Tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights by David Shaw

How I photograph the aurora borealis

The Aurora is, let’s face it, just plain weird. It only occurs in the far north or south, and looks like someone hung enormous translucent green curtains in the upper atmosphere. They curl and wave back and forth in an astral breeze, split and rejoin in bands and waves and swirls. The phenomenon is caused my our sun. Our local star, when its feeling energetic, ejects flares and plumes of plasma in what are called “Coronal Mass Ejections” when one of these escapes the sun’s gravity and gets hurtled out in our direction, watch out, because the aurora on is on its way. Those charged particles race toward earth, as they draw close they are pulled to the north and south by our planet’s magnetic field. When they hit, they interact with gases in our upper atmosphere and burst to light. Sometimes it lasts hours, or even days, other times, just a few moments. When the lights are hopping, it a scene not to be missed.

For the past few years, aurora observers have often been disappointed; the sun hasn’t been very active. Fortunately for photographers and astral observers alike, that is about to change. Solar activity is on the rise and the long-term forecast indicates the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 will be the peak of solar activity for at least another 10 to 15 years.

In other words, now is the time to bundle up, head north, and go outside with your camera. Here are five steps for making images of the aurora and the winter world at night.

Northern lights photos by David Shaw

1. Get a tripod.

I’m constantly amazed at how many photographers don’t own one, or if they do, don’t use it. Using a tripod forces you to slow down, think, compose carefully. You can’t just point and shoot. Of course, you also get sharper images. Bottom line — you NEED a tripod for night work, because the exposures are so long that it’s absolutely impossible to go handheld. If you don’t have one, get one. A cheapie from your local discount store will work, but I suggest investing some money in a good set of legs and a good head — it will save you hours of frustration and buyer’s remorse.

Alaska travel and tours

2. Determine exposure.

It’s likely in night work that your camera will get very confused and will be unable to choose the appropriate f-stop or shutter speed. So you’ll need to use the camera’s manual setting. (For those who use auto-everything, this is a good opportunity to throw away the crutches and learn about exposure.)

Next, select an appropriate ISO — if you have a top-of-the-line camera with very low noise, you’ll be able to use a fairly high ISO setting, like 800 or even higher. If, however, you shoot with a lower-grade DSLR, or advanced point and shoot, you’ll need to start lower. Try 200 or 400. Finally, select a shutter speed. This will depend on your ISO and how fast your lens is. I suggest starting off around 15 seconds, then reviewing your image on the LCD and adjusting up or down as necessary. (A word of warning: On a dark night when the only light is your camera LCD, your image will appear brighter than it will on your computer.)

AK-FAI-aurora-111212-60

3. Focus.

When I first began making images at night, this was my Achilles’ heel. Focusing at night is tricky. Even the best cameras won’t be able to focus in the dark, so shift your lens to manual focus and set it like this:

Photographing the northern lights

The left edge of the infinity line is the best place to start; small adjustments can then be made by reviewing the LCD after the first few images. If your foreground elements are placed sufficiently back in the frame everything should be sharp, from the trees and hills to the stars and aurora.

4. Use a fast lens.

Go wide. Go fast. A good wide-angle allows you to show as much of the sky and foreground as you wish. A zoom will provide for some latitude in your composition. A fast lens like an f2.8 or better will permit shorter shutter speeds, which means less trailing in the stars, less wind-motion in the trees, and better definition of the curves and pillars of the aurora. Slower lenses will work but it might be necessary to use higher ISOs (and thus create more noise) or longer exposures (leading to unwanted trailing in the stars or blurring of the aurora).

Northern lights tours, Alaska

5. Compose carefully.

Compose as though it were a landscape image. Your subject is the sky, but the other elements in the frame are just as important. An image of just the aurora and a few stars might have some interesting color but will lack a sense of place or depth. A poorly composed foreground will be a distraction. Select a tree, mountain, person, tent, or whatever, and then compose carefully.

Learn how photograph the Northern lights

Remember what Dave said about auroral activity…it will peak in 2013-2014.  This means less activity after that time and less possibility for you to see it if you come in those years. Whether you want to see the lights in Alaska, Norway, Greenland, or Nunavut, it’s time.

Now put you newly learned skills to the test on a Alaskan Northern Lights tour

David Shaw is freelance writer, photographer, biologist, and guide living in Fairbanks, Alaska. He is most happy when paddling Alaska’s wilderness rivers in the summer, or wandering tropical rain forests with his binoculars during the northern winter. Visit his website and read his blog here: www.wildimagephoto.com and follow him on Facebook.

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Stayed tuned for more Alaska travel tips and tours or see more about Alaska’s wildlife.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover …”

-Mark Twain

97 thoughts on “Tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights by David Shaw

  1. Oh, yeah. Haven’t seen that in a while. Thanks…now the wife wants to leave Costa Rica in February and go to Alaska. I will never chainsaw through ice again to have water…ever…promised myself. It’s going to be a “discussion” after our looking at your shots of the electric field doing its thing.
    Later…

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  2. The aurora is so beautiful and makes me think of my daughter…emeralds, energy, breeze, light. Thanks to you and Dave from one mom! (will check out David’s website).

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  3. Thanks for the great information once again Mike. You’re really helping me to plan my trip to Alaska. I think I definitely need to give myself a kick up the backside and get over there in 2014.

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      • That’s a choice you have to make! I was just writing about that in a new post offering a tour here in Spring. To do both you either have to stay here for a good part of the year or come twice. I recommend coming in March this or next year. We will always have 24 hour day summers but the intensity of lights is not always the same. Just something to ponder. As Dave said in the post, in recent years the lights have been “disappointing” for photogs and viewers. Not in 2013 and surely not in 2014. Enough about that. Are you considering coming in the next few years anyway?

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      • That’s very good to know! Yes I was planning to come but unfortunately due to 2 deaths in my family I have to postpone that. But your info is very helpful because I don’t know that much and I want to be ready when the time comes!

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  4. Pingback: #Photography How? #NorthernLights by David Shaw « johndwmacdonald

  5. My dad recently saw the northern lights in Norway. He said he was a little “underwhelmed” as what he saw in the sky looked like a grey cloud. However it appeared more green in a photograph. Is this often the case? Is there a reason for this? Thanks for a great post!

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  6. Thanks for the tips and for stopping by my blog! The Northern Lights are on my “To See and Capture” list- now I’ll have a better idea of how to make that happen. Hope to see you again soon in my corner of cyberspace! -Christine

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  7. Pingback: Alaska Awakening: Join us in spring for the northern lights, running huskies, and glaciers | ExploreDreamDiscover Talks

  8. Great tips. The best one I ever saw was camped on Thompson Pass with a zero degree night. I woke up and went out into a curtain surrounding me. Only time I actually heard them. Saw an awesome display in Connecticut of all places back in ’03. The solar maximum is here!

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  9. I packed the tripod and armed with good advice headed to Lapland last month but no luck as far as bright effects concerned. Still a great holiday though. Your photographs are awesome.

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  10. Pingback: March is the best time for incredible northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska | ExploreDreamDiscover Talks

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  12. Great article. Thorough and to the point. Totally agree every photographer needs a tripod. I do a lot of long exposure shots, so it is a necessity in my kit. I am flying to fairbanks from Alabama tommorow. Does anyone know of a group going shooting this weekend or next week. I would like to meet some local photogs and talk shop as well. Any local photo clubs, etc. Thanks to anyone who can Help. Email me at foxboxphoto@yahoo.com.

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  14. Pingback: Northern lights in Goldstream Valley, Alaska | ExploreDreamDiscover Talks

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