How to Photograph Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights)
What is better than seeing Auroras in the dark night sky? Photographing them while you watch them! Photographing the Aurora Borealis has to be one of my favourite scenes to shoot. You really never know what you will get until you upload them into Lightroom. Do you want to know how to photograph shots like mine below? I’m writing this quick and easy article so you become a professional Aurora chaser.
Although you can definitely see Aurora Borealis with your naked eye in most occasions that they are out and about, your camera will without question exaggerate the effect.
Like my other post on Long Exposure Photography During the Day, you need a particular set of conditions and specific equipment to execute these shots.
First things first, you need the conditions for the Northern Lights which are:
- Late Fall, Winter, and Early Spring are the best seasons to photograph Aurora Borealis
- You need to sign up for Aurora Email Notifications and Alerts. There are many places to do this, but in Canada I like to use the University of Alberta Aurora Watch http://www.aurorawatch.ca/content/view/26/60 .Use Facebook search and Google search to find the best Aurora watch or groups in your area
- The peak of Aurora Borealis’ was in 2015 and it’s expected to just get gradually worse over the next while. The 2015 year was absolutely electric in regards to Auroras!
- Okay so now that you can track to see when the Aurora Borealis will be out, you will need to have the proper weather conditions to capture their radiance. Which is 0% to 50% moon illumination and you can check the moon calendar on https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/
- Next up you will need to have clear skies! This one is always a difficult variable to predict and to manage. Clouds roll in and out and you will have breaks in the clouds and a short window to see if the Auroras are visible.
- It’s winter, the Aurora Watch has high chances, the moon has limited illumination, and the skies are supposed to be clear… now what? Well now we have to blame ourselves for this one, but you will need to distance yourself from any major city or light pollution. This will kill your chances of seeing Auroras or it will make them very faint. So choose a remote spot to drive to where you can have uninterrupted dark skies. (See above for light pollution with Northern Lights)
Those are the 6 variables that need to align in order to see the Northern Lights with your eyes. Now how to photograph Aurora Borealis, you will need to control some variables in your camera equipment.
Camera equipment needed to photograph the Northern Lights:
- Full Frame Camera – I use a Canon 5D Mark III
- Ultra Wide Angle Lens with a high aperture option – f/1.4 to f/2.8 will work the absolute best. I use the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 AE it is about $700-800
- Sturdy Tripod
- Remote Shutter
Your settings while shooting The Northern Lights are going to vary as you will have to manage the shutter speed and the ISO very carefully to ensure you have proper exposure. Too long of shutter speed will eliminate the detail in the Auroras and the outcome will be less dramatic. Too quick of a shutter speed and you may have to counteract this with an extremely high ISO and your shot may come out too grainy and noisy. Here are some photos of mine that I shot, unedited then edited with the sliders on the right to show my adjustments.
The settings I often start with are f/2.8 (always), Shutter Speed 15-20 seconds, and ISO 3200. Then I will change as needed. Once you like your exposure settings, now it is important to put together a composition. I like to ensure I have 1/3 ground and 2/3 sky (rule of thirds), to showcase the beautiful Auroras but the foreground creates the overall mood for the photo!
Good luck photographing The Northern Lights and be sure to pack a heavy jacket, toque/beanie, thin but warm gloves, snow pants and long underwear! Share on Facebook on the left