On my recent trip to Boston I needed to make an extra leg through Munich. Initially nothing to be happy about, but it turned out that the flight took an unusual route way north of the general course. It took us above Iceland and Greenland, a course generally only followed by flights to the US west coast.
Pretty exciting for everyone having a window seat on the righthand (northern) side of the plane including me. Instead of a several hour lasting sunset we were accompanied by the spectacular aurora borealis for about four hours. Inflight entertainment deluxe.
The photo quality isn’t quite what I wanted it to be. I needed to shoot with high ISO since I had only one hand available; with the other one I held a blanket to diminish the cabin light and thus the reflections in the airplane window.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
AEC currently hosts an exhibition of night photos taken by photographers all over the world. All photographers are a member of TWAN, an organization built around the passion for the night sky and photography. Visit their website and of course take the chance and visit the exhibition–here’s a preview: flickr.
I share their idea of shooting the night sky but hadn’t too much opportunity so far; above is one of few photos I took (Wahweap/Page, AZ).
Earlier this evening I returned to the Blue Danube Airport Linz, to try some more time exposures. This time all corn was harvested, so I had a unrestricted view on the runway. My conclusion after taking a couple of photos: tiny aircraft are quite unstable; at least more than they seem to be. Have a look and form your own opinion!
Tonight I tried to take another time exposure. I took a great photo of the fair that currently happens in Linz, using the Danube for reflections. It worked out pretty good! The Ferris Wheel is the smaller circle to the very left.
Recently, I tried to take a time exposure photo of a departing aircraft. The closest airport, Blue Danube Airport Linz, offers a perfect spot for taking such a picture. Currently, there is too much corn around to take this picture. I switched to another spot this time and will try again in several weeks.
I just took this amazing photo of an ISS and STS-127 pass (the space shuttle is docked); 362 seconds exposure. The pale line above the shuttle track is an airplane. Unfortunately it was a little bit cloudy. In the top right corner you can recognize parts of Ursa Major.
After such a lazy day it was not too easy to pull myself together and get out for some night shooting. But it definitely paid off! Montreal at tight offers a wonderful scenery. Since I didn’t have a tripod, the photos are not much of mind-blowing.