The dancing light of the Aurora can be an enchanting life changing experience. I first witnessed the lights shortly after my arrival in Alaska. I was sent on a small construction job to the village of Noatak just above the Arctic Circle. One August evening the full moon was rising and throwing a beam of light across the Noatak River while overhead the Aurora played in colors of green, gold, purple, and red.
Sadly, I did not have a camera with me.
Many times I am asked “how do you shoot the lights”? I will attempt to answer many of those questions on this page. Most of the techniques I use have been adapted from articles I have read on the web. Google up “How to photograph the northern lights” or “How to photograph the Aurora Borealis” and you will find a wealth of information.
That said, remember that nothing you read will fully prepare you for a bitter cold night with a blazing display of northern lights.
Just what are the northern lights / southern lights:
Simply stated, and this may be a bit “too” simple, the northern and southern lights are the result of energy and matter from the sun interacting with the Earth’s geomagnetic field. Energy and particles thrown off by the Sun approach Earth along the magnetic lines of force concentrating near the magnetic poles. The Earth’s magnetic poles are not the same as polar axis (North Pole and South Pole). The magnetic poles are offset several hundred miles as shown in the NOAA Ovation Auroral Activity Map below. The center of the oval on Ovation map is where the magnetic north pole is located. It is not where the grey longitude lines cross. The grey lines cross at the true polar axis or North Pole.
The energy that streams in along the magnetic lines interacts with molecules of the upper atmosphere causing a glow or light. Green is the predominate color of the Aurora due to the interaction with upper level oxygen molecules.
The Aurora occur quite high in the atmosphere ranging from 60 to 200 mile up.
However, this simplified explanation will not stop you from exclaiming out loud or even standing in the bitter cold with your mouth open in wonder.
When and How to view the light:
According to www.spaceweather.com, March is the month with the greatest amount of geomagnetic disturbance, October is a close second. The months just preceding and following will have a high rate of occurrence as well. Here in Alaska, we also have to contend with the weather. March and September are fairly stable weather wise. But Alaska weather can be as fickle as the Aurora.
While there is a corresponding oval in the southern hemisphere for the Aurora Australis or southern lights, we will confine ourselves to the northern hemisphere.
For best Aurora viewing you want to be somewhere along the oval near the red “view line” shown above. Now when the Aurora is very active, the oval will widen and spread farther south. For practical purposes, you would want to be somewhere along the arc shown below.
Note how the arc is offset and extends south. The arc extends around the magnetic pole as a full circle and passes over Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of northern Russia. If I have missed any place, I apologize.
Best time of day and local conditions:
Statistically, the best time of day is one hour before and after local midnight and one to two hours before local sunrise. Note, that says statistically. It does not guarantee that will be the best time only that it averages out to be the best. On one memorable night, the displays became visible shortly after dark and continued until shortly before sunrise.
The Aurora can occur any time of the day. Period. It does not have to be dark, it does not have to be cold. Don’t believe anything to the contrary.
Now for you to see them, you should be away from light pollution sources such as city lights, street lights, etc. The Moon should be no more than a half moon. I have shot in full moon conditions and unless the Aurora is very strong the moon light will wash out the colors and details. There should be no more than a few scattered clouds. Clouds can add an interesting effect but too many is a bad thing.
How can the technical explanation compete with the real thing?
Aurora Forecast Resources:
Any good SLR or DSLR camera that allows you to control the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
My preferred camera manufacturer is Nikon. There are many other brands on the market. Find one that fits your budget, your thought process (important when it comes to settings), and your hand (this is frequently overlooked).
A preferred camera is one with a low noise high ISO range. This is so you can keep the shutter speed low to freeze details in the lights. The Aurora is frequently a fast moving phenomena. A long shutter speed may capture the light but you will be missing the details. If you can afford it, go with a full frame or FX sensor. The cropped sensor (DX) models will require you to use a shorter lens to catch more of the sky.
Canon makes several models that fit this description.
Specific Nikon models with low noise high ISO are:
A lens that has an ƒ-stop of 2.8 or lower with a wide enough field of view to cover the area of sky and foreground you want in the image.
Lenses I have seen used or have used in the field:
Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/1.4 AF-S, AF-D, and manual focus.
Nikkor 24mm and 28mm ƒ/2.0 manual focus
AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D
Noct-Nikkor 58mm ƒ/1.2 AI (the legendary Noct)
Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 AF
Various Nikkor – Canon – Tokina – Tamron – Sigma Fish-Eye primes
Various Nikkor – Canon – Tokina – Tamron – Sigma wide angle zooms in the 12-24mm range ƒ/2.8
My preference is to use a fast manual focus prime (fixed focal length). I have not used a lens longer than 58mm or shorter than 20mm.
