dressing for the location, season, and weather conditions are essential both for your safety and for the ability to remain outside for an extended period of time in potentially body-numbing temperatures.

  • Wear many wicking, warm, and insulating layers and consider clothing appropriate for the local geographic and weather conditions.
  • Protect your entire body from exposure to what will probably be the coldest temperatures you may ever experience.
  • Carry a fully charged torch/flashlight (although wearing a headlamp frees up your hands).
  • Outfit your torch or headlamp with a red light or filter. The red light allows you to easily see where you are walking yet, preserves your night vision so you can easily and quickly operate your camera.
  • Pack chemical hand and foot warmers. Take more than you think you will need because you will need more than you think.
  • Use extra hand warmers to keep your camera batteries warm. This helps to extend their useful life in extremely cold conditions.
  • Invest in a really good pair of boots, e.g., affordable military surplus Bunny boots are rated to -60F (-51.11C) in cold, dry climates.
  • Bring a warm (non-alcoholic) drink and a snack, it may be a long night.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis - Nature's Night Light

Camera Equipment

You really don’t need much technical equipment to photograph the Aurora but there are some essential kit items you simply cannot do without.

Camera

A camera with interchangeable lenses will be best, but in principle, any camera can be used, even your mobile phone. Handholding your mobile phone, attempting to capture a shimmering, undulating Aurora, will not produce the same quality image that you can get with a digital camera, supported by a sturdy tripod, using a remote shutter release. This, however, should not stop you from capturing that moment and preserving the memory.

Be sure to keep your camera dry and avoid contact with snow or moisture. When walking about, it is always a smart idea to place your camera in a large zip lock plastic bag. Should you trip, slip or accidentally drop your camera (numb fingers will do that to you) in the snow, your camera body will stay dry and protected from the elements and the lens free from moisture, grime, etc.

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Lens

To take in as much of the sky as possible and a bit of interesting foreground, using a wide or super wide-angle lens (focal length between 10mm and 24mm, with an aperture of f/1.2-2.8) will give the best results overall. In reality, almost any lens will work, keep in mind, however, your images will look different than those you see posted on the web, taken with wide or super wide-angle lenses.

Prior to your first shot, focus your camera at a distant point, back off slightly from the infinity setting and then turn off the autofocus feature on your lens. Given the dark sky, you don’t want your camera and lens trying to automatically focus on an ever-changing, moving Aurora. Locking in on manual focus, set slightly south of infinity, will give you well-focused images.

If the temperature warrants a brief duck into your car for a “warmup,” leave your camera and tripod safely outside. Bringing your camera into a nice warm car and then back out again into frigid arctic temps, will cause lens fogging, condensation, and other nasties to potentially damage your camera.

Read more on shooting in tough conditions here: How to Take Care of Your Camera in Cold Weather.

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If you notice lint, dust or any other foreign material on your lens, NEVER blow on it. Your warm breath will instantly fog the lens. Depending on the ambient temperature outside, even small traces of moisture vapor in your breath may crystallize and freeze your lens, rendering it useless until it defrosts. Use only a lens brush pen or dry microfiber lens cleaning cloth.

Sturdy Tripod

To avoid blurring your picture due to camera movement, shaky hands, or unsteady footing on snow or ice, a sturdy tripod is essential. If you will be photographing in arctic conditions, be certain that your tripod is up to the task. Plastic tripod legs will snap in extremely cold temperatures.

Here are a few tripod options to check out:

Remote Shutter Release

A remote shutter release, designed to be used with your camera, provides important benefits in obtaining that memorable photo of the Aurora. First, it will be invaluable in its contribution to creating sharper images by reducing camera shake, which occurs naturally when you depress the shutter release. Secondly, for longer exposures, which may be necessary depending on changing atmospheric conditions and your ISO setting, you can hold the shutter open without physically touching the camera’s shutter release button.

Memory Cards

Pack extra memory cards, having formatted them prior to going outside. Backup and clear your memory cards prior to your next outing. Extra cards are essential if you do not have a means to download each evening’s images to a backup device. Plan to use a single card each evening you head out. If you shoot all of your Aurora images on a single card, and that card fails, for whatever reason, well – enough said.

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Spare Batteries

Photographing in cold temperatures drains batteries very quickly, photographing in arctic temperatures drains batteries exponentially faster. Always pack extra camera batteries. Running out of fully charged batteries when the Aurora is on full display is heartbreaking, especially when proper preparation would have prevented this situation.

Keep all extra batteries in an interior pocket of your jacket, close to your body. Trapped body heat, created by your insulated jacket and multiple layers of clothing will help keep the batteries reasonably warm, holding the charge longer.

