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How to Photograph the Northern Lights

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How to Photograph the Northern Lights
How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Northern Lights

©BilliIdle via Flickr
The Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular sights on Earth. Waves of color wash across the sky in swirling patterns. Capturing these lights with your camera isn't as simple as clicking the shutter button though. Unlike nighttime objects such as the moon which are actually very bright and easy to capture with a fairly fast shutter speed, the aurora borealis is actually dim and requires more planning to capture. It is similar to basic night photography but not quite the same.

Equipment Needed to Photograph the Aurora

  1. Tripod
  2. Camera capable of manual shutter control
  3. Lens with wide field of view (35mm or less is better)
  4. Remote release (helpful but not essential)

Remember the Weather

The aurora is usually only visible in the northern latitudes. However, solar storms and coronal mass ejections during active sun cycles increase the magnetic activity and sometimes push the aurora further south so that it is temporarily visible in places like the middle U.S. and southern U.K. Because the aurora is usually only visible in higher latitudes you need to be prepared for extreme cold when starting out to photograph the northern lights. The cold will not only affect you, but also drain your camera battery more quickly. It is also possible for the temperature to get cold enough to freeze the camera's inner workings. For safety, don't shoot in weather significantly colder than you are used to dealing with on a regular basis. (Cold Weather Photo Tips)

Location

A wide open area is best for photographing the aurora. You'll need to see as wide an expanse of sky as possible to have the best chance of capturing a good northern lights picture. Select an area without a lot of ground based lighting. Because of the shutter speeds you'll be using, any ground based lighting will not only partially wash out the sky, it can overexpose the foreground of the image. Remember to also pick a place where you have a safe and secure location to set up your tripod and camera.

Settings

The aurora is actually much fainter than it appears to your eye. It is constantly in motion and pulses of light overlay each other but your camera will not recognize this cumulative effect without a slow shutter speed. Exact settings will vary based on the strength of the aurora on the night you are shooting, the color of the aurora, and surrounding light pollution. A good place to start is with an ISO of 200, aperture setting of 2.8, and shutter speed of 15 seconds. It is VITALLY important you check the results after a couple of shots at these settings because of the variables involved. The conditions you are shooting under could easily require shutter speeds up to 50 seconds...especially if your lens has a smaller maximum aperture opening (example F4.5). Gradually decrease your shutter speed until you obtain an aurora exposure you are happy with.

General Aurora Photography Tips

  • Ditch the filters
    Besides the light loss, certain filters can virtually erase the aurora from your photograph.
  • Extra batteries
    The cold will drain the camera battery quickly and long exposure times will quickly deplete a battery as well. Bring extra batteries with you.
  • Remote release
    A remote release is not vital but it will greatly increase you chances of getting a crisp aurora photo as you will not shake the camera when tripping the shutter.
  • Flashlight
    As with any night photography, a flashlight will make it much easier when you are adjusting settings and setting up your tripod.

Aurora Forecast from NOAA

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