How I got that shot: My first attempt at photographing the aurora borealis

First published:
April 25, 2023
Updated:
July 26, 2023

How I got that shot: My first attempt at photographing the aurora borealis

First published:
April 25, 2023
Updated:
July 26, 2023

This was my first ever attempt at photographing the Northern Lights, it's by far not the best, but I'm still pleased with my first try, this is how I got the shot

Photographing the phenomenon of the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is something on pretty much any outdoor photographer's bucket at some point or another. Or at least, something that most photographers aspire to see and capture at some point in their photography journey; me included.

How it happened

I had seen on the news that morning (24th April) that there had been aurora activity visible over Scotland and Northern England - in my vicinity, and to be honest I could have kicked myself that I had missed it. It can rarely be seen this far south of the Arctic, and the clear conditions were ideal for it too.

However, sat at home that same night and after one quick look at my social feed, I discovered that there was another red alert for aurora activity, in fact within the next 30 minutes or so, and lasting potentially for over an hour. By this time (it was 9:30 pm) I was pretty much settled at home and it was cold outside. I asked myself, should I stay in the warm and cosy, or take the chance to see it and photograph it?

Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland National Park, part of a dedicated dark sky area of England is a short drive from me, and an optimal place to potentially see the Northern Lights. However, I had tried to see the aurora once before without any luck and didn't want to risk a repeat of the last time. But then, it was too cloudy to see anything, and this time it was predominately clear. And so I decided, I have to try at least, and I kicked my photography brain into gear. Within 10 minutes I was off and in the car, driving up to Hadrian's Wall.

"...while the camera didn't pick up any major activity and the picture won't win any awards... I'm pretty convinced that the aurora is visible just behind the clouds; that slight pinky green hue..."

Once I got there, several cars had parked in the same place, but again, there wasn't anything that could be seen with the naked eye. I was disappointed again, to say the least... However, I thought I'll give it a try with my mirrorless (my trustworthy Fujifilm X-T30) to see if the camera instead could pick up any aurora activity not visible.

Here's the result, while the camera didn't pick up any major activity and the picture won't win any awards (!), I'm pretty convinced that the aurora is visible just behind the clouds; that slight pinky green hue.

Not to mention, it was also a beautiful starry sky which the camera picked up amazingly well, so if anything, I'm still pleased with the result... and maybe next time that amazing aurora spectacle will appear.

Below you'll also see how I got the final version of the shot in terms technical specifics and post production...

And a second version...

Title: Mystical Aurora at Hadrian’s Wall
By: Philip Mowbray

Shoot date and time: 24 April 2023, 23:17 BST
Location: Temple of Mithras, Northumberland, UK

This exposure took place over 60 seconds, at a relatively high ISO (800) and wide aperture (f/5.0) to get as much detail as possible from the scene in such dark conditions (to the eye it was practically full darkness).

As ever, I’m amazed at how much information the camera sensor picked up from this scene.

The slight pink hue indicates the presence of the Northern Lights in the scene, even though it’s faint. However, this, along with other elements such as the cloud movement and the beautiful array of stars help create a beautiful, ethereal scene. Very much in keeping with the mystical feel of this part of England.

While the star of the show in aurora pictures tends to be the Northern Lights dancing in the sky, it’s still important to have some other interesting elements in the image, particularly in the foreground. For this, I chose to use the silhouettes of the line of trees. I think it amplifies the starkness of the area, which is synonymous with this part of Northumberland.

Settings:

ISO: 800

Shutter Speed: 60s

Aperture: f/5.0

Focal Length: 15mm

Shooting Mode: RAW

Equipment:

Model: Fuji X-T30

Lens: Fujijon 15-45mm

Additional Equipment: Tripod

How to shoot the Northern Lights - the technical specifics:

See our guide from astrophotography expert Jamie Carter on how to photograph the Aurora - ideal for beginners in the subject!

Bringing out the best of the shot in Lightroom

I always shoot in Raw, it's so much more versatile compared to shooting in JPEG and is particularly useful for situations like these. With its wide dynamic range, the amount of data in the image file contains is immense. And in post-production, you can bring out so much more from the shot compared to editing a JPEG file. Just see the example below, taking the image file straight out of the camera, you can see hardly anything. However, with some tweaks in Lightroom (not too many, mind) I managed to bring out the best in the image.

If you're able to shoot in Raw on your photo-taking device I would highly recommend always doing so. Most DLSR and mirrorless models allow you to shoot in Raw, and these days, many smartphones offer the same capabilities too.

The original vs. the conversion

As you can see, the original image is significantly underexposed, even though the shutter ran for 60 seconds, along with a high ISO and wide aperture. I am treating this as a learning curve. However, the detail is there, and, as mentioned, we can draw the detail from the image, even in this state. By using adjustment tools in Lightroom I’ve managed to bring out the details and colours in the image, including that pink hue from the aurora. Again, it’s very subtle and by no means capturing the best of the activity, but I’m pleased with this attempt.

By using adjustment tools in Lightroom I’ve managed to bring out the details and colours in the image, including that pink hue from the aurora. Again, it’s very subtle and by no means capturing the best of the activity, but I’m pleased with this attempt.

Lightroom adjustments

I used the ASTIA Fujifilm preset (my go-to film preset). I then significantly increased the Exposure level and Contrast. I also upped Vibrance and adjusted the Highlights and Shadows to bring out as much detail and colour as possible while keeping the image realistic looking. With a slight adjustment in the Tone Curve to give the image an ever-so-slight matte look (settings below).

Noise reduction

When shooting using high ISO settings, it's inevitable that you're going to encounter noise in your images. Noise is even more evident when shooting at night, particularly with long exposures which can also result in a form of noise called 'hot pixels' - see our separate tutorial on how to remove these.

Particularly with kind of photography it just needs to be accepted that you're going to have some noise in your images, however you can mitigate its effect, without compromising too much on sharpness and quality. In this case I used sliders in Lightroom's Detail Panel to reduce the amount of noise.

Here you can also see a preview of the reduction in noise on the image. I upped the Luminance noise reduction to 50 which is higher than I normally go (usually it's around 30) but for images like this, a greater reduction is usually needed to avoid excessive grain.

Conclusion, what did I learn?

As I've mentioned several times in this piece, by all means this isn't the most impressive aurora shot ever taken, far from it, however from a personal, and developmental perspective. I'm rather happy with it as a first try. Although I have also learned that I need to practice more getting the exposure settings right in-camera, it saves on post production later, and also, the quality of your images are going to be better.

So much of aurora photography really comes down to luck of the draw, and what you can see at the time and the location you're in. Of course, the further north you go, and the more time you spend in a location where the Northern Lights are more prevalent you'll have more opportunities to practice and nail that shot! And if you're lucky enough to have the Northern Lights come to you, particularly if it's a rare occasion, then by all means get out there! You never know what you might capture!

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