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Inspiration

Northern lights Photography Tutorial

By Christopher Lin on August 23rd 2013

The following is a guest post by Michael Stewart of the Interactive Design Institute, the UK’s leading provider of courses in Art and Design by distance learning.

There has been a marked increase in the number of people opting to learn photography online recently. This has been due to a number of factors including the greater affordability of high quality digital cameras, the upsurge in social media platforms that enable the distribution of images and the widespread availability of superior photography courses. Consequently, we are experiencing an escalation in the volume of photographers seeking ever more challenging projects and this article aims to provide information and guidance pertaining to what promises to be one of the most popular of these opportunities in 2013.

northern-lights-picture
Photo by Thomas Heaton (Location: Abisko National Park, Northern Sweden)

When it comes to celestial activity, there is little that compares to the Aurora Borealis. This natural phenomenon must rank as the greatest light show available from Earth and capturing the spectacle is high on every photographers “must do” list. This year, as the sun moves through its eleven year solar cycle, the activity that creates the Aurora Borealis is expected to culminate in a stunning series of displays, making 2013 the ideal year to view – and photograph – this wonder of nature.

However, this presents us with some problems to be solved; a range of practical, technical and aesthetic considerations to be addressed.

The first of these is presented by the subject matter itself. What we call The Aurora Borealis materialises when highly charged electrons from the Sun interact with the Earth’s atmosphere; some 300 plus miles above the surface of the Earth in the upper atmosphere. Consequently, atmospheric conditions will affect not only what we will see on any given occasion but also what we will be able to photograph therefore choosing the most appropriate time of year is crucial. Additionally, as no two events will ever be the same, it is almost impossible to predict the technical requirements and specifications of the task. Research is critical to the success of any expedition to photograph the Northern Lights.

Secondly, the best locations for viewing The Aurora Borealis are located a mere whisker below the Arctic Circle, an area noted for its inhospitable climate. The severe temperature can adversely affect both man and machine equally and care must be taken to plan, prepare and practise; you need to get to know your equipment and be familiar with your capability in advance. Handling a lens change on your Leica in a temperate climate is completely different from juggling with f stops and shutter speeds in a howling gale while wearing gloves.

northern-lights-green
Markku Verkasalo (Location: Kukasjärvi, near Aakenus hill in Finland. The nearest populated places are 30km away)

Thirdly, any competent photographer will be aware of the technical difficulties presented by vivid, colourful bursts of light when set against a contrasting, predominantly dark sky. The procedural considerations, range of options available and personal choices on offer have the potential to provide the unwary photographer with an unholy mix of dilemmas; getting the balance between the aesthetic, the technical and the acceptable is crucial to a successful shoot.

With these considerations in mind, let us begin to prepare for our photographic expedition to the Arctic Circle.

Where should I go?

Essentially, the Aurorae are drawn to the Earth’s magnetic poles. Consequently, we have The Aurora Borealis which is located in the Arctic Circle and The Aurora Australis which can be found in the Antarctic Circle; literally poles apart.

Ideally, photographers should head for countries within the Northern Lights zone, which is limited to latitudes between 65 to 72 degrees, but this is not essential. The following sites have been identified as capable of providing favourable vantage points from which to photograph the Aurora Borealis:

• Tromso in Norway
• Abisko in Swedish Lapland
• Luosto in Northern Finland
• Reykjavik in Iceland
• The Yukon Territory in Alaska
• Calgary in Canada
• Most of Greenland
• Aberdeen in Scotland
• Siberia in Russia.

Once in situ, photographers should identify locations where skies are expected to be clear, cloudless, cold and crisp – and as far from sources of light pollution as possible. To achieve this, aim to position yourself and your camera to shoot between the northwest and southeast sky with any towns, cities or other sources of light pollution to the south; solar activity will mainly be confined to the north and southern sky.

When should I go?

There exists a direct correlation between solar storms on the surface of the Sun and Aurora activity. Therefore, knowing when these storms occur will help determine the most likely periods during which to view the most active displays.

According to statistics gathered by spaceweather.com, solar particles collide with atmospheric gases to create vast swathes of multi-coloured curtains from approximately late November to early March. Statistically, March is identified as the most geo-magnetically active month of the year with October following close behind.

