How to Shoot the Northern Lights
I want to start off the help and "how to" section by going over a topic that I really enjoy shooting, the Northern Lights. Also known as the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere (ie the "southern lights".)
I spent the last 5 years working in Calgary, Alberta (Canada) and jumped at the opportunity to start shooting a phenomenon I was unexposed to growing up in Texas.
Lucky for me, by the time I was "skilled" enough to shoot the northern lights, the solar maximum was nearing it's peak. Granted it has been nothing like it was back in the 1980's or even throughout history. In fact, some scientists are baffled at how 'relatively' quiet the sun has been for a solar maximum!
I digress, you're here to learn HOW to shoot the northern lights, not listen to my background. Long story short, you don't need a super fancy $10,000 camera. However, you do need a camera that has MANUALLY adjustable aperture, shutter speed and iso settings.
First things first, let's start off with the basics. A great photograph, day or night is nothing without composition. I recommend scouting, either in person or if that's not feasible, with products like Google Earth. I can't tell you how many first time spots I've been to and been extremely pleased having scouted solely with Google Earth. But back to composition, your subject can be absolutely stunning, but if your foreground/background is cluttered (ie powerlines, etc...) you can ruin an otherwise GREAT photo. Without going much further into this, make sure that all elements of your photo work FOR the photo. If not, remove them by zooming in/out, moving or tilting/panning.
Secondly, I will assume here that in addition to composition, the basics of photography will apply, such as even horizons, rule of thirds. If you don't know what these are, Google them.
Third, now we're getting into the meat of it. You've got a great spot picked, you know +/- where the northern lights will show up (hint I'd point the camera north for starters...) You've checked the websites for solar flares and CME (coronal mass ejections... essentially sun farts.) Here are a few websites I use and check often:
I don't check the sites daily, however, I (personally) use Facebook and Twitter as essentially my newspaper. My Twitter feed is especially important as I've updated and follow mostly news and breaking news sites, plus weather and other interests. As such here are a few Twitter Feeds that I follow to alert me when there is a CME and potential northern lights event in the coming days:
Ok, so up to this point you know where you're going, you know there is a potential CME/aurora event... I say potential because there are, more often than not, warnings with nothing more than a fizzle. Depending where you live you could also have clouds even though the aurora storm of the century is raging over head. Basically I've found the odds are stacked against you more than with you. Get used to it.
So, seriously now, how do I SHOOT the aurora? Well you won the lottery, the northern lights are out and about doing their thing. Here's my checklist:
1. Set the White Balance to "Cloudy." I have found this seems create the best colors, not too warm, not too cool.
2. Shoot in RAW. Space is cheap. Get an 8 or 16 Gb SD/CF card.
Here's a link to the CF card I recommend: Lexar Professional 1000x 16 GB
3. Set your iso to 1600 (to start.) We'll adjust later on.
4. Set your aperture to the lowest your lens will go. If you're starting out and have a kit lens, then you're probably stuck at f/3.5. That's ok, we'll compensate later with iso if necessary.
5. Go WIDE.... if you have a zoom lens, and especially if you are using a kit lens, the wider you go (for example 18 mm on an 18-50 lens) will allow you to shoot at your lens' widest aperture. If you zoom in, sometimes, the lens with "stop up" meaning it may jump your largest aperture down to, say f/4 or f/5 even. This translates to significant light loss on the sensor.
6. Set your shutter speed to 15 seconds. Again, we'll adjust later. The reason I say start with 15 seconds is that the northern lights are booking it, somewhere on the order of 600 kilometers per second. The most dramatic aurora shots I've seen have detail and a shorter shutter speed captures more detail. If you just want color, feel free to use a longer exposure.
7. Last but not least, use either a remote shutter release (Google for your cameras model) or a timer delay. Most cameras have a 10 second and 2 second (or customizable) delay. If I'm not using my shutter release, I use the 2 second delay on my camera to minimize camera shake. Unless you're a Marine Scout Sniper, your trigger finger will induce shake. Scout Snipers can do what they want.
8. The last step in my checklist is to focus. There are a ton of articles on focusing at night. You can get to your spot early and pre-focus then set to manual, use a high-powered spotlight to light up a distant object, then manually focus (I recommend the live view function) or my last-resort is to use the stars like the viking navigators of old. To do the Matt Method, you will need to use Live View on your viewfinder. Make sure your zoom and aperture are set and then set the focus to Manual. Then twist the focus ring until you see the stars on the viewfinder go in and out of focus. You'll have to play around a bit but I've found this method produces good results with a little practice.
9. Now fire away... If you can see the northern lights, so can your camera. The two major changes now will be your iso and shutter speed. I personally have shot as high as iso 6400 when shooting at night because the noise 'generally' blends in nice with the stars. As such my first recommendation if you can see a faint glow is to bump your iso up an f stop, to say, 2500 and shoot again. Go once more if it's too dark to 3200 and then increase your shutter speed.
I recommend playing around a little bit now but not going over 30 seconds for the shutter speed. You will start seeing star trails which aren't nice "dots" unless that's the look you're going for. The one rule I adhere to in photography is that there are no rules... so follow or ignore my "rules" above, your choice.
One last note, don't worry about it if there is a full moon. In fact, I've come to embrace it... A full moon can really like up the landscape so instead of a silhouette for the background, you get a nicely lit scene. If you are shooting into a full moon, refer to my "odds are stacked against you" comments above and deal with it. Shoot, adjust, shoot, adjust.
Again, this is just the "checklist" I go through when shooting the northern lights. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to get ahold of me through the contact button on the main menu.
If you found this review helpful, please consider purchasing a print. If you click on the photo it will bring up the purchase dialog. All prints are fulfilled through Bay Photo lab in California. They do AWESOME work and get all of my own prints done through them.