Airtight Waterproof Dry-bag

Tough, waterproof and airtight, a dry-bag is essential. It protects your camera’s sensitive internal optics and circuitry from moisture and condensation buildup that occurs due to the extreme fluctuation in temperature when you bring your camera inside after a long evening photographing outside in sub-zero temperatures. Lens fogging and damage to your camera itself may occur if you don’t let your camera acclimatize gradually to the warm inside temperatures.

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Prior to going inside for the evening, slip your camera into the dry-bag, roll and seal it tightly and then bring the bag and your camera inside. While there is no official rule as to the length of time your camera should remain in the dry-bag, a good rule-of-thumb is to let the camera sit in the bag for two to four hours. That’s plenty of time to acclimatize to the much warmer indoor temperature and for you to remove multiple layers of clothing and secure a warm beverage of choice.

Include several small bags of silica, moisture absorbing dry-packs in the dry-bag prior to sealing it. The silica protects against mildew, corrosion, fogging and condensation, which might damage your camera’s sensitive electronics.

Taking that Memorable Aurora Picture

While the mechanics of taking a picture of the Aurora are not complex, there are a few guidelines that will enhance your success of taking that amazing and memorable picture.

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1. Select and shoot in the RAW format – this will provide you with the maximum amount of digital information needed to create a final image.

2. Remove the protective clear, polarizing or UV filter on your lens prior to going out to photograph the Aurora. The UV filter will likely cause concentric rings to appear in your final image.

3. Set your camera to M (manual) and turn off the camera’s flash settings.

4. Dial the lens focus ring to infinity and back off slightly.

5. Turn OFF any autofocus capabilities associated with your lens. You don’t want the autofocus feature of your lens attempting to continually refocus on the quickly moving, shifting Aurora.

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6. Open up the aperture as wide as possible. This is when the f-number is as low as possible, i.e. f/1.2 – f/2.8 or lower for many prime and pro lenses, or f/3.5 or f/4 for many consumer zoom lenses.

7. Set the shutter speed to Bulb. This allows you to use the remote shutter release necessary to keep the shutter open for longer exposures. Depending on the intensity and movement of the Aurora, you may need to hold the shutter open anywhere between three and 12 seconds. Check your image using your camera’s live view function (if so equipped). Too long of an exposure time will tend to blur both the Aurora and the stars as they move across the sky.

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8. Determine the proper ISO setting. This is somewhat both a technical and a personal decision. Technical as it will depend on the type of camera you have and the camera’s inherent ISO range. Personal depends on how much noise you are willing to live with in your image, again as a factor of an increasingly higher ISO setting. Start off with an initial ISO setting of 800 and adjust as your personal preferences and the photographic conditions warrant.

9. Bring and use a sturdy tripod. You want sharp Aurora images and to keep your camera as still as possible. If you don’t have a tripod, you can use a beanbag, flat rock, or another solid surface. Do not touch the camera until it is done exposing, and shield it from the wind if you can.

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10. When possible, include a contrasting foreground. The Aurora by its very nature looks best when photographed to include a foreground, which provides scale, context, and perspective. A suitable foreground can be a tree, a building, fellow photographer, a car, etc.

11. Consider joining a professional tour if (a) this may be your first trip to the Arctic or (b) you are headed to a new international destination. Most professional “Aurora hunting” tour operators have many years of seasonal experience are very familiar with the local area, best viewing venues, are eager for you to see and photograph the Aurora and know where you can tread both safely and legally.

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Ah…The Amazing Aurora

Being present during Aurora’s magical dance fills the observer with wonder, awe, and excitement and the experience often leaves one speechless. Capturing the Aurora in a photograph preserves that experience for a lifetime.

I hope that you may be fortunate enough to be at the right place, during the right months, at the right time, to observe and photograph Aurora’s magical dance.

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For most of us, getting to the dance is not easy. But once there, none of the logistics, long flights, cost, or cold, make a difference. You are witness to the most spectacular light show orchestrated by Mother Nature.

The next time you gaze into the night sky, be assured that the Aurora is there dancing the night away…just waiting for you.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Al Marcella travels extensively, having visited over 70 foreign countries. He finds enjoyment and relaxation behind the lens, especially when imaging older architecture structures and being off the beaten path doing so. His passion, however, is the high arctic, photographing the Aurora in temperature as low as -69oF (-56oC). Al has been witness to spectacular and breathtaking Auroral displays filling the entire sky. More of Al’s photos may be viewed on his website Globaltrekkphotos.

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