How to Shoot The Aurora: Camera settings and more

This post is part of a series called See The Aurora
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How to shoot the aurora, what is aurora, aurora photography gear

Part 3: How to Shoot The Aurora.

This is part three of a four part series where I explain what is aurora, what gear you need to capture the aurora, how to shoot it, and how to edit your aurora photos.

Aurora season in the northern hemisphere is beginning! Traveling to see the northern (or southern) lights is a big draw to polar destinations like Alaska, Antarctica, Finland, Greenland and more! Want to take trip to see the northern lights? This guide will give you all the information you need!

Are you planning a trip to the high latitudes (or super low lats)? This guide series will give you all the tips, tricks and a step-by-step list of how to shoot the aurora on you’re very own.

Want to catch up on the first part of this ‘How to Shoot the Aurora‘ series? Check out ‘What is Aurora?‘. Not sure what gear you should be using? Read ‘Aurora Photography Gear‘ to find out the must-haves.

*This post contains affiliate links.

This is post you’ve probably been waiting for: How to Shoot the Aurora.

This guide will include suggestions of settings used to capture the aurora in different situations. Of course, your best bet at getting good aurora shots is trial & error. If you’ve shot the stars and have worked in low-light settings then you’re already at an advantage here. Remember that the first time you shoot the aurora your photos likely will not be perfect, so don’t get discouraged.

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This was the first night I actually went out and tried to shoot the aurora, and this was one of the most intense nights of northern lights I had ever seen! I had no clue what I was doing. I shot a 30 second exposure (which is wayyyyy too long) so you can see the startrails and I have little detail in the northern lights because the image was taken over such a long period. I had something stuck to my lens which explains the halo-y, target you see at the center of the image if you look real close. But hey, you have to start somewhere!

Step 1: Check the aurora forecast.

While it’s not always perfectly accurate (sometime far from it), it’s always a good idea to check the forecast. I use the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s aurora forecast. Aside from quite literally freezing their nads off half the year, this group of individuals with great brains study the Earth’s Geophysical processes, which includes the aurora. They predict the aurora for the entire planet, not just Alaska- that means you too Antarctica and New Zealand. Other websites to check out are Aurora Service, and NOAA.

Step 2: Find Clear, Dark Skies.

As you near the poles there is large fluctuations in daylight from summer to winter. Summer months are out of the question, as there is not enough darkness to be able to see the northern or southern lights. Another key is to get as far from city light (light pollution) as possible. You want dark as dark can be!

You’re wasting your time if it’s a cloudy night, you will not see the aurora under thick cloud cover. If you have partially cloudy skies you can get some neat effects, but a clear sky is best.

Step 3: Put your lens in manual focus (MF).

You cannot, I repeat, cannot shoot at night in autofocus (AF). Why? Because it’s dark and your camera will likely be unable to focus on anything.

Step 4: Get your lens focused.

Before you get discouraged, remember that experimentation and practice are going to give you the best results. Most lenses have an ∞ setting, set your lens at this setting and take a test shot. Most lenses will need to be adjusted just slightly off from the ∞ setting to be perfectly sharp, so this is where trial and error come in. Once you’ve got it in the perfect spot, mark it with tape. You can also switch your camera to ‘live view mode’, and zoom fully in on something far away, say a star, or the moon and adjust your focus ring until the object is crystal clear.

Step 5: Set your image format to RAW.

Shooting in RAW will yield you the best results and will open you up to more capabilities in editing later on.

Step 6: Place camera on tripod.

Because, duh! You need something sturdy to hold your camera perfectly motionless for the duration of the shot or else you’ll get blurry images. Remove anything that may create any movement like camera straps. For this reason I recommend a wireless remote. Read more about aurora photography gear. If you use a remote with a cord to take your images, I suggest using peel and stick velcro to secure it to your tripod to limit movement. If you do not have a remote, set the 10 second timer in your cameras settings to reduce shake in photos.

