Standing under crisp, dark skies as the magical aurora colors the heavens and lights up the landscape all around you is something everyone should experience. In all of my travels around the world as a geologist and photographer, I’ve never seen anything as spectacularly beautiful as the Northern Lights. Aurorae can be tricky to photograph, so here is some info, tips and tricks on how to successfully capture it.
What Causes Aurora Borealis?
During intense periods of solar activity, the sun shoots off “solar flares” and when these electrons enter Earth’s upper atmosphere they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms. These gases become excited by the excess radiation but eventually return to their normal state by giving off energy in the form of visible light – greens, blues, purples, and even reds. Typical altitudes range from 100 to more than 400 km (60 to 250+ miles).
Where and When Should I Shoot Aurorae?
The most reliably accessible locations in North America are Alaska, northern tier states such as Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine, or Canada. Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland are also great aurora borealis destinations. The southern hemisphere’s Tasmania in Australia can display excellent aurora australis visibility, as can Antarctica and southern New Zealand. Auroral activity varies with the sun’s day-to day-activity, as well as its longer periodic cycles.
Although aurorae are visible nightly in places like Alaska and Iceland, they can move down to the south in places closer to the equator. I saw them in Tahoe (northern-central California) in 2001 and auroral displays were visible above Singapore during an unusually intense period of activity in 1909. The winter season in either hemisphere provides longer portions of darkness each day and is the preferred time of year to photograph aurorae. In locations above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t even come up at all. Shoulder seasons, such as spring and fall, can have balanced day/night hours and this offers the benefit of being able to shoot dawn and dusk landscapes as well as aurorae at night.
Stay near a place that offers good landscapes to shoot when the lights arrive. For example, Alaska has lots of great small towns with remote lodges perfect for auroral viewing and photography, although in extremely remote northern Alaska the towns have very bright streetlights to combat the 24 hour darkness. This makes it impossible to photograph the aurora unless you can find a tour to get away from the city by snowmobile or dogsled.
Necessary Photographic Gear for Aurorae
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, you’ll need to get your gear together. Here are a few items that are must-haves:
● A DSLR with manual exposure controls
● Sturdy tripod
● Cable release
● Wide angle lens with manual focus
● Warm clothes and shelter options
Gear for Aurora Photography: Lenses
A fast (f/2.8 or higher) lens is incredibly helpful to get the lights to “pop” out of dark skies. An ultra-wide angle lens, such as the Canon 14mm f/2.8L II, is a great choice for wide compositions that include the landscape under your aurora. If you are unsure which landscape features you might encounter (in terms of whether they will be far or near to you), a more versatile mid-range zoom such as the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II is an excellent selection. Regardless, make sure the lens is of high quality and sharp from corner-to-corner at wide apertures. You can check your lens options on DxOMark or see our hand-picked recommendations.
Gear for Aurora Photography: Tripods
One of the best improvements to any photographer’s kit is replacing a store-bought video lens-style tripod with one that has a ball head, which can make quick leveling and composition adjustments to landscape images and smoothly reorient the camera from landscape to portrait orientation. This makes a huge difference in all your photography. When choosing a tripod, look for something with a high load capacity relative to its overall weight because you’re going to have to carry this stuff around with you.
Gear for Aurora Photography: Non-Photo Gear Essentials
Non-photographic items, such as fingerless gloves, a thermos of hot tea, extra polypropylene socks, a windbreaker, insulated boots, and a comfortable chair all go a long way to decrease discomfort in the cold. Bring a package of chemical hand warmers. Not only do these keep your extremities warm, they can also be rubber-banded to the bottom of a lens on a camera you plan to leave running while you shelter inside. This prevents condensation frost forming on the front elements of your lens.
Basic Aurora Camera Settings
The intensity of aurorae vary. The lights can be bright enough to read a book by on a moonless night one minute and then extremely faint the next. Trial and error is your best bet to figure out the appropriate camera settings.
The amount of ambient light (moonlight) on the landscape will impact your base-ISO settings. Before your start seeing the lights, take some test shots using your camera’s light meter (or preferably Live View with exposure simulation) to measure what your frames look like. Start with a relatively high ISO of 800 or 1600. You can pre-plan your settings but trial and error will be a much better way to find what works based on the moon’s position and phase. Start with a wide (fast) aperture of f/2.8 or f/4. If the lights are really bright, you will need to stop down. Try to balance between apertures wide enough to make your aurora bright but narrow enough to bring deep depth-of-field (focus from far to near) into your exposures. Start shooting exposures of 15 seconds.
