How to photograph the Aurora Borealis :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph the Aurora Borealis

by David Peterson 1 comment

This year is looking to be a rather magnetically active year for this little planet. All kinds of solar storms are headed are way, but don’t you worry. They won’t do any damage to civilization or life as we know it. They will, however, make for some rather amazing photo ops. When a really big solar storm comes in, it moves the aurora borealis 'northern lights' further south (or north if you’re from down under) than usual. So if you’re anywhere near it, get out your camera. Here’s how you can capture some of the action!

What is the Aurora Borealis / Aurora Australis?

Whenever a solar storm happens, it sends a bunch of charged particles towards the Earth. Our planet is amazingly well equipped to handle all of these particles. There is a veritable shield up in our thermosphere. When the charged particles interact with the atoms in the thermosphere, it releases energy and puts on a brilliant show. That’s why they’re called the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

Why does it only happen in the far northern and southern reaches of our planet? The answer has to do with the way the Earth’s magnetic field works. It draws these charged particles towards the poles, and that’s where the interaction is the strongest. However, if you get a lot of particles coming at the Earth, the overall reach of the aurora expands because there’s simply more of it going on.

Long story short, it’s really pretty and you should photograph it.

Is there an ideal time to photograph the aurora?

Yes there is. The discrete green waves tend to come out closer to the equinox in any given year. It’s hard to predict them perfectly, but there are plenty of online resources you can use to find them. One of my favorites is SpaceWeather. They also have a neat map of where the aurora is likely to be called the current auroral oval. The auroral oval is simply the oval shaped area over the northern or southern hemisphere where you’re most likely to see the aurora at night. It’s graded on a scale of intensity, and it shifts around as the different solar storms come and go. You’ll notice that the aurora is ring-shaped. It’s not always present in some parts of the world, so make sure you check it out before you book your flight to Norway.

Use the Aurora to frame other subjects in your photos.

Beware the freezing cold temperatures

The only time to photograph the aurora is at night. Naturally, you’re going to be very far north or south, and that carries a strong likelihood of chilly temperatures (sometimes as low as negative 40 fahrenheit!). It helps to consider the following as you’re leaving your warm comfortable cabin:

  • Bring backup batteries. The super cold temps will drain your batteries faster than you think. I always keep a spare battery in my breast pocket because it tends to catch a lot of my body heat. Warm batteries last longer.
  • Bring double-layered gloves. I personally prefer a nice warm mitt with some liners that have the fingertips cut off. When you need to manipulate some settings on your camera, you can just take your gloves off and your liners will keep your fingers warm.

And see my other article on photographing in the cold for more tips.

How to setup for the shot

The best way to approach Aurora photography is to think of it like it’s a slight modification of nighttime urban photography. The only difference is the subject matter. In the city, you’re photographing the bright neon lights and cars driving down the boulevards. Now you’re out in the middle of nowhere and the light you’re capturing is coming from a more natural phenomenon.

Night photography means long exposures, and that means you’re going to need a tripod. A good tripod will keep the camera still while the light from the Aurora collects on your sensor. If your camera shakes during your fifteen second exposure (the average exposure time for one of these shots), it will make everything blurry. You want crisp and defined lines. A tripod will help you achieve that.

So far as your aperture setting is concerned, it really depends on how much ambient light there is around you. If there’s enough light to illuminate your view far into the distance, choose a smaller aperture like F11. Otherwise, go with F8 to F9. It should be enough to capture the detail you’re looking for.

As with any shoot, you’re going to want to fire off a few test shots first. The Aurora has different levels of brightness at different times of the night and different times of the year. You can’t bet on any one shutter speed capturing the light and colors you need to make your Aurora photo truly pop. Start off with a shutter speed of 15 seconds. If the Aurora isn’t bright enough, go longer. If it’s too bright, try a shorter shutter speed.

I fire off a few photos at different shutter speeds so I can look at them when I get home. Then you can just delete the ones you don’t like.

Try to find unique locations

This is definitely the kind of thing you’re going to want to shoot while you’re out in the countryside. It just doesn’t work otherwise. Also, because the Aurora is so bright, you can usually illuminate the surrounding landscape with it. I would suggest finding a geographically interesting place and using the Aurora to frame a nighttime landscape photo of the place. It makes your Aurora photo much more multidimensional.

Tink of this as landscape photography with a special twist.

Long story short, photographing the Aurora is a wonderful excuse to take a spring or fall vacation to some beautiful remote location. And we’re in for a pretty awesome year to do it. So go on, get out there and book that trip before it’s too late.

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  1. Roelof van Heerden says:

    Hi there
    It was with great interest that I read the article on Auroras.
    I was part of the National Antarctic expedition to Antarctica in 1967. I organised beforehand bulk Ectachrome film and quite a few developing kits. I also experimented with over-rating the ASA speed up to 1200 on Hi-speed Ectachrome and that put me in the position to take wonderful Aurora picks. Some of my slides were shown for quite a long time in the Planetarium in Johannesburg because I was the first person to take colour slides of Auroras ins South Africa and even in most other countries. I wish I can be there now with my Canon 7D and Zeiss Distagon 1.4 lens.
    I thought you might find my comment interesting.
    Roelof van Heerden

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.