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How to Shoot Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights

Mia Stalnacke Aurora

For a lot of people, getting the opportunity to view the aurora borealis is more than enough, for some it’s been a life-long dream.

While standing there in the middle of the night with the aurora dancing overhead, you will probably want to capture the moment forever. A lot of people have tried and been sorely disappointed when the pictures turned out to be nothing but darkness and a dim, green, out of focus glow, when in fact the colorful lights were shining bright and dancing across the sky. I hope this article will help you capture some amazing memories!

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Camera

While compact point and shoot cameras have gotten much more advanced in the last few years, I wouldn’t recommend relying on one for your aurora photography. If you don’t own a DSLR, try to ask around and see if someone could perhaps lend you one.

I personally use a Nikon D800, which is full frame, but you can get amazing shots with way less. What you need is a camera where you can adjust everything manually. Forget about auto mode and auto focus! If you’ve never done night sky photography and always shoot with a pre-set program it might seem a bit daunting, but I promise you, you’ll get it in no time!

Lens

I mostly use the Nikon AF-S 14-24, f/2.8G ED which is an excellent wide angle lens, the only down side is the price tag. You can find a good lens at a much lower price if you don’t want to spend too much.

There are a few things you should consider — firstly you’ll want a fast lens (large aperture), f/3.5 or wider. It should be wide angle and as sharp as possible, as the aurora can cover almost the entire sky and you’ll want to get as much of it as possible in your frame.

Filters

If you usually have a filter on your lens (most people use a UV filter for protection), you’ll want to remove it before shooting the aurora. Don’t use any filters at all, they will mess up your photos!

Tripod

Besides a DSLR, you also need a tripod. Using one is absolutely critical since you will be doing long exposures.

Since we’re talking about the northern lights, you’ll probably be far north and it will most likely be autumn or winter when you’re out shooting. In Kiruna, Sweden, where I’m located, the temperature can drop down to below -40C so you’ll want to get a tripod with foam padding on the legs or put some on yourself. You’ll thank me when you’re out in the extreme cold having to touch it!

Cable release

A cable release or a wireless remote can come in handy to prevent camera shake and to do exposures longer than 30 seconds. Personally I never go over 30 seconds, the aurora is usually so bright and fast moving up here that the highlights will get completely burned out and the entire sky will just look like a green mess. You’ll also start getting startrails and your pictures won’t look sharp.

I rarely use a remote at all, so how do I avoid camera shake?
Here’s my tip: bring a little piece of cardboard or a plastic lid (not clear or at all transparent), or anything really, big enough to cover the front of your lens. Hold it up in front of the lens as you press the shutter release and then quickly yank it away once your hand is off the camera. Voila! No shaky photos!

Mia Stalnacke Aurora
Photo: Mia Stalnåcke

Don’t forget the foreground

So you’re at the location. If you’re lucky the sky above you is on fire! Lights dancing overhead. It’s easy to get completely blown away by the incredible beauty of this phenomenon but try to quickly scope out the scene.

Look around you, what do you see? Maybe a frozen lake, pretty snow covered trees, or a little cabin.

The foreground is half the picture. I’ve been shooting the northern lights for a few years now and I’ve seen them every season of my life but I still get incredibly excited on every single shoot and often forget about the foreground completely for the first few shots.

Raw or JPEG?

I always shoot in raw and I’d suggest you do the same. There is so much more information to work with in a raw copy than a JPEG (which is processed in camera) and if you didn’t get the exposure just right you can bring a lot out afterwards.

If, for some reason, you decide to shoot in JPEG, I’d suggest you turn on long exposure noise reduction and high ISO noise reduction in your camera’s settings, otherwise make sure they’re both off. Processing software like Lightroom does a much better job at noise reduction than the camera and you have all the control.

If you don’t know how to process raw files yet and if it’s possible on your camera, you can choose to shoot in raw+JPEG. I promise you, once you learn about working with raw you’ll be glad you did.

Focus

I only got a couple of shots at this location before a moose came plunging through the water and scared me half to death.