A sturdy tripod.
I can not stress the need for a quality tripod too strongly. I see a fair number of people trying to shoot long exposures at night with a spindly legged tripod that vibrates like a tuning fork with the least touch or breath of wind. It matters little if you have the best camera and lens combination in the world if it is wiggling on top of your inexpensive tripod. Leg diameter is the key to a sturdy tripod. The larger the diameter, the more sturdy the tripod. Many photographers will purchase a budget tripod based on cost then over the years will replace it with one that is just a bit more sturdy and therefore more expensive. And repeat the cycle until they have spent many times the cost of one quality tripod. So buy one for the longest lens you think you will ever purchase and be done with it.
Once you do have that nice sturdy tripod, use it properly. It won’t help you if you do not spread the legs fully. This will help prevent that $3000 camera and lens from doing a face plant on the hard frozen ground. Only extend the legs as far as you need, the shorter the legs the more sturdy the unit. Avoid using center columns when possible.
A remote release of some kind. This can be a cabled release but beware that cold will make the cable stiff and brittle. It can be IR, these are often restricted to line of sight. It can be a radio type such as a Pocket Wizard, or Radio Popper. Use what your budget can afford and is compatible with your camera. I use a cable release and yes, I have broken a couple in the cold.
Spare charged batteries for your particular camera. The cold drains batteries faster than you can believe. Keep your spare warm and when you change out the battery put the one you just removed into a warm inside pocket. The cold battery will recover charge as it warms up and you will be able to use it again.
A spare memory card. If the show is really good, you can rip off more than a 1000 images in one night.
Disclaimer: This is not intended to cover the fundamentals of photography. You should have an understanding of ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focus. Without an understanding of the basics, you will be literally flailing around in the dark. You should also know how your camera functions, it’s limitations, and how to change the above settings.
Additional Disclaimer: Due to the infinite variety of equipment, I can not begin to address all particular models. Sorry but they make them faster than I can learn them. I will also not address the issue of attempting to shoot in the dark with a compact / point & shoot style camera. Frankly, most of those models are intended for snap shot type images taken in well lit spaces. I am not saying that it can not be done only that most point & shoot cameras are too limited to be practical when shooting in the dark.
Suggested Camera Settings:
You will pretty much have just two choices. Aperture Priority and Manual. Programmed Auto (P), Shutter Priority (S), or most any type of “scenic” mode just won’t cut it.
I use Aperture Priority most of the time. I set the camera to AP and crank the lens wide open. You may need to use ±EV as the light changes in intensity. I have gone as much as +5.0 EV and as low as -1.0 EV.
Some will say that using the method above is “too much trouble” and you should just be in Manual mode with a wide open aperture and change the shutter speed as you need.
Either method will work. Changing EV gives you the same result as changing shutter speed. Both controls will cause a longer or shorter shutter time. So do what ever works for you.
I choose the ISO depending on the camera I use and the shutter speed I would like. The higher the ISO, the lower the shutter speed for a given aperture. The camera may not “like” to be run at a too high of an ISO. The Nikon D300 starts showing an unacceptable level of noise above 1250 but the D700 is good up to 2000.
Shutter speed considerations should take into account the focal length of the lens and the movement and details of the light. A rule of thumb is to keep the shutter speed lower than 500/(lens focal length) to minimize star trails. So for a 50mm lens keep the shutter speed below 10 seconds. Above that and your stars will grow tails.
What to Wear:
I am not going to go into appropriate cold weather gear in too much detail. The list is endless with many good clothing manufacturers. I use Sorel boots, Duofold long johns, Carhartt insulated overalls, Polar fleece jackets, Down parkas, and roomy insulated gloves. All topped off by a warm hat. Layers is the key to staying warm in the arctic. Trap air in layers. Add and remove layers as needed. Hand warmers may come in handy. Stay hydrated. Keep your head, hands and feet warm and dry to stay comfortable.
Boots, gloves, and hats are critical items. You will be standing for hours on ice and snow, many times at temps well below 0˚F. The cold can be insidious and being well insulated on the soles of your feet will help. Some take along a couple of sheets of cardboard in case they want to lie down or kneel for a particular setup.
They say there is no “bad” weather only bad gear.
Flashlight and batteries. I use either a red or amber colored lens but if you need the light use any you got.
Winter survival gear in the vehicle, just in case. Nothing is worse than the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when your vehicle won’t start and you are all alone in the dark for many, many miles.
Which brings up another point. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. If you have cell phone coverage in the area, so much the better. I travel in and out of cell coverage on a night’s expedition.
Food and hot beverage along with just plain water.
A folding chair to lounge in. (This is usually only a good idea if the temp is moderate)
Someone to enjoy the show with you. It is always a good thing to share the lights.