How to photograph the Northern Lights
If it happens to be in the northern or southern part of the planet or if your travel plans take you in that part of the world, you may have a chance to photograph Aurora.
Also known as Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) or Southern lights (Aurora Australis), this phenomenon is a spectacular display of lights in the sky. It is created by the interaction between the solar winds (a stream of charged particulars discharged during the solar storm that travels towards us) and Earth’s magnetic shield.
Iceland, Alaska, the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Canada are the prime locations to whiteness this magnificent celestial show for the Northern Hemisphere, while the Southern tip of Tasmania (Australia) and New Zealand are the best spots for the Southern lights. Late autumn and winter are the best time to see the lights since the nights are long and dark.
Destination set, it’s time to start planning step by step our arctic adventure. If you decide to go in the winter be advised that at this high latitude December and January days are very short. Depending on how far north you are going, the sun may not rise above the horizon, an advantage, giving you more time to chase Aurora. Yes, the northern lights are not always on!? Unfortunately, this phenomenon is present on the arctic sky during solar activity.
Before heading out it is a good idea to check for aurora forecast. Among a good number of websites, I would recommend https://www.spaceweatherlive.com/ providing information about the solar activity and a list of location with pretty good odds to watch the aurora. Another good information source available for your mobile phone is My Aurora Forecast, an app that detects your location and predicts how likely is to see the northern light from your current location. Another factor to consider is the weather, some clouds might be acceptable but I prefer a clear sky.
Now that our location is set and that we are well informed about weather and aurora forecast let’s start preparing our gear. Before talking about the camera, tripod, ISO, or focus, remember that outside is night, winter, and that we are heading to the arctic circle, that means incredibly cold weather. So, let’s prepare the right clothes! Believe it or not, this one-time life experience could be ruined by an inadequate dressing. The secret is to dress in layers, use underwear made from high-tech yarn or, as I highly recommend, merino wool. This will keep your body heat and it will wick away any moisture. The intermediary layers could be wool sweaters or a polar fleece type jacket. For pants, you need long underwear and waterproof and windproof ski pants which will protect you against extremes. On the top layers, a waterproof and windproof jacket should be enough. Make sure it has a hood and that it is long enough to cover your bottom. A parka will do the job. Do not overdress, you need to be able to move and do some hiking. For the hands, a pair of gloves to keep you warm but not limit your dexterity is recommended. In my last trip to Norway, I used these inexpensive gloves Aegend Sky Gloves. They were warm and I could adjust the camera setting without removing them. Wool socks are your best friends to keep you dry and warm. As an alternative, I also used this synthetic brand for the cold nights Heat holders thermal socks. Waterproof boots, ankle height with a rough non-slip shoe are a good option. On the head, a ski mask as a first layer and a Russian style winter ear flap hat kept me warm even in the furthest of our arctic trips.
Other things to consider that will help in the arctic climate: cover camera protection for the snow and rain, hands and foot warmers single use air-activated heat packs (can be used to keep camera battery warm and not only), and a LED headlamp flashlight frontal.
Now, let’s start preparing the photographic gear. To capture images of the Northern Lights we are going to need a sturdy tripod, a camera with manual mode and a wide-angle lens. In an ideal setup, a full frame camera with high ISO performance will not create too much noise next to a fast-wide angle lens 14-24 mm with fast aperture f/2.8-f4. If outside it is very cold, the batteries will discard much faster. I always have with me 4-5 extra batteries that I keep warm using the heat packs (or you can keep them warm from your body, in inner pocket).
The first step in setting up the camera is to set the lens in manual mode and manually focus the lens. The autofocus will not be helpful in the middle of the night. Fortunately, they are several methods to overcome this problem: we can pre-focus the camera during the day or manually adjusting the lens in camera’s live view mode, focusing on the bright star. Next, set the image format to RAW. This uncompressed file format will give you flexibility later in the post-processing. Now let's set the aperture: my go to setting is f/2.8 but you can get away with f/4 if the Aurora is very intense. For the next settings there is no magic formula; adjust ISO and the Exposure until the correct exposure is obtained. I would start with ISO 3200 and 10-15 second of exposure. If the light is moving fast in the sky and it is very bright, I would lower the exposure time to 4-8 seconds; if they are slow, try 15-25 seconds. Sometimes the light could be suddenly very bright and you can risk overexposing the image; in this case, you can underexpose the image a little. You need to play around with this setting until getting the correct exposure.
When you see in the sky a faint light green spot, getting brighter and brighter, and starting to dance, a play between the Earth magnetic field and the charged particle from the Sun, get ready your camera, start taking photos, don’t lose yourself in all these technical aspects of photography, find a moment, stop what you’re doing, and simply enjoy the show!