The spectacle of the Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, is one of the most captivating sights on our little planet. Capturing this phenomenon is the dream of many a photographer. If you’re one of those, this tutorial will help you realize that dream, with some tips and advice to help increase your chance of success.
Opening image: Northern Lights over Iceland, ©National Photo Travel. Captured with the Irix 11mm f/4.0 Lens.
A Few Words about the Science
The last thing we want to do is detract from the wonder and awe surrounding this phenomenon. That said, understanding what makes the Aurora happen may help you capture it, so bear with us for a bit.
There are two types of aurora, both caused by charged particles traveling through space (aka solar wind) interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. When those particles are drawn into our upper atmosphere by those magnetic lines of force, they react with the gas molecules there. That creates the colorful streaks of light we know as the Polar Lights and of course, those in the skies above the Arctic regions are the Northern Lights. The speed of the particles and the types of gases they react with both affect the intensity and color of the light.
High Latitude Auroras: Most of the time, those charged particles (aka the solar wind) come in contact with the outermost circular lines of force in the magnetosphere. Those outer arcs terminate near the poles, so the particles ionize gases in the northernmost and southernmost areas. Separation and reconnection of these outermost rings cause sudden disturbances that result in dramatic displays.
Mid/Low Latitude Auroras: When solar activity is high, especially when sunspots and solar flares are present, the solar winds increase in intensity. The increased speed and density of the particles pushes them past the outer magnetic arcs, where they interact with the shorter, lower, inner arcs. These lines terminate much farther from the poles, so the ionization of gasses occurs at lower latitudes.
So, it’s all about excited particles and gases. Photographers, however, are more likely to get excited over the effect, rather than the cause. Still, keep this information in mind, because we’ll refer to it later.
No serious photography expedition starts without the proper gear, right? Right! Fortunately, the list of photo gear for shooting the polar lights isn’t a long one.
Camera and accessories:
A camera that allows you to shoot in manual mode is recommended. A tripod or other stable mount is going to be necessary and you’ll want to use a remote release, your camera’s shutter delay, or an intervalometer.
When it comes to glass, keep in mind that what you’ll be trying to capture is highly unpredictable. You may be shooting one or more wandering ribbons of light. Focal lengths above 200mm are probably the least useful if you don’t want to miss any of the action. Wide angle lenses will provide the best field of view and short to medium telephoto lenses can be used for a little tighter perspective. Obviously, you’ll want your lenses to be sharp and free of aberrations.
The Aurora is often in constant motion, both within the bands and overall. A fast lens (one with a wide maximum aperture) will help you gather enough light for the exposure while allowing you to increase your shutter speed to freeze some of the motion. Slower lenses will leave your images more prone to motion blur, which may lessen the impact of your photos.
Focusing should be easy, even in the dark. You’ll also want to be able to maintain focus once it’s established.
Irix offers three still lenses that are ideal for shooting the Northern Lights.
Both the 15mm f/2.4 and 11mm f/4.0 offer superb optical quality and rectilinear, ultrawide fields of view. Both are available in a lightweight build and heavy-duty build, with identical optics. They also provide in-camera focus confirmation, a click-stop at infinity and a focus locking ring.
|Irix 15mm f/2.4||Irix 11mm f/4.0|
When you want to get in a bit closer, the Irix 150mm f/2.8 1:1 Macro Dragonfly is a fast, medium telephoto that’s suited for much more than macrophotography. It’s a great choice for tighter shots of the aurora action.
All three lenses feature weather sealing, too, so you needn’t worry about moisture or dust. Best of all, you’ll find Irix lenses offer premium quality at far less cost than comparable brands!
Along with your camera, lenses and tripod, you’re going to want to be sure you have extra batteries and memory cards. Keep in mind that it’s going to be dark and possibly cold. A dew heater will help prevent condensation from fogging or frost from clouding your lens. A small flashlight or headlamp will be a big help, but please be courteous toward others.
We’ll leave articles such as clothing, food and drink, etc. up to your common sense. You’ll need to know where you’re going and be prepared for whatever you might encounter there.
Where to Go
The Northern Lights are usually best viewed near the Arctic Circle, above 65°N and below 75°N latitude. That covers most of Alaska, about half of Greenland, all of Iceland and most of Northern Russia (and of course, a whole lot of ocean). That should help narrow down the choices a bit.
That said, it’s quite possible to view the Aurora in many of the upper continental United States, when conditions are right. In recent years, there have been surprising opportunities during solar events. Find out more about that in the next section.
When to Go
Unlike celestial objects such as the moon, the Milky Way and others, the Auroa isn’t easy to predict. It does, however, have a season of sorts. What’s more, there’s one more indicator we’ve already discussed.
Obviously, the lights are best viewed when it’s very dark. In case you don’t already know, the Northern latitudes mentioned above are mostly in daylight from late April through the beginning of August. December and January temperatures can drop dangerously low. For the average person, March and September are usually the best months to plan a trip to these areas.
