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.
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:
Here are some photo examples of different settings:
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:
How to Edit Aurora photos.