The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’. Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often. When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars. So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip. I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos. So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.
Where can you find the Aurora?
- The Northern Lights are sometimes visible far below the Arctic Circle…but if you are going to plan a trip to see them, you really need to go north…way north! The northern areas of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and Russia are all prime locations. For most of us, the best choice will depend on how close/affordable each option is.
- Most of the towns in these areas are pretty small, so city lights are not much of a problem. Fairbanks Alaska, for example, has only 32,000 residents and I didn’t find light pollution to be much of an issue.
- Personally, I thought Fairbanks was an excellent Aurora location. It had a fine international airport with lots of daily flights, rental car agencies and plenty of hotels. Plus, if I got tired of town, it had good roads heading out into the back country that I could explore and photograph. It also didn’t hurt that I spoke the language and felt very comfortable there.
- Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet. This counterpart of the Aurora Borealis is visible in Antarctica, of course, but sometimes can be seen from the South Island of New Zealand , southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile/Argentina.
When is the best time?
- Aurora Borealis season in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) runs from August to April. During the summer months of May thru July, the sun rarely sets and it is just too bright to see the Aurora.
- Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity. The winter months of October to February should be your second choice.
- You will still be at the mercy of the clouds. A few clouds can be a nice accompaniment, but if your trip is only for a few days and it is totally overcast every night, you are out of luck.
- Schedule as long a trip of you can to increase your chances of having at least one or two clear nights. When you consider a location also take into account if it has any daytime photo ops that would keep you busy if the Aurora is elusive/
- Check out the long-range weather forecasts and historical weather patterns for the locations you are considering. See how many clear nights they usually experience.
- Iceland, for example, is overcast nearly 90% of the time. Plus, the clouds are constant…one time of the year is about as cloudy as the next.
- Alaska, on the other hand, does have fewer clouds in the spring…about half the nights are clear or partially cloudy. In the fall, however, it is cloudy nearly 80-90% of the time. On my last 10 day tip to Alaska in September, for example, I had only 3 clear nights.
- The Aurora can be pretty bright, which means you don’t have to schedule your trip during the part of a month with moonless nights. In fact, I prefer full moons, since they light up the landscape with out you having to try to do so with your own lighting.
- There actually is a daily forecasts for the Aurora. If you are going to Alaska, check out the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute. Iceland and the other places you might travel to also have their own forecasts, just Google it.
- However, if you’ve travelled a great distance to photograph the Aurora, you shouldn’t write off a night of photography because of a bad forecast. Like weather forecasts, these aren’t always accurate.
- Forecasts range between 0 and 9 with the higher numbers indicating more intense Aurora activity.
Scout Locations during the Day
Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring. BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground. Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.
- Calm rivers and lakes can make wonderful mirrors for the Aurora.
- Mountains and hills will break up the horizon and give your shot some pizzazz.
- Putting a cabin or tent in the foreground (with a light on inside it) is a great touch.
The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast. If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).
Consider hiring a local guide
I rarely hire guides. I like doing things on my own. I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.
The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know. Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway. However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton. Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton. My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.
I worked with Hugh Rose. He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.
Have the right equipment
I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!” The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights
- The Camera.
- The new, full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography. The Nikon 600/700/810s, etc, as well as the Canon 1D/5D/6Ds are all excellent choices for this type of work.
- ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality. Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Aurora shots.
- Tripod. Since you are taking long exposures, a tripod is mandatory. Use a tall tripod so you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.
- A cable or wireless shutter release.
- Lens: Fast!
- The Aurora is much brighter than most subjects you would normally photograph at night so you might think you wouldn’t need a particularly ‘fast’ lens. However, unlike the slow-moving Milky Way, Auroras can move across the sky at a pretty good clip. As a result, you need to take much shorter exposures in order to capture the quick-changing aspects of Auroras. Some details, like the ‘curtain-effect’ (see the reddish area of the Aurora on the left side of the photo below) will be blurred and lost with exposures over 10-15 seconds. Therefore, I’d suggest a 2.8f lens or faster.
- Let’s put this in perspective: A 2.8f lens is twice as fast as a 3.5f. In other words, if you took an 8 second exposure with a f2.8 lens and then switched to a f3.5 lens, you would have to take a 16 second exposure to get the same amount of light. By the same token, a f2.0 lens is twice as fast as a 2.8f and so on.
- Lens: Wide
- Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
- If you have a full frame camera, then 14mm would do the trick. I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and have found it to be an excellent choice for Aurora photography. For Auroras that span from horizon to horizon, you might want to try a 16mm fisheye lens
- If your camera is ASP-C format, then a regular 10-12 mm would work ( or a 8 or 10 mm fisheye),
- With the Milky Way, you can take multiple shots with lenses that aren’t particularly wide and then stitch them together in Photoshop (or a similar program). However, since Auroras move quickly, panoramas are usually not an option….so you really need that wide lens.
- Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
- Photoshop. Right out of the camera, Aurora shots can be amazing. But often you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program to get the most out of the image.
- L-Bracket. This isn’t a Must-Have…more of a ‘really Nice-to-Have.” L-Brackets attach to your camera and allow you to connect it to your tripod in a portrait orientation without having to swivel your camera sideways on your ballhead. This means that you don’t have to lean over so much and it gives your tripod better balance. L Brackets are available from a number of companies (Kirk, Really Right Stuff, etc). Basically no more than a well-machined piece of painted aluminium, the pricing can be surprising high. I have found that Hejner products to be high quality and reasonably priced.
- Extra Batteries. The cold will drain your batteries quicker than normal. Keep a couple spares in a warm pocket.
