With the advent of winter, are you planning to take that trip up north and catch the stunning light show up in the sky? Well yes, I am talking about Aurora Borealis or the northern lights (as it is known) in the northern hemisphere. Well, If you live down south on our planet, then it would be Aurora Australis or southern lights for you.
But, whichever poles you may be close to, sight of these dancing lights rising from the dark is a real treat to the eyes. If you are planning to take pictures of the northern lights this winter or it’s on your wishlist for sometime future, then stay with me. I will talk about preparation (planning), gear and the best camera settings for northern lights.
Aurora or polar lights are caused by Solar flares coming to us from the Sun. When the Solar winds enter the Earth’s magnetic field followed by our atmosphere, charged particles interact in a certain way and result in a mesmerizing color show. They can be red, green, pink or even blue at times. It’s a continuous phenomenon happening throughout the year, but the lights are visible only when the sky is dark. Which means winter for polar regions.
You have to be at the right place, to begin with. Travel up north as close as you can get to the poles. Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Russia and Canada get most of the show. Northern lights are visible best when there are no competing elements in the sky.
Pick up the darkest night with clear skies. Various resources are available to track dark skies and aurora activity (North America and Northern Europe). The unit that is used to measure aurora activity is called kp index. It varies from a scale of 0 (lowest) to 9 (highest). Anything above 2 should be good to photograph.
Warm clothing is a no-brainer. You are closer to poles, that too in winter. Wear layers and carry plastic bags for the camera (to avoid condensation). Carry a flashlight. As you know what creeps out of polar grounds during winter nights, right? (kidding :))
Talk about Gear
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera will do. Though, full frame (35 mm sensor format) camera will give better results due to their superior low light performance.
You will need a wide angle lens. A wide zoom (10 – 20 mm range) or a dedicated prime such as Samyang 14mm.
A sturdy tripod will go a long way to get that desired shot as we will be taking long exposures (low shutter speed). A cable release is optional, you can always use the timer mode, instead. Keep your camera stabilization OFF while on a tripod. And, just make sure to keep your hands off the camera when it is taking the photo.
Settings to start with
Switch to manual mode on your camera. Automatic or semi-automatic modes don’t go well in low light situations. As the metering modes will push the camera settings to overexpose in the dark.
1. Focal length
Zoom out to the lowest focal length of your lens. The northern lights normally show up across a wide area in the sky. To capture the entire play we require a wide angle view. If you are using the kit lens, just use the lowest number of your focal range (18 mm in most cases).
Use the widest aperture (or lowest f-number) on your lens. A wide aperture will allow more light to enter the camera and will help to keep the ISO and shutter speed within an acceptable range.
3. Shutter speed
Shutter speed depends on the level of aurora activity and the speed at which it is moving. For quick moving auroras, start with a shutter speed of 8 to 10 seconds. If it’s not moving that fast, set it in between 20 and 25 seconds. Adjust to find the sweet spot.
But, don’t let the shutter speed go beyond (500/focal length), or else, you’ll get star trails in your photograph. This comes from the 500 rule which is used to avoid star trails. Let’s say, you are using 18 mm. Then your maximum shutter speed should not exceed (500/18 = 27.8). In this case, it would be safe to remain within 27 seconds exposure.
ISO 800 is a good place to start. Most modern cameras are capable to handle it without introducing much noise (or grain). Tweak as needed.
Learn more about exposure aperture, shutter speed and ISO at digital photography basics
Autofocusing is not going to work as you will be shooting into the dark. Switch to manual focusing and turn that focus ring all the way till it shows infinity (∞ ) on the focus marker.
Another way of getting the focus spot on is by pre-focusing (auto or manual) on a distant object during the day (when there is light available). It is much more convenient to look far when there is light than at night. Use live view mode to get it right. Once you have that far-off object in focus, mark that point on your focus ring against the focus marker. That should give you the infinity focus point. Stay away from touching the focus ring anymore while you are out shooting at night.
6. White balance
Don’t use auto white balance or any of the presets. For better results, manually set the Kelvin. Start somewhere between 2500 – 4000 and go from there.
Few more points to assist you on your adventure. Shoot RAW (image quality) if you can. This will help you to play around with the exposure or white balance in post. You can engage the mirror lock-up function as well while making the exposure. It will further reduce camera shake.
The human eye is not capable enough of seeing colors accurately in the dark. We see colors in shades of gray if there’s not much light. But, our camera sensor is able to see colors in the dark, good for us. So if you see that gray cloud-like structure and not sure if that’s the aurora or not, just point your camera and shoot to check. You might discover it.
Plan to stay late as the real show often begins after midnight.
Capturing the dancing lights, in itself is rewarding. But, if you add a foreground element into the frame, it will make the photograph even more compelling. Experiment with bracketing shots and get that foreground properly exposed. Then blend them using Photoshop. Possibilities are endless. Just keep yourself warm.
Pack your bags
I am sure, with these tips in your toolbox, you will be better equipped on the field to photograph the Northern lights. You can always make it better once you are out there. Please share your tips and experiences to shoot the Aurora. I am eager to hear from you. Leave your thoughts and comments below.