How to photograph the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

The spectacle known as the northern lights is something I promise you will never forget, and if you are prepared to photograph them, you will be able come home and share your photos with friends and family.

The Aurora Borealis occurs in the Northern hemisphere.  It can be experienced in locations further from the Arctic circles, but to improve your chances of seeing them you need to spend some time on or near the activity zones. Iceland, Norway, Yukon and Alaska are just some of the places famous for the Aurora Borealis in the Northern hemisphere, but I find the best places to be are right in my back yard, northern Canada.

Aurora Photos

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH NORTHERN LIGHTS

A good sturdy tripod. I use the Manfrotto Manfrotto 057C4 Tripod with the 057 Magnesium Ball Head with Q5 Quick Release

A remote trigger so you don't have to touch the camera.

The camera should be a 35mm SLR camera or a DSLR with manual focus (set to just shy of "infinity"), which works well for Northern Lights photography. I use one of two full frame cameras. A Nikon D800e and a Nikon D3.

You should also consider a camera that has BULB mode so you can manually control exposure times. That will allow you to vary the length of the exposure as the lights curl in the night sky.

Digital cameras will need to have to be manually adjustable focus with ISO ranges up to 1600 or 3200.

A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights. I shoot with a Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8, a Sigma 35mm f1.4 and a 24-70mm f2.8.

If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it. My Sigma 35mm is sharp as a tack and produces great images.

TAKING A PICTURE:

You generally will not be able to take good pictures of the Northern Lights with short exposure times. Good exposure times for this are 20-40 seconds per picture (the tripod will help you eliminate shaking of the camera - you can't hold the camera by hand.) Now, this can be adjusted depending on the brightness of the lights, the aperture you are using and the ISO you set your digital camera to.

I have taken photos of the northern lights with ISO as high as 6400, with apertures as much as 1.4 and shutter speeds that range from 3 seconds to 15 seconds.

A sample exposure time for ISO 800 with an aperture of f/2.8 would be 10 to 20 seconds depending on the brightness of the lights.

LOCATIONS & TIMES:

It can be hard to predict the Northern Lights so you may be in for a few hours of waiting during a cold night.

The best times generally are after midnight and range from October to the end of April each year. In Canada, the two best places I have found are near Yellowknife and near Whitehorse.

But remember, You should head out of the city and get away from light pollution to obtain maximum quality of photos.

TIPS:

1.Batteries don't last as long in cold nights. Bring spare batteries and keep them inside your pockets against the warmth of your body.

2.Try lots of different exposure settings; night photography is challenging. Test your setup first.

3.Include a part of the landscape to make the photos more attractive and as a visual reference for size.

4.Do not use any filters, as they tend to distort the beauty of the Northern Lights and degrade the image.

5.Turn on "noise reduction" and the white balance can be set between 3200K to 5000K or set to auto on digital cameras.

TECHNIQUES

To increase your chance of a successful aurora hunt, you need to be aware of the weather.  If it is cloudy, your chances of seeing the aurora grow weaker.  If you have a clear sky you have a much better chance.

You also need to check the space weather for the northern lights forecast. Please not, even if the space weather forecast is weak, it may still be worth venturing out if you are up north in the areas that I previously mentioned… Iceland, Norway, Alaska, Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

So you are in an active zone and you have a clear sky and the space weather is a bit uncertain. You can increase your chances again by eliminating light pollution.

The moon can also work against you.  If you are planning a trip to an Aurora zone, try to book it as I do when there is a new moon.

Get your camera set up so that it is easy to handle. Using a flash light make sure your cable is connected, your lens is set just short of infinity and the camera is level to the ground. Then turn off the flash light and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

You can use the waiting time constructively.  You can practice with your bulb and find a good composition.  Set your camera to f/2.8 (or as wide as possible) iso 800 and take some test shots for 15 to 30 seconds.  Do this in all directions but mainly due north (Aurora Borealis).  You may start to see a green hue on your pictures near the horizon. This is a good sign and this is the part of the sky you need to watch.

As the aurora starts to get brighter you need to start adjusting your settings accordingly.  Start by bringing down your iso to get crisper images.

Important note… Always check the brightness of your image on the histogram and never rely on the camera preview screen.  Your eyes have adjusted to the dark so an underexposed image will look fine – until you get it home! Speaking from experience… the back lit LCD screen in the dark makes photos look brighter than they actually are.

If the whole sky explodes and the Aurora casts a shadow, you need to be quick to adjust your exposure times.  The best Aurora shots occur during these brief moments.  A faster shutter of 4 to 10 seconds will preserve some of the details of the display.

The added bonus… Sometimes you cannot avoid star trails if you don't trust high ISO and you lens stops at f/4, you might be exposing for 2 minutes with a weak aurora.  Generally it is preferred to expose for less than 30 seconds to prevent noticeable star trails.  Stars begin to move over 20 seconds… so if you want fixed stars you will have to increase ISO to keep exposure times under 20 seconds… but, sometimes star movement adds an element to the images you take.

Workshops and Tours to see the northern lights in Canada.

Trips to the Yukon neat Whitehorse

October 2015 -http://northof49photography.com/2015-aurura-workshop

March 2016 - http://northof49photography.com/photo-workshops/

August 2016 - http://northof49photography.com/photo-workshops

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Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com