- Warm clothes. This topic could be the source of a whole article. Obviously if the temperature will be low and you will be standing outside for hours, you won’t be able to concentrate on the Aurora if you can no longer feel your extremities! Pay particular to your feet…the cold will seep into them from the ground.
- The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets. Then turn off the auto-focus and put a couple pieces of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place. This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you can be assured your shots will be perfectly focused. Otherwise, you have to try to focus in the dark, which is more difficult. Plus, without the tape, you will likely bump your lens at some point…and that will throw all future shots out of focus. Unless you review EVERY shot at full magnification…which you should do of course (but that is a habit difficult to learn…at least for me!)
- If you don’t get a chance to focus before it gets dark you need to keep in mind that your autofocus won’t work well at night. So you will need to switch to manual focus.
- Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
- Focus manually on the moon, a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star. Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp (use a loupe if you have one available). Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape.
- Camera Orientation (portrait or landscape) simply depends on what the Aurora looks like the night you are photographing. Most of my shots are taken in portrait orientation, but within a few minutes, the Borealis can shift and you might find that a landscape perspective would be the better choice. Be prepared to shift your camera between both orientations (another benefit of an L-Bracket).
- Lighting. If you are shooting under a bright moon, ambient lighting might be all you need. However, if there isn’t much moonlight or if you want to draw attention to a particular feature in the foreground you will need to illuminate it yourself. Sometimes a headlamp will do the trick but for larger subjects you might need a portable spotlight. Bring both so you are ready for any eventuality.
- Composition Test. Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot. If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute. This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect (you can also use this technique to check that your focus is perfect).
- Aperture. Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in the widest aperture your lens is capable of.
- Shutter Speed. First set a shutter speed of 8 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself). Take the shot and look at your histogram. If the histogram is bunched completely to the left (too dark), reset your camera to a slightly longer exposure and try again. Keep adding seconds to the exposure until you get proper exposure (the histogram should be bunched somewhere near the center).
- Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
- Anything over 15 seconds will ‘blur’ detail in the Aurora. Some Aurora’s don’t have much detail, so that might not be an issue
- Anything over 30 seconds will likely result in ‘streaked’ stars.
- Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
- Adjust your exposure. I find it helpful to dial in a +2/3 to +1 Exposure compensation
- Shoot in RAW. If you are a pro, you are already using RAW exclusively. If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try. Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data. As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.
- ISO. This really depends on your camera and just how bright the Aurora is on the night you are shooting.
- The newer full frame cameras can take good quality shots well over ISO 1600, while older cameras and those with smaller sensor might create so much noise that you might not be able to go over 800.
- The brightness of the Aurora, however, will be the primary factor that determines your ISO. I’ve seen some nights that the Aurora was so bright you could read a newspaper by its light. In that case I was able to shoot with an ISO as low as 400 with no problem (see the shot to the right). Other nights, the Aurora was be much dimmer (but still beautiful) and I’ve had to dial the ISO all the way up to 2200 with my Nikon D800E.
- The way to figure out the right ISO is simply to take practice shots after you first set up and adjust from there. Find out how high you really need to set your ISO for your camera and the brightness of the Aurora. Remember that the lower your ISO, the less noise in the resulting image. Also keep in mind that the Aurora’s brightness will change during the night, so you might have to adjust your ISO setting accordingly.
- Turn off your IS/VR. This is the ‘anti-shake’ function built into your lens. Since you are shooting from a tripod, it won’t be necessary.
- Remove any filters from your lens. Many photographers, myself included, attach high quality UV filters to the end of every lens and leave them there. They provide some protection to the lens and don’t affect the quality of the image. However, some reputable photographers have reported issues with these filters when photographing the Aurora, especially during severe cold. My advice would be to remove any filters…no reason to take a chance on ruining a once in a lifetime shot.
- Blend the Foreground. If there isn’t much moonlight, the foreground will likely be little more than a silhouette. That can be a really nice effect, but also try some shots that include some detail in the foreground. The best way to do this is take your 8 second (or so) shot of the Aurora and then, without moving the camera, take a much longer exposure (try 30 seconds to start) which will better expose the foreground. Later, you can blend the two images together in Photoshop which will give you a shot perfected exposed for the Aurora and the foreground.
- Test, Test and Test Again! It can be a real temptation to just start ripping off shots of the Aurora because you are afraid it isn’t going to last. I’ve fallen for that temptation myself. But trust me, the right thing to do is to slow down and try different settings and then methodically review them. Experiment! Since each shot takes less than 10 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.
This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative! I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.
- Temperature I adjust the slider between 3000 and 4800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
- Exposure Try increasing your exposure to see if it make a lot more stars visible without washing out the entire frame.
- Tone Curve Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
- Clarity. A small shift to the right on the clarity slider can really help the stars appear nice and crisp.
- Hue/Saturation/Luminance. Here is where the real fun starts. Your challenge is to coax your camera’s digital image to accurately reflect what you actually saw. Be careful not to oversaturate the colors or shift hues to extremes.
- The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Aurora. For example, I often find that enhancing the ‘clarity’ of the Aurora can help define details. This tool also helps you isolate hue/saturation adjustments to specific parts of the image.
- Noise adjustment. You are going to have noise in your raw image. The amount will depend onyoursettingsandthe quality of the sensor in your camera.
- You are going to need to reduce the noise to create a high quality image. There are a number of noise reduction programs you can use (I use Nik’s Dfine 2)
- No matter what software you use, remember that noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements (darker areas) than in the bright areas of the Aurora, so don’t use a ‘blanket’ or overall adjustment. If nothing else, just put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.
With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs. However, I’ve provided only the basics. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ). Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres, this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora. It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be a pretty small part of that investment.
The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger