How to Shoot the Aurora: 10 Tips from an Alaskan
Being born and raised in Northern Alaska the first question anyone asks me whenever they find out where I live is, "Do you see the aurora?!!". The answer is yes, and even after all these years I still am awestruck by it. Those nights where they're especially spectacular I try and remind myself of the frequent tourists I meet who have saved for years to come here, only hoping to catch a glimpse of what I can walk on my front door and see a solid 8 months of the year. They're efforts are sometimes thwarted by extreme cold (-50 degrees), or clouds, or ice fog as a result of the extreme cold. I am no expert aurora photographer like some of my neighbors, but I've learned a few things a long the way that might be helpful, time saving, and help you "Lower 48ers" get that shot you've saved a lifetime for.
1. Bring warm clothes/gear. This does not necessarily mean you need to be decked out in the latest $600 REI coat I so commonly see the tourists in here. You do need to be warm though, so a parka is a must, and good boots with a big sole to keep you off the ground. A face mask of some sort is a MUST, and a lesson you won't forget the first time you breath on your camera and your breath freezes your lens over. Bring a head lamp so you can see what your doing. Do not wear cotton as your first layer, wool, polypropylene is preferred. Chemically activated hand warmers you can put inside your gloves or pockets will help you out as well. A lighter layer of gloves you can slide inside heavier mittens as well. You're going to have to be able to use your hands somewhat, even in the cold.
2. A tripod is a MUST. Preferably one that's taller and with a good ball head. You can do it with others but bending down trying to see through your viewfinder when your DSLR is 12 inches off the ground in the snow is going to get old fast. Putting foam on your tripod legs will help keep your hands warmer.
3. Take off your lens filter if you have one. Use your hood to protect against frost/condensation.
4. Acclimate your camera. Just like any electronics, if you spend hours outside way below zero don't bring that puppy into a 70 degree house without some steps in between.
5. Pre-focusing your lens: Don’t overlook this important step. I have found this to be the biggest problem with photographing the aurora. With the new genre of autofocus cameras and lenses, there is tolerance built into the lenses to accommodate for changes in temperature. For this reason, you can’t just manually turn the focus dial to infinity and be confident that it will be in sharp focus. The old manual lenses did this perfectly, but the new ones don’t. Before it gets dark, focus your camera on a distant “infinity” focal point, like a mountain horizon.
6. Bring more than one battery, and switch them out frequently. Cold eats batteries alive, couple that with long exposures and you'll be glad you have 3-4. Keep them out of the camera in your pocket until you're ready to shoot and then slide them in, same goes for the memory card.
7. Always shoot in RAW format and put black tape over any processing lights on your gear, they will interfere with the final product. Set your LCD brightness to low.
8. Use a remote control or cable release, any movement, even your slight touch of the shutter button will blur your shot.
9. The following table offers some very rough exposure estimates to start out:
f/ratio400 ISO800 ISO1600 ISO
215 sec07 sec04 sec
2.830 sec15 sec07 sec
460 sec30 sec15 sec
10. Don't forget to enjoy the show!! Sure the aurora produces some amazing pictures, but as we all know nothing can quite capture it like the human eye, so make sure to take some time and enjoy it sans through the camera lens!!
Photo credits: Roman Krochuk.
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