What do I wear?

It is highly likely that you will experience arctic weather conditions during your photo shoot – given the prime geographic locations for viewing the Aurora Borealis – and you would be well advised to prepare accordingly. Unless you plan to visit during the more temperate months of September or April, your visit will coincide with the local winter and temperatures could fall to below – 40 C without the wind chill factored in and your clothing and equipment should reflect this. Consequently your basic clothing from the inside out should include:

  1. Effective base layer provision including woollen insoles and first layer clothing made from fleece or Merino wool; this would include a thermal vest and leggings
  2. Winter boots that allow space for air to circulate and thus provide insulation; these should be waterproofed and lined with a thick sole to insulate your feet against the frozen ground
  3. Glove liners which will fit comfortably inside your outer mittens
  4. Insulated, thermal over-trousers or heavy duty salopettes that will fit comfortably over your base layer clothing
  5. A down- filled parka; preferably one with a high “fill power” value (this refers to the volume of fill in cubic inches; the higher the value, the greater the fill and therefore, the more insulation provided) that has:
    • Fleece linings at the cuffs and neck to prevent rising heat from escaping from your core
    • Storm sealing or inbuilt storm flaps for use in severe weather conditions such as sleet or hail
    • Hoods with extra padding to prevent heat loss from the head
    • Zipped hand warmer pockets for comfort
    • Toggles and/or elasticated fasteners at the neck and cuffs to seal in heat
  6. A number of chemically activated hand warmers; these can also be dropped into your boots if conditions are particularly bad
    When photographing in severe weather conditions, it is always wise to have too much gear rather than too little. Excess clothing can always be removed but it can be difficult to source additional clothing in these remote areas. Remember that capturing that perfect image of the Northern Lights is likely to be a waiting game and may require you to stand around for some considerable time. Glove liners (often made from silk) will enable you to prepare your camera without worrying about the risk of frostbite; numb fingers may defeat the purpose of the exercise.
    Check the local weather conditions online before you travel and remember to find out what the lowest night time temperature is likely to be – this is when you will be out watching the sky.
    Patience is a difficult virtue to attain when you are cold.

northern-lights-tutorial
Markku Verkasalo (Location: Norway – 3km from the Finnish/ Swedish border – the nearest populated place is Kilpisjärvi, which is 15 km away)

What equipment do I take?

This is a difficult question to answer because there is simply no single, correct response. What is required is a balance between the equipment you have available to you, the weight and/or space your travel arrangements will allow you and what you can realistically expect to achieve during your shoot. What follows is some advice which you should temper with your own research:

Which camera?

In truth, your choice of camera is less important than your choice of lens. Most medium range DSLRs will be capable of capturing effective images of the Northern Lights and therefore, you should keep to what you know and are comfortable with in terms of your choice of camera.

Which lens?

When you consider the practicalities of the task, photographing the Aurora Borealis will present you with some basic problems. You will be attempting to photograph lights which are transitory bursts of illumination – this suggests you will require a relatively fast shutter speed to achieve a degree of clarity and definition. However, it is likely that you will be photographing at night and this will necessitate your maximising the amount of available light entering the camera – implying protracted exposure times and wide apertures. The key to success will depend on your achieving the most appropriate degree of balance between the two and this means doing your homework.

Whichever lens you choose, it will have to have a fast maximum aperture to enable you to capture the subtle lights of the Aurora; a “fast lens” is one which will allow the most light into the camera. Ideally, you should use a lens capable of delivering an aperture of f1.4 or f2.8 to help reduce the amount of time the shutter will be open. This will help achieve the ideal balance between higher shutter speed and lower aperture number and thus reduce the chances of camera shake.

Any lens with an aperture smaller than f2.8 (that is, with a higher f-number) will result in slow shutter speeds which are normally unsuitable for the photographing of most Aurora displays.
If possible, choose a prime lens as opposed to a zoom lens as this is more likely to give you access to an acceptable range of aperture settings. The following lenses are recommended:

  • 50mm f1.8 or f1.4 lens: useful for isolating parts of the Aurora with the added bonus of making any stars appear more prominent within the image
  • 35mm f2.0 or 1.4 lens: a fast lens which should capture most of the Aurora
  • 20mm f2.8, 2.0, or f1.4 lens: potentially useful for larger displays that require an even larger field of view than the 24mm lens
  • 14mm f2.8 lens: essentially a specialty lens that may produce dramatic effects such as circular distortions and the tilting of vertical objects when the camera is angled towards the sky
  • 24mm f2.8, f2.0, or f1.4 lens: this is the idea lens for photographing Aurora; it has a wide angle of view, and allows for longer exposure times before star trails appear.
  • The assumption here is that you want to capture bright, clear, static images of stars within your Aurora photographs. This can be achieved by preventing the appearance of movement caused by “star trails”. These result from the rotation of the Earth during exposure, that is, while the camera shutter is open. These can be avoided by employing a simple formula:
  • Take the number 600 and divide it by the focal length of your lens ( for example, 14mm, 20mm or 24mm)
  • This calculation will give you an exposure time in seconds (for example, 42.85, 30 or 25 seconds if we consider the lenses above)
  • These numbers represent the maximum exposure time available to you before star trails start to appear in your images
  • What is obvious from these calculations is that your exposure times will be significantly longer than those that can be accommodated with a handheld camera and therefore, you will need a sturdy tripod.

Which tripod?

No matter how fast your lens is, you will still require a tripod to ensure that you achieve the degree of stability your camera needs to secure images of the Aurora. If possible, add a cable release to your equipment list too; you do not want to risk camera wobble when releasing the shutter. A cable release will not only help prevent camera shake but will enable exposures in excess of 30 seconds; indeed some wireless remotes only offer exposure options of 30 seconds, so make sure to check the version you have if you plan on using a wireless remote.

Do not be tempted to leave your tripod behind to reduce the weight of your baggage; this is false economy as a tripod is essential for Aurora Borealis photography. Remember to think practically:

  • Your tripod ball head will be pointing towards the sky, therefore the taller the tripod, the less likely you are to have to squat beneath your camera view finder
  • The addition of foam pads to the tripod legs will stop your hands being exposed to bare metal in potentially freezing conditions; this will make the tripod more comfortable during handling
  • A ball head tripod is preferable to a tilt and pan head as it offers greater freedom of movement

Which ISO setting?

When photographing Aurora, it is essential that you use a camera that has high ISO capability. This term refers to your DSLR’s sensitivity to light; to how much light the image sensor will allow to appear on the final image. Basically, you should be aware that the higher the ISO number; the more sensitive the camera. With an analogue camera, this issue is determined by the film speed; a film with an ASA rating of 200 is slower – and therefore more appropriate to situations where available light is abundant – than a film with an ASA rating of 800 which is more suited to low light conditions.

When photographing the Aurora with a DSLR, you are advised to use an ISO setting of at least 400 but more probably 800 or 1,000 to ensure the best results if you are photographing at night. Of course, as with most aspects of photography, there are other considerations involved with your choice of ISO setting:

Image quality

Although DSLRs with a higher ISO capability are more effective for photo shoots in low-light areas, this may result in a reduction in image quality.

For a higher quality image a lower ISO setting is required. Higher ISO settings can result in what is referred to as “noise” in your photograph. Noise manifests itself as a grainy texture in photographs and is caused by inaccurate colour reproduction, energy generated by the camera’s sensor, long exposures or … high ISO settings.

Fortunately, most contemporary digital cameras possess effective, in-camera noise reduction and you should set your camera to enable the following options:

  • If you choose to capture your images as JPG files, enable the Long Exposure and High ISO Noise Reduction functions
  • If you have elected to shoot in RAW format, employ the Long Exposure Noise Reduction function

Remember choosing to use a JPG file will compress the image whereas the RAW format will not. Compression followed by enlargement can result in distortion – and more noise, when you display your images. My advice would be to shoot in RAW format as it allows greater freedom post- production.

If you have a DSLR that does not have these functions, refer to the camera’s manual as this should help you to identify any equivalent functions.

Which mode?

