Thursday, 5 September 2013

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Photo courtesy of Tessa McIntosh, my partner in Northern Canada

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 you are proud of 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.

How to Photograph the northern lights

A good sturdy tripod.
A remote trigger so you don't have to touch the camera.
The camera should be a 35mm SLR camera with manual focus (set to just shy of "infinity"), which works well for Northern Lights photography. Or an DSLR camera with the capability of  BULB mode so you can manually control exposure times.
Digital cameras will need to have to be manually adjustable focus with ISO ranges up to 1600

Beyond the basic photography equipment, you should bring the following gear for great results:
A wide-angle zoom lens, f2.8 (or lower numbers), will give great results photographing the Northern Lights.
If you have a prime lens (with fixed focal length) for your camera, bring it as well. If you notice the photo above, Tessa used a fisheye lens.

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.)

A sample exposure time for ISO 800 with an aperture of f/2.8 would be 20 to 30 seconds depending on the brightness of the lights.

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.

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

1.Batteries don't last as long in cold nights. Bring spare batteries.
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 to 5000K or set to auto on digital cameras.

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 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 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. 

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 8-20 seconds will preserve some of the details of the light display that separates the great photo from the average photo.

Star trails
The added bonus… Sometimes you cannot avoid star trails if you don't trust iso 800 and your lens stops at f/4. If this is the case, 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 1600 or 3200 and keep exposure times under 20 seconds… but, sometimes star movement adds an element to the images you take.

Please join me in 2014 as I travel to northern Canada two different times.

Yukon - April 2014 for northern lights and mountain landscapes

Northwest Territories - September 2014 for fall colors, landscapes and northern lights.