Aurorae move both quickly and slowly and can be wispy and light, or intense and ribbon-like. They may cover the entire sky, or appear low to the horizon. Longer exposures cause fast-moving aurorae to blur and can dampen the beauty of the thin tendrils of light that appear to curl around trees and mountains. If they are moving fast, try cranking up the ISO and shooting short exposures of a few seconds. Overexposing also results in loss of color and your aurora will turn white. Be prepared to make adjustments on the fly!
Multiple Exposure Blending / Focus Stacking
To avoid the challenge of finding the perfect exposure for both your aurora and the foreground, shoot them separately and combine later. Secure your tripod so it can’t move at all, even if left over a period of several hours. Shoot your landscape frame(s) first, with a longer exposure and a lower ISO. Keep the aperture the same so that depth of field does not change – this makes blending easier. You can focus differentially through your composition, then take these multiple frames and combine them together for bottom-to-top crispness. Once you start seeing the lights come out, shoot them with the appropriate exposure for just the auroral/sky part of your frame. You can combine these with the landscape frame(s) later in Photoshop. Learn more about exposure blending in Photoshop here.
If you are in a remote location where theft is not a concern (i.e. remote camping), consider leaving your camera out and shooting a time-lapse, which requires the use of a programmable intervalometer (whether through a separate intervalometer cable remote or in-camera) to control the camera and shoot a series of several hundred exposures over many hours. You not only have a time-lapse movie for later but you also have a continuous record of the night’s aurora as you are sleeping comfortably nearby. You can pick and choose the best frames and discard the rest.
Aurora Composition Techniques
While the aurora is always beautiful by itself, you can create stronger images if you frame your aurora above a strong landscape.
Here are a few ideas:
● Reflections on the sea
● Curves of banded aurorae over a tree stacked with snow
● The aurora appearing to “launch” out of the landscape, such emanating from the top of a mountain
● Panoramas of an arched aurora across a sweeping landscape
● An aurora over iced rivers or lakes
● An aurora above a highway or road
Try not to arrive at night to a new landscape. Take the opportunity to shoot in the lovely, soft and lengthy arctic (or antarctic) twilight to practice shooting some of the landscapes you’re planning to photograph later under the lights.
Aurora Forecasts – When to Go Out (And What To Expect)
Booking a trip to photograph an irregular natural phenomenon is a gamble. Winter months with long, dark nights in locations that typically see frequent auroral displays are a good time to target for your journey. How can you know what to expect in advance? Head out to check for the aurora during dusk hours. If you can see a hint of the lights at the horizon in twilight this can mean they are coming. The lights often start out at the northern horizon and will move down to the south over you (if you are in places such as Fairbanks or Iceland). If you are further to the north, such as Barrow, Alaska, the lights can appear in the sky to the south of you. If there aren’t any lights, don’t fret – set your alarm to go off every few hours and look outside. In some hotels, I’ve left a camera set up against a window looking north, hopped out of bed and fired off a frame to see if there are any visible lights.
Aurora Forecast Tools
My first stop is the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, which has a fantastic Aurora Forecast site. For the short-term, NASA also offers both a 30-minute aurora forecast and an experimental 3-day forecast, both of which show the probability of visible aurorae above the polar regions. Auroral intensity is measured in values of “kP,” which is the “planetary k index” as forecast by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, and ranges from 0 to 9. Higher values typically mean a higher chance of seeing the aurora in any given location during a specific time period but does not guarantee visible aurorae. If you see predictions of kP >4, there’s a good chance you will see aurorae.
Experience has taught me there is no certainty. Some of my best photographs have been made on nights with kP less than 4 and I’ve seen plenty of plain, dark skies on nights with a kP of 7. Fairbanks photographer Ronn Murray operates a site that provides a real-time aurora cam (a long exposure, wide angle night photo every 20 minutes during winter). There are also several apps that can trigger an alarm on your phone if the lights reach a certain intensity at your current location.
Aurora hunting can be a grand adventure. With some planning and fortitude, the northern lights will dance over your head and you will return home with a set of stunning images of the one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena.
Special Note About UV Filters and Rentals
BlueHillco ships most lenses with a UV filter mainly for front lens element protection. Using a UV filter while shooting aurorae may produce circular distortions in the center of your frame. Examples are below. It is recommended that you remove the UV filter from the lens prior to shooting in this situation.