About that other indicator: Now’s the time to recall what we mentioned about solar activity. Solar storms (sunspots) and especially solar flares both mean the solar wind will probably be stronger. This increased activity often means a greater chance of enhanced auroras. It also may provide a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights in the lower latitudes.
During these events, it’s not unusual to be able to photograph vivid displays in the upper United States. Quite often, you’ll need to look toward the northern horizon, rather than overhead. Choosing a location at a high altitude can also be a good choice. Regardless of the position in the sky, these low latitude displays may be an amazing spectacle.
Getting a Little Help
Fortunately, there are several resources that can help you determine what kind Aruora Borealis activity to expect. These forecasts can help you plan your excursions:
- Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks: Aurora Forecast
- NOOA/NWS Ovatoin Model Aurora Forecast: 30-Minute or 3-Day
- Aurora Hunter: Northern Lights Tonight
Shooting the Northern Lights
You probably thought we were never going to get down to the business of actually photographing the Aurora. Not so, campers! The fact is, like many worthwhile photo endeavors, a Northern Lights shoot is 90% preparation. The process of taking the photos is fairly straightforward. It’s also a creative process, and the results are very much dependent on your imagination as much as your skills.
Yes, this is sound advice for any sort of night photography. Give yourself time to set up your equipment, check your batteries, etc. before darkness sets in. You never know; you may need time to move if the “show” starts in a different place than you expected.
It should go without saying that these settings will vary according to your gear, the surroundings, light pollution, the aurora brightness and much more. With that understood, here are a few suggestions to start with:
- File Type/Quality: RAW to allow for more adjustment in post processing
- White Balance: If you prefer not to shoot RAW, Auto may give you good results. You can also try Custom at about 3,000K
- Metering Mode: Evaluative or Matrix. This will let you use your camera’s exposure meter to help find the right shutter speed.
- Exposure mode: Manual
- ISO: Try starting at 800 to minimize noise. Increase as necessary after test shots.
- Shutter Mode: Delay or Remote
- Use Mirror Lock-up or Live View (on a DSLR) to reduce camera shake.
- Shutter Speed: Start with 10 seconds and adjust according to test exposures.
- Aperture: Start as wide as possible (smallest f/number). If your test exposures show room for adjustment, stop down one or two clicks.
- Autofocus OFF. (Switch your lens to M)
- Image Stabilization (IS or VR): OFF. Movement in the aurora will cause errors.
- Focus at infinity. (Use something on the far horizon with Live View zoom if your lens has no infinity mark or you’re unsure of it.) Irix shooters: use the click stop at infinity.
Adjust as Needed
The settings above should get you “in the ball park”. Be sure to shoot several test exposures before you lock them in. Be sure to consider the foreground exposure if you’re including some of your surroundings. Whether you’re shooting manually or using an intervalometer, be prepared to preview your images occasionally and adjust for any changes.
As with any photography, particularly at night, there is no perfect formula. Make your adjustments to produce the results you want. If you want sharp details, keep your shutter speed as high as possible. A lower shutter speed will emphasize the motion of the lights. Put your skills to work.
While you’re focusing on the technical aspect of your Northern Lights shoot, don’t forget the artistic. Don’t take the photos, make them. Here are a few ideas to help you make your aurora photos special:
- Capture the reflection. Shooting next to a lake, a sheet of ice or even a puddle can add a whole new dimension to your shots.
- Change your point of view. Set up on high ground above a scenic area or even a city. Try a very low camera angle for some added drama. Experiment with silhouetting something in the scene against the lights.
- Do some light painting. Take advantage of the long exposure times and draw with some light sources. Use a flash or other light source to illuminate parts of the surroundings. Remember to be considerate of others!
- Sit back and watch. Don’t forget to take some time to just enjoy the show. Let your intervalometer do the work for a while, relax and just drink in the spectacle. You’ll appreciate the experience more and you can try to convey that appreciation in your final images.
Leave No Trace
When you’re done with your shoot, remember to leave whatever area you’re in at least as nice as you found it. As nature photographers, we have a responsibility to try and preserve the beauty of our planet for future visitors. The same applies to any private buildings or property you may have access to, especially if you want to be invited back!
An opportunity to shoot the Aurora Borealis is something that doesn’t happen to everyone. We hope that the tips in this article will help you make the most of the experience. We also hope, of course, that you’ll visit irixusa.com to learn about the lenses and accessories we’ve created to help you capture the night sky and more.
Share your Irix shots! We’d love to see the Northern Lights photos you’ve captured with our gear! Visit our Facebook page and share them in a message. Tag #irixusa in your Instagram posts and @irixusa in your Facebook posts. Be sure to comment with the lens, camera, location and any exposure information you’d like to share!
Looking for more tutorials on shooting the night sky? Check these out:
Shooting the Milky Way