This was one of the test shots to get the focus right (which it isn’t). I was incredibly disappointed when I came home and reviewed my few shots. It was incredibly noisy, out of focus and way too dark except for the aurora itself and it’s reflection.

Mia Stalnacke aurora
Photo: Mia Stalnåcke

If I had been shooting in JPEG when I took this picture it would have been immediately thrown away. But because I was shooting in raw I could bring out the dark parts and get rid of the noise. Despite its flaws, this picture was actually chosen as one of the best astronomy photos of the year 2014 by Swedish astronomy magazine Populär Astronomi.

Autofocus will NOT work in the dark. There are a few different techniques for getting the focus spot on, I’ll go through them here.
First of all, turning your focus ring to infinity won’t work. I’ve tried a lot of lenses and it hasn’t worked on a single one of them.

Focus in daylight

Find a mountain or something else that’s very far away and auto focus on that, then switch over to manual focus and don’t touch it until it’s time. Or mark the spot with a little piece of tape or with a marker.

Manually focus on the brightest planet or star

Turn on live view and zoom in as much as possible. Now set the focus so the object is sharp.

My way!

After using a lens for a while you learn how to focus manually, it’s in your fingers. What I do is turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then turn it back a tiny little bit. I know, very unscientific and easy to understand, but it works!

Do this and take a test shot, zoom in on the finished picture to see if it’s in focus, if not, repeat. I do this with every new lens I use and it only takes one or two tries to learn. Now I never have to look, it’s programmed into my fingers and much quicker than the other methods.

Settings

I’d advise you to turn down the brightness of the LCD screen on the back of your camera. The preview you get after taking a picture gives you a good indication of whether or not you got a decent exposure. But you should be aware that your picture will look a bit brighter than it actually is and you run the risk of being disappointed when viewing it on a big screen.

This is where the histogram comes in handy, it won’t lie. Here’s a helpful link if you’re interested in knowing more: the histogram explained, at LuminousLandscape.com.

Personally, I still go by trial and error and try different settings throughout the night.

Your settings will depend on whether the aurora is bright or dim, moving rapidly, or behaving more like a stationary glow. Therefore it would be impossible for me to give you a definitive list of settings that will work every time but I’ll give you some starting tips.

I always shoot in manual mode, meaning I do all the settings myself. It is however possible to sometimes shoot in aperture priority mode, where you set the aperture and ISO and your camera decides how long the exposure should be.

If you want to give this a go, set the aperture (the f-stop) at its largest opening, that is the lowest number you can get. On my lens that would be 2.8. Only do this if you have a fast lens (low f/number), try it out and see if it produces nice results. Otherwise just do as I do and always shoot in manual mode.

ISO, shutter speed, and aperture

These are the three things you will need to get familiar with.

The aperture is what is called “f” in your camera settings. The smaller the f/number, the larger the aperture. Simply put, aperture controls the amount of light traveling through the lens. For aurora photography, all night sky photography really, you’ll want to stay on the large end — the lowest numbers.

Changing the ISO is changing your camera’s sensitivity to light, the higher you go the more sensitive your sensor will be. When shooting the aurora you’ll need your camera to be very sensitive and gather as much light as possible.

ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are really the three pillars of photography, understanding how they work together is very valuable, you could even say it’s absolutely necessary.

Where to start

So we now know to use a low f/stop (usually f/2.8-4 for me) and I’ve said we need the sensor to be very sensitive to light. This does NOT, however, mean that you should set your camera to the highest ISO setting possible. Newer DSLRs go up to over ISO 12,000, in comparison you only need ISO 100-200 for daylight shots.

If you’re in a place where the aurora is bright and moving across the sky, not just a dim line on the horizon, I’d suggest you start out with these settings:

  • Shoot in raw
  • Auto white balance
  • f/2.8-f/3.5
  • ISO 800
  • 15 second exposure

You will most likely need to adjust these settings as you go. If the aurora is moving rapidly you’ll want to capture the rifts and shapes and therefore you’ll want to keep the exposure as short as possible. So why not push the ISO up to it’s absolute maximum and just fire away?

