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.
- Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet. This counterpart of the Northern Lights 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.
- Many 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.
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 cloudy/overcast nearly 90% of the time during the aurora season. But you can get lucky, and a partly cloudy sky can still work. My last 2 week trip there had 5 nights that weren’t completely overcast.
- Alaska has 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 some moonlight since it will light up the landscape without 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. NOAA has an excellent short term (30 minute) forecast as well.
- 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 aurora 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. But when I go out Aurora hunting I make an exception. Frankly, driving in the dark, on snow and ice in an unfamiliar place is probably not a good decision for me (especially since I’m a Floridian and have little winter driving experience). Plus, the locations for aurora are probably new to you and a local guide will know where to find a dramatic foreground. Face it, traveling to photograph the aurora is not cheap, so why not spend a little more and dramatically improve your chances of getting great images?
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 local guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography. In Alaska, I’ve worked with Hugh Rose, a professional photographer and tour leader with decades of experience who seriously knows his stuff.
In Iceland, I’ve been on a couple tours with Arctic Exposure. They are a locally owned and operated company that was simply superb in every way.
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.
- Full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography, so they are ideal for aurora photography.
- ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality. However, if you aren’t planning to make large prints of your shots, they will likely be all you need.
- 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.
- A fast, wide angle Lens!
- 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.
- Auroras can be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
- If you have a full frame camera, then I’d suggest truly wide-angle lens. I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and I usually need its widest (14mm) setting for Aurora photography.
- If your camera is ASP-C format, then you should consider something in the 10-12 mm range.
- 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.
- 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. 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 full moon, the moon’s ambient light might be all you need. However, if the moon isn’t visible or if you want to draw attention to an attractive feature in the foreground, you will need some portable lighting. Headlamps and flashlights are a poor choice since they don’t give consistent, repeatable results. Low-level lighting is a much better option. Check out this article for more info.
- 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.
- 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.
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 on your settings and the 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 (as of 2022, my current favorite is Nik’s DeNoise AI )
- 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.
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