8 Questions About Photographing the Aurora, with Gabe Biderman

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Photographing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is one phenomenon that is on the bucket list of many night and landscape photographers around the world. If you are lucky enough to live in areas where the auroras are consistently active, you have likely gotten to enjoy the light show in the skies night after night. Most of us, however, have to trek to find the lights.

The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, appear in the opposite hemisphere, so as to not play favorites with hemispheric politics.

Accomplished night photographer, author, and workshop instructor, Gabe Biderman just announced an aurora workshop with PhotoQuest Adventures to Finland from March 22-29, 2017 for daytime activities and nighttime aurora shooting. Biderman is the author of the book Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots, and I recently joined him on a broadcast of the B&H Photo Podcast to talk about night photography.



 

I asked Biderman for some tips on finding and photographing auroras and, even if you cannot make the workshop, here is a list of good-to-know items for your own Northern (or Southern) Lights adventures!

Before we get started, let’s talk about what the aurora really is…

What (is an Aurora)?

Auroras are caused when electrons in space collide with the earth’s atmosphere. Where do the electrons come from? The sun. Thank you, Sun!

The center of earth’s nearest star is much hotter than the surface and, because of this temperature differential, the interior of the sun boils and causes explosions at the surface—coronal mass ejections (CME). These explosions send plasma into space, creating the solar wind. 40 hours after the explosion, the solar wind reaches Earth, where the aurora is created by the impact of protons and electrons into our atmosphere. Protons also cause an aurora, but it is very faint compared to the electron aurora.



 

Recorded since 1749, the sun appears to be on an 11-year cycle where we observe an increase in sunspots, plasma ejections, and solar wind that lead to an increase in aurora production. The last solar peak was in 2013, and we are now on the back side of that peak.

Where (can I see them)?

Because of the earth’s magnetic field, the bombardment of these particles usually occurs near the poles, but sometimes the storms are powerful enough to send auroras to points south or north of the usual range toward more populated areas. The best viewing is in the far northern or southern latitudes of the earth.

If you are aurora hunting, it is all about the location. Getting to a region that is within the aurora belt is the first order of business. For Northern Lights, places like Alaska, Northern Canada, Iceland, and the Laplands are probably the most popular destinations. For Southern Lights, Tasmania is known as a top viewing location. New Zealand, and the southern areas of Chile and Argentina also afford Southern Lights viewing. Antarctica is, of course, great as well.



 

For those in more moderate latitudes, there are rare instances that the aurora makes it far enough south or north for viewing. For readers not lucky enough to live near either aurora central, keep an eye on the space weather forecasts and aurora predictions because you might just get lucky enough to catch one in your own backyard. Auroras have been photographed in places as far south as Texas.

The disadvantage of viewing auroras in your backyard is that, if you are in or near an urban center, light pollution is going to have a decidedly negative effect on the quality of the viewing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and, among other awesome celestial products, the SWPC provides aurora forecasting with its OVATION (Oval Variation, Assessment, Tracking, Intensity, and Online Nowcasting) system.

When (do they arrive)?

Scientists have identified the 11-year solar cycle, but predicting specific CME’s and sunspot activity is impossible. The maximum warning you will have for a good aurora is 40 hours, so you can travel to the right location and not see anything. Also, local weather can always bring clouds and overcast skies that mask even the best auroras. Additionally, half of the solar wind that originates from the sun is headed away from earth, and any point on earth spends half its day facing away from the sun. You can see that a lot of uncontrollable factors come into the fold when you prepare to see the auroras. Due to the cycle of the earth’s magnetic field, the spring and autumnal equinoxes are often ideal times to view the auroras.



 

Biderman says, “The auroras typically start to show themselves from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and then again around 1 a.m. Some were incredibly vivid and seem to melt the whole sky. Others are barely visible to the naked eye; they look more or less like milky, curiously shaped clouds. However, our cameras can ‘see’ a wider range of colors than our eyes, and when we pointed our cameras skyward, we would start to see these subtle auroras dancing above us.”

How (does moon phase factor into the planning)?

The full moon can be a night photographer’s best friend and, simultaneously, the starscape a photographer’s worst enemy. Many caution about shooting auroras with a full moon but, in Gabe’s experience, it was beneficial. “Great images can be created with and without the moonlight. Some people feel a bright moon blows out the auroras; we didn’t experience this on our workshop, which was had three nights of a full moon. The full moonlight helps light up the foreground. Without that light, you will need to work harder to find really interesting silhouetted shapes to play against the sky. You can also light paint stronger and smaller compositions.”



 

Bottom line: give the moon phases their due, but do not be deterred if a good solar storm arrives at the “wrong” part of the moon’s cycle.

How (do I prepare)?

If you are traveling to extreme latitudes to see the aurora, you’ll want to make sure you are dressed for the occasion. If you live in a place where a heavy thermal parka and long undergarments will be of limited use twelve months of the year, you might consider renting gear from your tour company or a local vendor in the place you are traveling to instead of making a sizable investment in high-tech winter gear that you will only use a few days of your life.



 

For photographic gear preparedness, check out this article on Cold-Weather Photography. You’ll want to make sure that your gear is up for the challenge. Not all cameras and lenses can operate in the extreme cold—weather-sealed equipment is the way to go.

Biderman shoots with a “weather-sealed Fujifilm X-T1 and 18-135 lens, a Nikon D750 with the NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, and the Sony a7S with the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 lens with a Metabones adapter. If you have gear that can shoot successfully in inclement weather, it opens up some pretty amazing shooting opportunities.”

What (camera settings should I use)?

There is no hard and fast rule for aurora exposures, but Biderman’s experience can give you a starting point. “I was typically shooting at four to eight seconds, at f/8, ISO 3200-6400. This was easy with the Sony A7s, which I feel comfortable shooting up to 51,200 ISO. Bring the right gear—cameras capable of shooting at 3200-6400 ISO, sturdy tripod, cable release, and a wide and fast lens will help you get a spectacular shot.”



 

Where (do I point the camera)?

One key to a compelling aurora photograph is the foreground. Capturing the sky, and only the sky, usually will leave you wanting a better photograph. “Like any good picture, a strong foreground is key. I loved playing the manmade buildings against the heavenly skies. Don’t just point your camera to the sky—find something intriguing to anchor the image.”

When (are we leaving)?

Biderman's workshop for 2016 is sold out, but they just announced their 2017 dates! You can see more of his images from the last PhotoQuest Adventure here.  

Thank you for joining our journey into night photography! For more Visualizing the Night content, please click here: Visualizing The Night and share your enthusiasm for the art below in the comments section or reach out to us on social media using #visualizethenight. Thanks for reading!

4 Comments

Is the P-900 a DSLR camera or not?
I can't seem to get a straight answer to this simple question.
SWincerely 
Ricky M.

Hi Ricky,

It is NOT a DSLR camera. It is a point-and-shoot camera.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-review/nikon-p900-new-king-superzooms

Cheers!

i have a polaroid propack or proflash made in japan where cavci get films to take picture ?

Hi richard,

Thanks for reading. 

Please contact us via e-mail with this question:  [email protected]

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