The first guest post on KristiTrimmer.com goes to my good friend Jana Seitzer of MerlotMommy.com fame. We both love good wine, great craft beer and photography. Jana though is a professional photographer and has helped me step up my game. She made this Tips for Photographing the Aurora Borealis infographic for me that we thought would be a good idea to share with all of you! I’ve added a few tidbits specific to Alaska, because well, how could I not?
If you’re looking to photograph the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), it can be a bit tricky. It’s really more of an art than a science, but there are a few tricks and tips that can help you succeed at photographing them. As with photographing anything, there are key factors to keep in mind that play a critical role in the success of capturing the Aurora Borealis, such as geographic location, light pollution, time of night, and camera equipment. Here are some tips that are sure to improve your photography of the Aurora Borealis (I personally call them the Northern Lights as most people in Alaska do).
The far Northern and Southern latitudes often offer the best vantage points since the Aurora Borealis are drawn to the Earth’s magnetic poles. In places like Fairbanks, Alaska, the Aurora Borealis is visible about 2/3 of the year. I stay at Mount Aurora Lodge whenever I’m up in Fairbanks to see the lights.
You’ll want to eliminate light pollution as much as possible. Get as far away as you can from city lights and airports. You’ll also want to turn off your camera’s flash and set the LCD brightness to low. A pro tip is to put black tape over your red processing light and cover your LCD screen with a black felt flap or LCD cover, so that you can cover it while shooting and only have it visible when you need to take a peek at the LCD screen. Don’t worry if you don’t do this, my friend Colin Tyler (pics below) doesn’t and his pics come out like awesomesauce.
Moonless nights can offer opportunities for long exposure photos, as can slow moving Aurora Borealis. On the converse, a snow-covered landscape can help on a dark night by reflecting light and providing a foreground landscape for your composition. The moon doesn’t stay up an entire night in Alaska like it does in the Lower 48, so you can time it just right to capture the moon on the Horizon and the Northern Lights breaking out behind it. That kind of photography though takes a lot of talent!
The Aurora above the Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska.
Colin Tyler Photography takes amazing shot of the Northern Lights. Check out his site and see what I mean – they are awesome! Oh, and he has quite a few you can purchase too!
The Northwest and Southeast sky offers the best shooting orientation. You’ll want to position yourself with any light pollution to your south. In Alaska, look North and Northwest depending on the time of the year. When in Anchorage, on nights when the light pollution is low and the clouds have parted, it is not uncommon to see the Northern Lights break out over Sleeping Lady and Denali Mountain. A note though – in Alaska since we are so far north, you can pretty much just look up and see them. They often start in the East/Northeast but sometimes can pop up in the west. They like to keep you on your toes, apparently.
Time of Year
Solar storm activity on the sun’s surface is directly correlated to aurora activity. Geomagnetically, March is the most active month of the year, with October coming a close second, statistically speaking. For reasons unknown, Equinoxes also favor auroras. SpaceWeather.com is good resource for determining optimal viewing of the Aurora Borealis and checking the Aurora Forecasts. In Alaska, also check out the Alaska Forecast System for up to the minute Kp forecast readings. When the Kp is less than 3, stay snuggled in your beds. When it is a 4 or higher, grab your tripod and get out there for a little Northern Lights action.
In Alaska, the Northern Lights start to show up in late August and can be seen until late April. Don’t expect to see the Northern Lights in the summer as we are the home of the Midnight Sun for a reason!
Best Time of Night
The best time of night to photograph the Aurora Borealis is typically between 10 pm and 3 am. They can be visible as soon as 30 minutes after sunset, but typically, it more like 1.5 hours. In Alaska, the sweet spot tends to be 1:30am – break out the coffee as you will need it. Or you can sit and hang out in the hot tub waiting for them, as I did the last time I was in Fairbanks at Mount Aurora Lodge.
This was 8/15/15 – the first night of the season that the Northern Lights came out. What better way to see them than with bubbly and a hot tub filled with friends at Mount Aurora Lodge?
How to Dress
Typically the Aurora Borealis is best seen in places where it is cold (very, very cold!), so you’ll want to dress warmly, especially if you are out for several hours in the middle of the night. You’ll probably want to wear the following:
- Wicking Base Layer – top and bottom
- Windpants/Snow Pants
- Wool Socks
- Winter Boots
- Down Jacket/Parka
- Fingerless Gloves and Mittens/Fleece Gloves with Removable Fingertips
- Hand Warmers
- Fleece Hat
While many cameras will be suitable, you’ll have the best success with a DSLR with a High ISO setting (800 ISO or greater). Shoot in .RAW and turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction. You can also shoot in .RAW and .jpg.
If shooting in .jpg only (which is not preferred), turn on Long Exposure and High ISO Noise Reduction for best results.
As a general rule, I would recommend a wide angle lens with a wide aperture (F/2.8 or wider), 14-24mm would be great. You’ll want to use your lens hood to protect the lens from frost or condensation on your lens. Make sure to remove your lens filter, as it may cause concentric rings to appear in your photo.
Batteries and Media Cards
Because it’s cold, you’ll want to keep batteries and media cards warmed in your pocket until you are ready to use them. SanDisk Extreme is specially made for extreme temperatures. Camera batteries like to be warm and long exposure eats up the battery life. Make sure you have at least one extra battery and memory card with you.
You’ll want a tall, sturdy tripod. You’ll be cold and tired, and so will your hands. You won’t be able to hold the camera still for the length of time needed for your exposure.
Remote Shutter Release
Remote Shutter Releases prevents camera shake and allows for exposures greater than 30 seconds. However, not all wireless remote shutter releases allow for times greater than 30 seconds, so make sure you check the model you are considering. You’ll probably want to start between 10 and 20 seconds, but may want to go up to 30 or even beyond.
A headlamp will allow you two free hands while handling your camera. Make sure to consider the on-off switch before purchasing since you will be operating the headlamp with gloves on.
Pre-focus your lens
Pre-focus your lens at an infinity point in the distance (such as a mountain) then move the focus ring back just s tish in the other direction before it gets pitch dark, or you may not be able to see to focus later on. Sadly, I make this mistake over and over again (Kristi, not Jana!). If you don’t move it slightly back your photos will come out slightly out of focus. Oh, and on the Canon the Infinity symbol is on the focus ring, if your lens has manual focus ability. Always take test shots and zoom in on stars or a mountain or tree to see if it’s sharp. Practice this part as it can make or break your photo session!
High ISO Noise Reduction and Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Two camera settings that will help control the noise in a digital file. Read more in your camera’s manual, but you may choose to use either or both of these to reduce the noise from using your high ISO and long exposure settings.
Read Your Histograms
While the LCD on your camera is helpful, make sure you understand what you are looking at. Michael Reichmann of www.luminous-landscape.com has written a great an article on how to read a histogram: Understanding Histograms.
Proper exposure is key, especially when shooting at high ISO.
Shooting Manual would be the best choice for this. Set your camera to Aperture priority mode and set your lens F/stop to it’s largest opening. In general, you can overexpose this type of shot a bit, perhaps +1 to +1-1/2 stop, depending on your camera model.
Good luck! Photographing the Northern Light is an art form!
NORTHERN LIGHTS CHECKLIST
- Shoot in RAW
- Deactivate camera flash
- Set LCD brightness to low; put black tape over red processing light(s) (cover LCD screen with black felt flap, too)
- Remove lens filter; use lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on lens
- Pre-focus lens on infinity and move back just a tish (or use live-view with loupe)
- Use tall, sturdy tripod
- Test exposure and consult histogram
- Bring 2 batteries and 2 flash cards minimum
- Check aurora forecasts