To capture the aurora (the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights) is an aspiration for many a photographer. And while technically speaking, it is not the most challenging of photographic subjects, it does take some careful planning. This beginner's guide gives you everything you need to know.
The aurora borealis and aurora australis – also known as the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights – are on many a photographer’s bucket list. To reliably find them usually means travelling to the planet’s polar regions, but while photographing them is relatively easy, it does require full manual control. It’s one of those projects where planning, preparation and practice really pays off, but as with any ambition to capture a fleeting moment in nature, it also requires luck.
The difference between the aurora borealis and aurora australis isn’t just that they appear in the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica, respectively. The aurora borealis –the Northern Lights – are easiest to see between September to March in the northern hemisphere’s winter, and occur over vast swathes of northern Europe, Russia and Canada. While just as spectacular, the aurora australis – the Southern Lights – mostly happen over the ocean so are far less observed when the southern hemisphere’s skies are dark from March through September. So for our purposes we’re going to concentrate mainly on the aurora borealis.
Here’s everything you need to know to find and photograph the aurora.
1 Get to the Arctic Circle
For most of us it’s necessary to travel to see the Northern Lights. The way the spectacle works on a global level is as a horseshoe-shaped oval around the poles that waxes and wanes depending on how intense the solar wind from the Sun is that night.
You need to get yourself to locations within the latitudes of 64º and 70º north during winter – September through March – and hope for clear skies. Although the aurora borealis can occasionally be seen from northern Scotland and the US-Canada border, by far the best places to see them are Alaska and the northern regions of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Aurorae are caused by geomagnetic activity. Electrically charged particles from the Sun – the solar wind – hit Earth's magnetic field and are accelerated down its field lines to become visible as discharged energy around the poles on the night-side of Earth.
The auroral ovals vary in strength and reach, and are rated on the Kp scale of geomagnetic activity; Kp2, Kp3 and Kp4 are normal and fine if you’re in the polar regions, while Kp5 and Kp6 means they’ll be visible further south. You can get predictions in advance from the Space Weather Prediction Center and from the Aurora Service.
2 Get the right equipment
To photograph the aurora you’re going to need a manual camera – fitted with as wide-angle a lens as possible – that allows you to manipulate the ISO, aperture and the shutter speed.
It’s possible that your smartphone may be able to take usable images of the Northern Lights – especially if it’s a high-end smartphone – but a proper DSLR or mirrorless camera will always produce far superior images. A full-frame camera is preferable, too, because they have bigger sensors and produce cleaner images when used at night, but any manual camera will do.
Whatever you take with you to the aurora zone remember that you’re going to need a tripod because photographing the aurora is all about taking long exposures. So use a remote shutter cable or a shutter delay to prevent vibrations and blur.
Once in the aurora zone you need to wait for clear skies. That’s just down to luck – and the wait can be exhausting. Ignore local advice about exactly what time to expect them because they can occur at any time.
You need to be prepared to stay up all night checking for clear skies, which makes it imperative you either stay in a rural guest house or hotel without streetlights and light pollution and/or you have a car so you can drive out to a dark place. If the former, set an alarm to wake you every hour so you can check for clear skies. Make sure you wrap up warm and are ready to run outside at a few seconds’ notice, so keep your boots by your bed.
3 Get your manual settings right
With your camera on a tripod, manually set the focus to infinity, set the colour temperature to tungsten, and always shoot in RAW so you can post-process the results in Photoshop.
Since you’re shooting at night, open the aperture as wide as possible choosing the lowest f/ number (which could be as low as f1.8 or as high as f3.5, depending on your camera). So the only two settings you need to experiment with are ISO (start at ISO 800 for maximum clean-ness then experiment with ISO 1600 and higher) and shutter speed.
For the latter, if the aurora are bright and “dance” quickly then go for six seconds or thereabouts, and if they’re slow and faint, open the shutter for as long as 20-25 seconds. The faster your shutter speed, the greater the detail you’ll capture.
Can you change your camera’s ISO and shutter speed with your eyes closed? If you’re going to get the most out of an aurora hunt then get to know your camera really well in advance. So well, in fact, that you can operate it by touch alone.
A good way of practicing before the trip is to sit in a dark room and give yourself random tasks to change settings, and the battery, without needing any light.
4 Photographing faint aurorae
Are the aurora borealis really bright green? Not always. As well as tinkering on Photoshop to make them more vivid, photographers usually only showcase their very best photos of aurorae at their strongest.
The most common sighting for any photographers in the aurora zone is faint band of greenish-grey on the horizon. That’s known as a “forest fire” aurorae because – particularly in northern Scandinavia – it tends to occur in the northern sky above pine forests.
Since they’re faint and appear slow-moving (because they’re far away), to capture these displays you’re going to need to use longer exposures. You can go up to about 20 to 25 seconds before the stars between to blur. If you think you may be able to see the Northern Lights in the far distance – possibly as a grey-ish cloud – take a long exposure and you’ll immediately see if it’s green or not. Then wait for it to get closer.
Although you can photograph the Northern Lights during a full moon, it’s best to plan a trip to the aurora zone in the week before a New Moon and a few nights after – a period of about 10 days.
During that time the skies are darker, allowing you to photograph fainter displays more easily. If you go when the Moon is bright the combination of long exposures and white snow/ice on the ground tend to create landscapes that look more like daylight. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s best to know what to expect in advance.
5 Don’t ignore composition
Images of the aurora borealis are everywhere. It’s what else is in your photo that will make it stand out. You may think that you’re being clever if you capture some green lights in the sky, but the aurora behind and above a mountain, waterfall, boat, church or even a vehicle will be so much more interesting.
It’s therefore best to scout-out an iconic location in daylight, remembering that the Northern Lights will appear mostly in the … you guessed it … northern sky. Other things to think about include reflections in lakes (most are frozen in winter, but in autumn and spring you might get lucky), but always try to think not like an astrophotographer, but like a landscape photographer.
Although aurorae occur as ovals on a global scale, the observer will notice several different phenomena according to exactly where the aurorae are.
From a long way away you’ll see a green-ish band on the horizon, if it’s closer then you’ll get curtains that “dance” dramatically, and if there’s a magnetic storm right above you then you’ll see all kinds of crazy shapes.