That’s when the massive downside to high ISO comes in — noise! DSLRs today typically do very well with noise even at pretty high ISO, but when you go above ISO 800 you will definitely start seeing noise and when you go higher still it will become very apparent. Processing software does a good job at getting rid of it and I sometimes do wide-field astrophotography at ISO up to 3200 or so but I really prefer staying lower.

I talked about shooting in raw format before and this is a situation where you’ll be so glad you did. Trying to reduce noise in a JPEG in post processing is horrible. If you do shoot in JPEG only you’ll want to turn on high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction before your shoot.

When, on the other hand, the aurora is only giving you a modest display you get the perfect opportunity to capture it with the Milky Way shining in the same frame. This is the only time I go as high as a 30 sec exposure.

Mia Stalnacke aurora
Photo: Mia Stalnåcke

Processing

If you follow my advice and shoot in raw you’ll need software able to process those files. I prefer Adobe Lightroom but there are free alternatives.

With these programmes you’ll be able to adjust the white balance, reduce noise, brighten up the foreground, and much more.

Out of these three alternatives to Lightroom I’ve only briefly tried Nikon’s software, so I can’t say much about how well they work, but they are free.

What I always do to my photos in post is reduce the noise, lift the shadows a bit, as well as lifting the whites. Sometimes after shooting a super bright display I reduce the highlights since they get blown out. It happens that the auto white balance doesn’t quite get it right, the aurora can appear a bit yellow or the landscape is suddenly green like the sky. I like my finished pictures to look as much as what I actually saw as possible so I’ll adjust this in post processing. I also sharpen my pictures a bit and adjust the contrast.

Now you know about the key settings, it’s time to start practicing!

I told you in the beginning to forget about auto mode and I stick by that. There is however a great use for it while you’re practicing.

Put your camera in auto mode and take a few shots in different lighting conditions and observe how the settings change. Doing this was a great help to me when I first started out. I knew absolutely nothing about manual settings and it all seemed very daunting to me, but I love to learn!

After studying how the settings changed depending on the scene, things started making perfect sense to me. I never thought of looking for a guide like this because my favorite method of learning is by trial and failure. That’s exactly what I’m encouraging you to do after reading this guide! Get to know your camera, before you know it you won’t even have to think before turning those dials.

Go out at night and practice shooting the night sky, see if you can get the stars in focus, if you’re in a light pollution free zone maybe you’ll manage to get a shot of the Milky Way.

Fair warning though — once you’ve started doing this you’ll be hooked!

You can view my gallery at www.angrytheinch.com, follow me on Twitter, or on Instagram, like my Facebook page if you’d like to see aurora pictures on your news feed! Feel free to get in touch on either of those sites, I’d love to see your photos!

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About the author

Mia Stålnacke

Lucky enough to live far above the arctic circle in Kiruna, Sweden, Mia has the privilege of seeing the northern lights every single year and never has to go far to get away from light pollution. After a lot of practice, passion and a fair share of failure, she has come to a place where her experience has paid off, and has loved every second of it. Mia spends a lot of time sharing photos and helping others learn how to catch their first aurora.

A published photographer for books and magazines, Mia's accolades include a NASA APOD, pictures of the day at Space.com, and landing a spot on the leading Swedish astronomy magazine "Populär Astronomi" list of the ten best astrophotos of the year.

Learn more about Mia on her website.

1 Comment

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  • Hello Mia,
    thank you for your tutorial,very helpful.One of the things on my still to do list is to see the northern lights.Can you tell me when is the best time in the year to see it?
    (In norway) Or would you recommend to travel to another,maybe better place?
    I have to come all the way from the Algarve coast of Portugal or fly in when Im on the way home to europe from Thailand where I build treehouses
    ( see instagram: harleyhubs)
    If you ever are interested in some treehouse holidays on a small island in the south of Thailand,let me know.We could trade some photos of you from my project against some great holidays in a treehouse.I have my own thai style boat and the nature over there is just incredible
    I would be happy to get an answer,
    best regards from the Algarve coast,
    Hubs

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