Your choice of a fast lens should enable you to shoot the Aurora in Aperture Priority mode (AP); this will allow you to compensate for any variation in intensity during the display. Alternatively, you may opt to use Bulb (B) or Manual (M).

    • If you are using AP, set your camera to the widest aperture available to you, in other words, the smallest f number to allow for the greatest amount of available light to reach the sensor
    • If you find that the required exposure setting is greater than that allowed by your camera, you should opt for B mode, secure your tripod and attach the cable release
    • If possible, try a couple of tests shots and don’t forget to use the histogram on your camera; this is an invaluable tool which will help you choose the most appropriate mode

When should I shoot the Aurora?

This is a difficult question to answer definitively as any response will be purely subjective. However, the following represents a summary of the information available:

      • Be prepared to spend most of the night waiting for that perfect shot
      • Different types of display tend to happen as part of a recognisable pattern across the course of a night’s viewing
      • The optimum time frame is recognised by Aurora experts as occurring between 10pm and 3am
      • Don’t be tempted to use a location that you haven’t visited and explored thoroughly during daylight hours; this is neither safe nor productive.

Be prepared

• Always use a headlamp; this allows you to have your hands free when operating equipment and lets other photographers know where you are when required but also remember to use it sparingly and not when you are other photographers are shooting; remember light pollution
• Camera batteries drain more quickly in cold weather; always have two or three batteries in reserve and keep these in an inner, warm pocket
• Use flash cards that are appropriate to the conditions. The “Extreme” range from Scan Disk does what it says on the label and is to be recommended

The Shoot

northern-lights-image
Jim Hunter (Location: East Lothian, Scotland)

Having read this article through several times and digested the contents, you’re ready to shoot. Take a few minutes to run through this checklist before starting your session:

  1. If you take your camera from a warm location, such as a building or car into a cold atmosphere, you may experience condensation on the lens. This will fog your images. Always aim to keep your camera acclimatised to the conditions that you plan to shoot in.
  2. Attach your camera firmly to your tripod
  3. Attach a shutter release cable
  4. Check for stability by equalising the tripod legs
  5. Adjust the ISO setting to between ISO 400 and ISO 1000
  6. Adjust the aperture setting to the widest available; ideally f2.8 or f1.4
  7. Set the camera to shoot in RAW format
  8. Remove any filters from the camera lens
  9. Set the LCD screen luminosity to low; ideally you should cover this to prevent light pollution
  10. Set the Autofocus control to Manual and focus on a static, distant feature such as silhouetted trees, the moon or a building
  11. Start your photo session with a shutter speed of 30 seconds and check your results after each shot, making adjustments as you progress
  12. Use your histogram whenever possible.

Aesthetic and other considerations

Having got this far, the rest is up to you. Only you will know what you are hoping to achieve with your photographs but in general photography’s Aurora enthusiasts are a dedicated, hardy bunch who merely want to record one of nature’s most spectacular displays, and to demonstrate that they have overcome a number of physical and technical difficulties in the process. But the final test is undoubtedly the quality of the image and there are a number of skilled practitioners operating in this area. Try to source examples of their work online and where possible, engage with them in public forums and find out about how they tackle this fascinating subject.

About the Author

Michael Stewart is the Managing Director of the Interactive Design Institute, the UK’s leading provider of courses in Art and Design by distance learning, online. A keen photographer, Michael is currently working through IDI’s BA Photography course. As a collaborative partner of the University of Hertfordshire, the Interactive Design Institute provides degree level, design-based courses entirely online and a Foundation course for those who are aiming to undertake a university degree in the future.

Co-Founder of SLR Lounge and Photographer with Lin and Jirsa Photography, I’m based in Southern California but you can find me traveling the world. Click here to connect on Google +

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Jon Penton

    If I Go, I’m Goin

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  2. ryan

    ”• The Yukon Territory in Alaska
    • Calgary in Canada” quote from above article

    the yukon is in canada and alaska is a american state north west territories also in canada is good to view them
    calgary is in southern canada and is a very poor place to see northern lighs from although they are spoted there on very rare occasions they can be vewed from all placess in northern canada in all winter months they cannot be viewed during summer due to the sun not setting but can be seen almost every night in winter

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