Photographing Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

Northern lights are great to watch. They involve the burning of atmospheric gases high above the earth as a result of solar winds from the sun. You stand on this planet and realise how small and insignificant we really are, how short our lives are and how beautiful this planet is. In essence it is Night Photography. Photographing them takes a bit of knowledge, but once you have it, it becomes as easy as taking any regular photograph.

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Equipment

This article discusses the use of digital SLRs (DSRLs) or modern Mirror-less bridge cameras, but a film camera is equally good and in some respects better. Whatever your camera, you need the ability to open the shutter for at least 10-30 seconds. If you have a bulb setting (B) and you have a shutter release cable, then you will have much more control. I have seen people use a two second exposure on a compact camera and they got a result, but not the kind of result we are going to try and achieve. Next you will need a tripod or a way of keeping the camera perfectly still for long periods. I once forgot my tripod head and successfully shot with my camera resting on my camera bag. Choose a tripod carefully, not too heavy, but not too light. You don’t want to struggle carrying it over icy landscapes and you don’t want the wind to be able to jog the camera. Try and choose one where it is easy to set up with your gloves on. You certainly don’t want to be handling bare metal without gloves in Arctic conditions. A spare battery is very important. The cold zaps your battery and on average you battery life will be cut in half. Plenty of memory or film, it is not nice to run out. A good lens is important. If you can choose your lens, go for a fairly wide angle (17mm – 24mm) and one with a large aperture f/2.8 is preferable.

Weather

The second consideration is the weather. If you are far north enough to see them, then you will probably have very changeable weather. The ideal conditions are very very clear skies. The moon plays an important role. It is a matter of taste, but I prefer not to have the moon in the shot. Having the moon behind you can really help to expose the landscape, but a fullmoon makes your shot look like a day time photograph. This is enhanced further if the landscape is covered in snow. The wind can be a challenge… the less wind, the better. The most important weather consideration is space weather and you can check this on this site. If this site says it is good, then it will be good. The thing to look for (if you can’t see anything yet) is a feint green streak across the sky, this is a good sign that it is worth waiting around for an hour or so.

Vertical Rainbow

Aurora Magic Cloth – foreground given twice as much exposure.

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Exposure

OK, you have perfect weather and you have all the equipment. What do you do next? If you have a digital camera you can take many exposures and judge from your viewer. Use these exposure times as a rough guide. They will give you a result in most Aurora conditions. Then adjust accordingly.

ISO800
ISO1600
F stop f/1.4
4 sec
2 sec
f/2
6 sec
3 sec
f/2.8
12 sec
6 sec
f/4
20 sec
10 sec

The Moon
Photographing Northern Lights is possible during all moon phases. The moon is a source of light pollution which means that the sky wont be properly dark with a full moon. A successful aurora picture would require a very strong aurora display. Most pictures in anything more than a half moon will capture only green auroras because it is not dark enough to define the other colours. A half moon in the opposite sky to the Norther lights can be useful to expose the foreground without any tricks. A new moon is difficult to expose and process but gives a much fuller spectrum of Northern Lights colour.

Very dark moonless night meant using higher iso and destructive processing, but the colours are rare.

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A half moon was useful to light up the glacier ice. The colours are mostly green with hints of red.

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Composition

Of course, the sky is going to be a major part of your image, but carefully composing some of the land will help give you image a sense of perspective. Favourites of mine are perfectly still water… this can be rare in Iceland, but a reflection shot is a real prize winner. If it is very dark, then look for some interesting shapes on the horizon. You might have to wait a while for the lights to appear, but if you spend this time taking some long night landscapes, you will have a better idea of composition when they arrive.

An HDR image from Hafravatn lake

HDR Photography

Go for it if you have the patience. The image above was from two exposures: 30 seconds to capture the sky and 6 minutes to capture the foreground.

The downside is that you will miss out on a lot of Northern Lights exposures while you are exposing your foreground shot. For post-processing it is best to bring the original sky back into the image for natural looking stars (see comment below).

Magic Cloth

You can apply the Magic Cloth Technique in a similar way. As soon as you know the right exposure for the sky, just cover the sky and allow another 3 times the exposure for the landscape. More info here:
Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique This has the same downside that you will miss shots while exposing the foreground, but because it is a single exposure, you do save a bit of time over the HDR 2 exposure method.


Ice Beach Aurora

Ice Beach Aurora
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
ƒ/2.8 – 24.0 mm – 30sec – iso1600

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