Optional Step: Set your white balance.

If you are are shooting in RAW this can easily be tweaked during editing. However depending on the light situation I will adjust my white balance. I typically leave my white balance in AWB (auto white balance). There are certain situation where the surroundings and light pollution make the sky look a dark orange-red. In this case I will shoot my photos in tungsten setting. This is another step you’ll have to play around with to yield a desired result.

Step 7: Set exposure, f/stop, and ISO.

This is where it gets technical and can vary from one situation to the next. I will say this now: when I’m going out to shoot the aurora I normally will set my camera to a 15 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600 and just see what comes up. From there I adjust constantly depending on the surrounding light, and just how active the aurora is. I usually shoot in very dark surroundings so I pretty much 100% of the time shoot at my widest aperture for my lens (f/2.8). If the aurora is faint and not very active (moving slowly) I will opt to shoot a longer exposure, sometimes up to 30 seconds. Nights when the aurora is intense and dancing rapidly I usually opt for a shorter export time, sometimes as short as 2 seconds to capture the details in the northern lights. In cases where my exposure time is longer I will normally opt for a lower ISO between 800 and 1200. When my exposures are short I will up the ISO to compensate for the length of time light is allowed in by upping my ISO as high was 3200. Remember that as your ISO goes up, so does the noise or graininess of the photo. Always drop your aperture to the widest possible f/stop before upping the ISO to let light in!

Another variable is light pollution. If I’m shooting the aurora on say, a full moon night, I will usually lower my exposure time and ISO as fit since I will have the moon putting more light into my image. I will typically do the same when shooting a photo where I do have light pollution from a city nearby,

Remember that the settings you use will come down to taste and trial and error. I’m not super methodical in my approach to night photography, I try to assess the situation and think about my desired effect for the photo. I know some of you are more mathematical in your approach, so here’s a chart to give you some ideas:

Aurora chart, ISO exposure aperture aurora chart, how to shoot the aurora, shoot the aurora

 

Here are some photo examples of different settings:

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This is one of my favorite shots I’ve taken of the northern lights. This image was taken at 5 seconds, f/2.8 and ISO 1600.

 

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This was an 8 second exposure, at f/2.8 with my ISO at 1600. The aurora wasn’t super active but was vibrant, paired with the fact that I wanted to light up the foreground in order to get us in the shot is why I went with an 8 second exposure and the ISO as high as it was to capture this image.

 

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The northern lights were super faint on the horizon this night. This image was shot at 30 seconds and ISO 800. I took this on my old crop sensor camera on a lens that had a maximum aperture of 3.5. Notice the blur of my hands in this image- it’s difficult to be still for 30 seconds, and yes, my arms were tired.

 

shoot the aurora, how to shoot the aurora
This photo was taken on a full moon back in January. I opted to take this image at 5 seconds, f/2.8 and ISO 800. I was able to get away with a short exposure and low ISO because of how much the moon lit up my foreground and produced way more light than a typical surrounding.

 

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Let’s please ignore how crooked the horizon is on this one, I love the way the northern lights look in this photo! Lesson here: Always make sure you’re level. This photo was taken in an interesting spot because of the city lights below. The aurora was dancing fairly quick that morning. For this image I went with 6 seconds and ISO 800. This image was shot on my old crop sensor with a Canon 10-22mm lens with a maximum aperture of 3.5. I shot my ISO low to compensate for the light pollution below, but opted for a slightly longer exposure to still capture the light of the aurora and short enough to still capture the detail.

Step 8: Now play around with it!

The only way to shoot the aurora and take amazing shots is to practice! It takes a bit of trial and error to know what settings to use and when to use them. Patience and practice are key.

Want more tips on how to shoot the aurora?

Check out my other posts in the ‘See the Aurora” series:

What is Aurora?

Aurora Photography Gear.

How to Edit Aurora photos.

 

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