Photographing the Aurora Borealis: Tips on Capturing Nature’s Light Show

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in shades of green in Alaska by Andy Long
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

No pencil can draw it, no colors can paint it and no words can describe it in all its magnificence when it fills the sky with dancing colors. ‘Aurora’ was the Roman Goddess of Dawn and ‘Boreas’ is Greek for ‘wind’ making for the Dawn Wind, a wind that can be seen like no other on earth. Thus, the sight of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is something that bedazzles everyone who gets the opportunity to view it.

Check many a bucket list of things to do before one dies and viewing the northern lights is high on those lists, and for good reason. For someone who is a wildlife photographer, I can never get enough of seeing and photographing this amazing phenomenon.

When it comes to capturing images of this light show from the hot viewing spots, being prepared photographically for nature’s display can make the experience more than just a joyful memory stored away in your mind. It means you’ll also be able to store a multitude of great photos that can be revisited and shared for years to come.

After seven years of traveling to Alaska to photograph the northern lights, I have found that my style, technique and camera settings have evolved and been fine tuned in order to achieve the best results. Because of the constant movement of the lights, the colors and shapes will vary with shots taken anywhere from 8 seconds to 40 seconds– what you see with your eyes is not exactly what you will end up with in the final image.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in burgandy and green in Alaska by Andy Long
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis with trees silhousetted in the foregrond in Alaska by Andy Long
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

When Are the Best Displays?

One constant factor remains year after year–trying to predict when a good display is about to take place. Just when you think you have things figured out, it does something completely different, so plan on staying up most of the night to keep an eye on the sky.

In spring and fall the earth is farthest north or south of the sun’s equator. During this time the earth is more likely to intercept enhancements of the solar wind that emanate from the vicinity of sunspots. Early March is a good time for aurora activity–just prior to the spring equinox.

There are certain days of the year which are better than others, such as nights that are 27 days after a night of major auroral displays. This is because the sun rotates on a 27-day cycle and there is one area of the sun which is much more active with solar flares than others. Even when sunspots and flares are absent, the sun boils off enough particles from other parts of its surface to create continuous auroras over the earth’s polar regions.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in reds and greens with trees in foreground and stars in the sky Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

The best hours for viewing activity are near midnight–a time referred to as solar midnight. Solar midnight is dependent upon longitude, latitude, altitude, and the time of the year rather than on a time zone. Solar midnight is that time opposite of solar noon, when the sun is closest to its nadir and the night is equidistant from dusk and dawn. While this is a good way to judge when activity will occur, this is not always the case. I have experienced very good displays as early as 10:30 pm and as late at 3 am. So, when is the best time? From research and experience, the best time to keep an eye to the sky is between 10 pm and 2 am.

Once you have arrived at your chosen destination, there are certain signs for which to look and one such sign is called the auroral break up. It is the most spectacular part of an auroral display. Breakups involve a brightening of auroral forms and a rapid change from plain forms to rayed ones, followed by swirling across the sky. If you see multiple arc-like auroras or a ball getting brighter, keep a close eye on this area because sooner or later a breakup will almost certainly occur. If these multiple forms appear early in the evening, the breakup probably will be spectacular, and continued observation through the night may bring about several breakups. Breakups observed during the early evening hours most likely will begin near the eastern horizon and those which come about near midnight will be in the southernmost portion of the aurora. More than one breakup may occur in one night when the prediction is for a moderate to large aurora night display, but a moderate to small display is likely to have only one. Be ready for the action, because it could take a couple of minutes or it could come and go in less than a minute.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in greens with snow covered mountains and trees in foreground Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Getting Your Camera Ready

Everyone knows how important settings are on the camera for all types of photography– fast shutter speeds for wildlife on the move, maximum depth of field for a field of wildflowers, and underexposing just a little to get colors to pop. The same is true for aurora photography. In order to capture the best images, be camera ready.

First & Most Important:Since it is more difficult to find focus in the dark, set up your camera/lens combination and get an autofocus reading on an object at infinity while it is still light outside. Then set your lens to manual focus mode. (Note: Manually setting your lens to the infinity mark (the lazy eight) could result in out of focus images, since very few lenses are set perfectly by their manufactures.) Notice where the lens lines up in relation to the infinity mark and don’t move it (perhaps a bit of masking tape could help hold it in position). Be sure to check it now and again with a small flashlight during a night of shooting to make sure it has not moved. Nothing is more disappointing then to have good aurora activity and out of focus images. 

