About a year ago, I discovered that the Aurora Australis (aka the Southern Lights) were visible from Tasmania. So I spent several nights last Christmas, tripod and camera poised facing southwards, trying to catch a glimpse. Despite stunning views of the Milky Way, and the predictable flyby from ISS, there was not even a hint of an aurora, much to my disappointment. Roll on 12 months, and I ventured to far North Finland, in the heart of Lapland and within the Arctic Circle in search of the Aurora Australis’ polar opposite – The Northern Lights – the Aurora Borealis. Of the 5 days we were there, we saw the Aurora on 4 of those days, the exception being the one day it snowed. Below are some tips for photographing what can be elusive lights.
1) Find the horizon: It may sounds obvious, but with the Northern lights you need to start with looking North (and south for the Southern Lights). When arriving in a location, find somewhere with a clear view to the northern horizon if possible. If the aurora decides to appear that evening you are likely to notice it there first.
2) Be persistent: Even if the sky may not be entirely clear, do go out and look for the aurora. Skies can clear, and the presence of some clouds can make your photos more dramatic. I actually apply the same rule as when photographing landscapes in Ireland. Even if it’s raining, I still bring the camera, as some of the best photos are those where the sun creeps through cloud, or the most stunning rainbow appears. The same applies with auroras. On our first night in Finland, even though it was cloudy, I went looking for a vantage point of north, and then came across a bright aurora on the horizon.
3) Use a Fast, Wide-angle lens: To capture a great photo and ensure crisp definition of an aurora, you should be aiming to capture as much light as possible, in as short a time frame as possible. This means using a large aperture. This will depend on your camera and lens, but in the shots I took recently I used 2.8, and I had a wide-angle 15-30mm Tamron lens.
4) Use high ISO: This is of course also dependent on your camera capabilities and also on what aperture you can set. I used 1600 ISO, as I didn’t want to go too grainy. If you can’t achieve a large aperture, then you will need to compensate with a higher ISO.
5) Focus, Focus, Focus: This is perhaps the most important skill. What makes a great aurora photo is no different to any other photo, it should be as sharp as possible. Having stars as sharp as pin-points is what you should be achieving. First of all, you need to turn Auto-Focus off and go Manual. You won’t be able to use auto-focus reliably in the night. In order to get your stars sharp, frame a shot with stars in view. Zoom in with your lens on the stars, and manually adjust the focus until they appear sharp in the view finder. When done, zoom out and then re-compose your frame.
6) Experiment with Exposure: If an aurora is appearing, it should last a few minutes, and it gives you time to experiment with exposure and composition. To do this, you should go on Bulb setting, and use a cable release or remote shutter release to take the shot. Using Bulb means you can easily experiment with your shutter speed, and using a remote release means you minimise camera shake when taking the shot. For faint auroras, I was using between 8-10s. For brighter auroras, and to ensure crisp definition of those dancing lights, you want to use less – say between 2-5s.
6) Practice your night photography before you go: If you want to get a clear shot of an aurora, practice your night photography. All of the above steps come into play, and if you are changing composition and adjusting your tripod too, then mastering the basics before hand – will mean you spend your time photographing the aurora rather than figuring out how to use your camera properly.
Hope the tips prove useful. Below is one of the many shots of an aurora I took while in Finland.