Chasing the Northern Lights:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
With your feet on the ground, it is best to scout locations in the daylight because you want to find a spot that once the sun goes down will be dark and free from urban areas and light pollution. Since you do not one your first visit in an unknown location to be in complete darkness, go out during the day and find your scenic locations ahead of time. You will want a few options in very different areas so you can quickly adjust on the fly based on the weather conditions.
Once in a dark location with clear skies above you, you basically have to wait for the activity to occur. Since you may be outside for a few hours, make sure you are comfortable with plenty of layers (wool and polypropylene), insulated boots to protect those feet, head lamp, thermos filled with a warm drink, hand and feet warmers, a few snacks, and a good bag to protect your camera gear.
Now that you are comfortable and cozy to spend a few hours under the stars, ensure the camera settings are ready for the show. A digital single reflex camera (DSLR) or mirrorless camera will work the best in the majority of situations. With the camera, you need to ensure you have a fast wide angle lens to accompany your camera body. The wide angle allows you to showcase the foreground and lots of the sky in your images showing a sense of scale and place. Additionally, a fast lens (low f number, such as f/2.8) allows more light to reach your camera’s sensor exposing the dark environment to in a sense, come to light in your image.
Below are some tips to help you be prepared to capture the best image when the lights start dancing in the sky.
Tripod & Shutter Release Cable
The environment is dark, the shutter speed will be long, you will be cold and more than likely have some shivers; therefore, the camera needs to remain stable and unshakeable. It is mandatory to have your camera on a tripod. For the best chances of a crisp image and avoiding camera shake, using a shutter release cable is recommended.
Full Manual Mode
Since there is such contrast between the dark skies and bright light activity, you need to be able to manually choose the settings on your camera. This means manually controlling your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture on your camera.
Use the widest aperture that your camera lens permits – the one with the lowest F number, usually f/1.8, f/2.8 or f/3.5.
The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive your camera is to light. So higher ISO settings are used in darker locations. The tradeoff of a high ISO is that the images will become noisier (grainy looking) as the ISO climbs higher. The most common ISO settings for aurora photography range between 400 – 1600.
A good starting point for exposure time is somewhere between 5 and 20 seconds. If the image is still too dark, do not adjust the shutter speed beyond 30 seconds. If you do go beyond 30 seconds, the stars will begin to appear as trails. To avoid this issue, bump up your ISO a little further.
Autofocus at night in low light conditions is not your friend. To overcome this issue, manually focusing your camera is the way to go. For this, you want to determine your composition with your camera on your tripod and the shutter release cable connected. Next, set your camera lens to manual focus and move the focus ring on your lens to infinity. Then, you want to point your camera to a light source in order to set the focus. For this find a light in the distance, focus on the moon, or use your head lamp to light up something in front of you, focus, and then recompose your shot without moving the focus. I find that using my camera’s live view and zooming in to select my focus while in live view was the easiest way to set my focus.
Last, batteries perform poor in cold temperatures. Keeping multiple batteries stored in a warm place, like in a pocket next to your body, will allow you to keep the shutter going into the wee hours of the morning. NiCad and Li ion batteries perform slightly better than alkaline batteries, but no matter what type your camera needs, bring at least one back-up.