Second—Shoot in RAW mode: Even if not comfortable with RAW, use this in conjunction with jpeg as the data recorded in RAW is much more dependable. Tweaking levels and saturation will be much easier from a RAW file. If you’re comfortable with RAW, leave off the jpeg/dual option so that more images can be captured on the CF or SD card.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in greens with snow, hills and trees in foreground and stars in the sky Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Third—ISO: ISO is a critical control that needs to be set before any aurora shoot. It can be changed during shooting, but it’s best to get it done beforehand rather than trying to do this in the cold and dark. The minimum setting is 400, but using settings up to 1600 are possible given the camera body being used. The newer bodies that have high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction are best when going over 800 ISO. The higher the ISO the shorter the shutter speed will be, allowing your images to have more distinct shapes. If you have a longer exposure the movements will blend together. Think of a long exposure of moving water and how it smoothes out the water. This is what it does for the aurora as well.

Forth—Using Noise Reduction: When using noise reduction, it takes almost as long to write to the CF card as the exposure does. If the aurora activity is strong, keep right on shooting and don’t wait for it to write and review as several good shots could be missed, especially since most of the best displays only last for a few minutes. There are exceptions where I have seen displays go on for 10 or 15 minutes or longer, but most only last a few minutes before dying down and building energy for another show.

Fifth—LCD Display: Another setting that might seem minor but is important for digital photography is setting the LCD review brightness to low. Lots of people like having it bright so as to see the image easily, but a bright LCD for aurora shooting can be misleading as it can make captured images appear brighter than they actually are. When images are reviewed on the computer later, what you thought were bright images actually are not.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in burgandy and green with pine trees in the foreground in Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in green vertical swirls with pine trees in the foreground in Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Capturing the Images

For me, I have found that using Manual Mode and setting the aperture and shutter speed works best. I have read varying thoughts on these settings, but this is what I have found works best for me. First off, set the aperture to the lenses widest aperture, i.e. f/2.8 or f/3.5. The faster the wide-angle lens the better as this allows for faster shutter speeds and more light reaching the sensor. Depth of field is not of concern because when shooting at infinity all of the subjects in range of view are far away and will be in focus.

The shutter speeds will depend on the brightness of the aurora activity, the aperture of the lens and the ISO being used. A fast lens and a somewhat mild aurora should start at around 30 seconds and then change based on what is seen in the LCD viewer. The brighter and more active the display, the faster the shutter speed should be. Again, bumping up to 800 or 1000 ISO can decrease the starting point depending on how fast of a lens is being used.

Note: Long exposures result in concentric circles showing up in the center of the images when a filter of any kind is used. This is due to the high reflectivity of the aurora, even with just a UV filter, so leave these off.

Because you want as little camera motion as possible when doing very long exposures, make sure you use a tripod with a cable release or a two-second timer selection. Don’t be surprised when the cable release gets so cold that it becomes as hard as a stick. Use it as long as it works, which includes being able to use the image review button. Once it freezes for the night and causes problems, take it off and use the self-timer. Any pressure of pushing down on the shutter button could cause some shake and an out of focus image.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in bright green with snow covered hills in the foreground in Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Be sure to turn off the photo review function, so that every shot taken does appear. This is a battery drainer and the more that can be done to lengthen the battery life in the cold the better. Be sure to have at least two batteries when shooting in very cold temperatures as the cold will drain a battery much faster than normal use. Change the battery, put the cold one near your body and let it warm up. Having a hand warmer in a pocket is helpful for this.

Because you want to show a wide area in your image you should try to use wide-angle lenses to avoid star trails, something in the 17 to 35mm range. A good rule is to limit your exposures with a 35mm lens to 30 seconds. With a 50mm lens at 15 seconds star trails are beginning to show and you don’t have an awful lot of sky in your picture. A general rule is 600 divided by the focal length of the lens equals the time in seconds before star trails start to appear.

Lens Condensation

Bag it or not? Many believe that a Ziploc baggie is essential to northern lights photography. Yes, it can be quite cold outside and by putting the camera/lens combo in a large baggie before returning to the inside warmer temperature will help keep the condensation to a minimum. I myself have not done this and have not experienced any problems. If you forgot to put your lens cap back on, just go right back outside to rid the lens of fog. It takes very little time to defog the lens and you can then safely go back inside. If you are more comfortable enclosing your gear in a baggie, than just keep one in your camera bag. Also try to avoid breathing on the viewfinder while shooting as it will fog up and you won’t be able to see what’s in the field of view. As the action in the sky changes from one area to another, you need to be able to get an idea of what the overall scene is going to look like.

Photo of the Aurora Borealis in swirls of bright green with pine trees in the foreground in Alaska by Andy Long.
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Dress for Warmth

As for clothing, that’s an entirely different story. Layers and warmth are critical. Wool, heavy parkas, insulated boots and hand warmers are just a start. Look for an upcoming article on cold weather photography as winter 2011 approaches. It will revolve around clothing and other details of taking those shots during the winter months.

The best tip of all – ENJOY THE SHOW.

by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos: © 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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