Aurora Borealis, Milky Way and Cosmos 405

How to Photograph The Aurora

The Aurora a. k. a. polar light, a primordial stunning natural phenomenon, predominantly occurs close to the magnetic poles; depending on the hemisphere they are also referred to as northern lights or aurora borealis and southern lights or aurora australis. The illumination is created by particles emitted by the sun (stellar wind) reacting with the Earth’s atmosphere.

Aurora australis (11 September 2005) as captured by NASA's IMAGE satellite (Wikipedia)
Aurora australis (11 September 2005) as captured by NASA’s IMAGE satellite (Wikipedia)

Polar lights look and behave somewhat similar to clouds. Some hang there for several hours with very little change. But other occurrences only last for one or two minutes and rapidly change its shape during that short period like clouds in strong wind. They also vary in intensity and color. The intensity ranges from barely visible to the naked eye to easily viewable with distractions like light pollution or moonshine; we got to see it from the hotel room several times. Depending on the altitude of the reaction the aurora will appear most commonly red and green but more colors are possible.

Selecting and Preparing The Equipment

"Christmas Ambassador" - 30s at f/4, ISO 2000
“Christmas Ambassador” – 30s at f/4, ISO 2000

First of all: the good news is it does not take expensive photography gear to capture an aurora. You will be able to take very reasonable photos with a point-and-shoot camera. Not with you smartphone though because it will be blurry for sure. Anyway I focus on photography equipment and further on DSLR paraphernalia although also applicable for smaller cameras. If you want a more extensive list including thoughts on apparel please read up on aurora-service.eu. Many of the following is probably obvious to the experienced night photographer:

  • A tripod that will easily carry the weight of your camera plus lens and which is solid (or heavy) enough to bear up against wind.
  • A remote shutter control (many different options here from infrared, cable, third party smart phone apps…) or 10s self-timer for your camera to be close to a complete rest at the time the shutter opens.
  • A lens (or camera) with high aperture, f/4 or higher.
  • Bring a wide angle lens or even a fish eye. Polar lights span across a third or even half the firmament.
  • Switch off the image stabilizer! Using an image stabilizer on a tripod is counterproductive and potentially blurs your image! Plenty of other articles on this one, e.g. photonaturalist.net and antonionunes.com, also see example below.
  • Your auto-focus will not work in the darkness. I found the best approach to manually focus in the almost pitch black night to make a few test photos with different infinity focus positions to find the optimal one. Besides many other parameters,  the infinity focus also depends on temperature so you might want to check on its accuracy after a while out in the freezing cold.
  • Always shoot in full manual mode; I got my best results with 30s at f/4, ISO 2000 and 30s at f/5, ISO 1600 with the moon illuminating the snow.
  • Also, make sure your lens is cleaned and remove any filter you might have attached; a decent protection filter that will not cause any reflections is probably ok.
IS fail: star trails with enabled image stabilizer on a tripod
IS fail: star trails with enabled image stabilizer on a tripod

Picking a Scene

I assume you generally know where an aurora can be observed (otherwise aurora-service.eu again is a good start). This is more about composition and fine-tuning for creating a stunning photo.

Colors of an Aurora
Colors of an Aurora

Ideally you have a good guess where the aurora will occur; i.e. about the orientation of the magnetic pole from your position and the intensity of solar activity (determines how far south on the firmament the aurora will go). Also, consider the moon! It is a great source of light for illuminating any landscape you would like to use in the foreground of your photo. For that scenario you want the moon behind your back but generally you won’t have much trouble here. If you don’t see it, read about the ecliptic, find out that the moon figuratively follows the sun, and then think about it ;).

I didn’t make any efforts here (unfortunately). I would recommend to pick a nice spot during daylight or do some research with google earth or any other map app. Maybe you can find a lake for some reflections, some haunting trees or uniquely shaped rocks or stones.

Landscape is too dark, low moon, 30s at f/4, ISO 1250
Landscape is too dark, low moon, 30s at f/4, ISO 1250

If you are on the northern hemisphere you would generally place yourself south of the foreground. The aurora potentially spans from west to east across the northern sky. Give yourself a little flexibility that you easily can adjust the direction and still have an eye-catching foreground. This is a great example by twanight.org photographer Stephane Vetter.