8 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights, from Rachel Ross

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There are few natural phenomena that inspire the imagination as much as the Northern Lights. For most landscape photographers, capturing the aurora is a bucket-list shot. Because it’s such a rare opportunity, and can come and go very quickly, it helps to be armed with a few pointers before heading out to shoot.

What Causes the Aurora?

The aurora is directly related to activity on the sun. Solar storms on the sun send charged particles hurtling through space. When those charged particles reach Earth, they interact with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, as well as the Earth’s geomagnetic field, which causes the particles to light up! Essentially, solar wind powers the aurora by carrying the charged particles through space. However, most solar activity is not directed toward Earth. Therefore, not all solar activity causes auroras. When the solar wind is calm, we won’t see much aurora activity. When the solar wind is strong (and directed toward Earth), we can potentially see intense auroras!

How to Predict the Aurora

Predicting the aurora is tricky business; there is a lot of science behind understanding the activity of the sun, and how that solar activity interacts with the Earth’s geomagnetic field. I have come to believe that the only reliable indicator of a big aurora event is when I board a plane for international travel… I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been flying to a place like Scotland (where it rains almost every day of the year) only to hear that there is a big aurora storm expected. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on my travel schedule to know when an aurora is expected, because there are many more scientific resources available!

Scientists can predict when there is going to be an aurora, but with less confidence and accuracy than they can regular weather. The sun turns on its axis once every 27 days. Therefore, solar storms on a particular region of the sun may come around to face Earth multiple times over a period of months. They can also measure solar wind velocity to determine when the charged particles could interact with Earth’s atmosphere.

Tips and Resources for Aurora Photography

1. Get Notified!

There are many Resources available for predicting the aurora. My primary source is Space Weather Live. This website provides the data that scientists use to forecast aurora activity. There are many indicators of potential aurora activity. The most utilized is typically the Kp indicator, which ranges from 0 (calm) to 9 (which would be considered a major geomagnetic storm). Kp 5 (or above) is considered a geomagnetic storm. In the northern reaches, such as Alaska and Iceland, you can see the aurora on most clear nights. In the middle latitudes, such as the Canadian Rockies, a Kp 4 would appear as a low band of light on the horizon. Kp 5 and above would produce pillars and ribbons of auroral light.

There is also a group on Facebook called “Alberta Aurora Chasers.” Many of the members are knowledgeable about the science behind the aurora; the platform is a great space to learn more about the Northern Lights. It is also a great place to keep informed of when and if the forecasted storm has arrived at our atmosphere.

Finally, there are apps like Aurora that will notify you when Aurora activity reaches storm levels in your area.

2. Find a North-Facing Location

If you are in the middle latitudes (like I am, in the Canadian Rockies) you will need to find a north-facing location. The aurora oval tends to hug the poles but, if the storm is strong, it will extend down toward the middle latitudes.

If you are in the upper latitudes such as in Iceland or Alaska, the aurora can be seen in any direction. I noticed in Iceland that it often started in an east to west direction, but could be seen throughout the entire sky.

3. Find Clear Skies

This is easier said than done, but there are some great resources we can use to help us find clear skies! My primary weather app is: Windy. This app is fairly accurate, even in the Canadian Rockies! I use it to understand cloud forecasts and patterns, but it is also useful for precipitation, accumulated snowfall, tides, fog, wind, and much more.

There are a few websites that can also help determine how far you might have to travel when chasing the aurora. I lean on Clear Dark Skies when I need a second opinion on the cloud situation. In Iceland, I used the Icelandic Met Office website that was remarkably accurate for anticipating cloud coverage.

All is not lost if there are some clouds. The image below was shot during a light snowfall in Iceland and I still managed to get something unique. Of course, if the cloud cover is too heavy, you won’t see much of the aurora.

4. Scout in Advance for a Composition

Visiting the location a few days before the event, or earlier in the day, will reduce the pressure of searching for a composition when the lights are already dancing. Strong foregrounds are as important in any night photography as they are during the day. Take time to walk around the location with your camera and take 20 quick handheld shots. It doesn’t matter if they are in focus or not. The important thing is to look at the landscape through your lens because it will look different through your camera than it will to the naked eye; our eyes don’t see at 12mm focal lengths!

A major compositional element I look for when shooting the aurora is reflective surfaces such as water, snow, and ice. This helps to bring the soft green glow of the aurora through more of the image and ties the whole scene together.

5. Settings: Use Wide Apertures

Shoot at your widest aperture. The first goal when photographing the aurora is to let as much light into the camera as possible. Ideally, you want a fast lens (one that shoots at f/2.8). However, if you have elements of the scene that are near your lens, you will likely need to focus stack or shoot the foreground at narrower apertures to get those pieces in focus.

6. Aim for Short Shutter Times

Although the goal is to capture the aurora, you will also be photographing the stars. If you simply leave your shutter open for 30 seconds to let as much light into the camera as possible, the stars will trail, and the aurora will likely look like a shapeless blob. Therefore, we need to find a maximum shutter time that will allow the best results for the stars, then adjust to shorter shutters to accommodate fast-moving auroras, if needed.

Your focal length, aperture, and your camera’s sensor will determine how long you can leave the shutter open before stars begin to trail. Generally speaking, the shutter can stay open longer with wider focal lengths than it can with longer focal lengths.

I use the “spot stars” function of the PhotoPills app for a quick reference of the shutter time for a given focal length. Notice that the time varies slightly between the Sony a7R III and the Sony a9 II in the example, because the app considers the sensor differences between the two cameras.

7. Use ISO to Control Exposure

If the aurora is intense, you may need to reduce your ISO to avoid blowing out the highlights. Conversely, you may need to increase your ISO if the aurora is faint. Typically, I start at an ISO of 3200 and adjust my settings as necessary.

8. Consider Ambient Light

Now that you think you know what settings to shoot with, I’m going to complicate things by talking about ambient light. This can be light from the moon, light pollution, or light you add to the scene. As the ambient light increases, you may have to adjust your settings. You can use narrower apertures to increase depth of field or reduce ISO to reduce any noise in the image. In this shot, I had a lot of moonlight to work with, which allowed me to shoot at f/8 for 30 seconds and focus-stack the frost flowers in the foreground. I shot the sky separately, at f/2.8 for 8 seconds, to get faster shutter times for the stars and the movement of the aurora.

Did you know…

People often ask me if the aurora really looks like it does in my photos. Fun science fact: Unless the light is really bright from the moon or the dancing aurora, we don’t see in colour at night because there is not enough light to stimulate the photoreceptors in our eyes that allow us to see the world in colour. Without light, human vision relies on the peripheral photoreceptors in the eye to see in the dark, which are very adept at detecting movement, but they only show us the world in black and white.

Our cameras don’t have these limitations. Their sensitivity to light allows us to see our world far beyond what the human eye can perceive. The aurora can be very colourful. We typically see the aurora as dancing green lights. However, it can also be blue, purple, pink, and even red. The colour depends on the where the particles from the sun interact with the particles in our atmosphere. The familiar green colour is produced when the sun’s particles interact with oxygen up to about 60 miles from Earth’s surface, whereas the reds are from interactions with oxygen up to about 200 miles from Earth’s surface. Interactions with nitrogen produce the blues and purples.

When an auroral storm is very strong, you can see all the colours with your eyes because there is so much light stimulating the photoreceptors that perceive colour. For me, clicking the shutter and allowing the camera to show me the world beyond what I can see is mesmerising. It is like pulling back a curtain and peering into the universe.

I hope you found these tips helpful. If you would like to see more of my work, or learn more about my Aurora Workshops, visit me at www.AstralisPhotography.com

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