Photographing The Aurora Borealis
Have you ever imagined you’d finally see, let alone find yourself photographing the Auroral Borealis???
The Aurora is always moving and can be tough to capture, but, with the tips in this article, hopefully it will be a little easier the next time you have the opportunity!
In 2019 I spent 10 days in Iceland in the heart of winter, with the goal of photographing the aurora borealis as much as possible, the lights dancing for us each and every night but let me tell you, Iceland in the winter is not to be taken lightly. Having grown up in the Northeast and learning to drive in Nor’easters and lake effect from the Great and Finger Lakes I thought I was prepared for any sort of conditions. Well, none of that could’ve prepared me for the strong winds that eventually blew our rental RV right off the highway like a spiraling football near the end of the trip. Flipping over and over until we were in a ditch 50 feet from the highway just north of Reykjavik. Unscathed but shaken up the northern lights were dancing overhead as the ambulance arrived. What a way to end a trip with more than 8 nights of northern lights, eh? Long story short I had never captured the northern lights until this trip but man, did I get some practice! I want to share my experience with you and how I approached photographing the aurora borealis!
- Planning for photographing the aurora borealis requires a bit of help from science and understanding that some places are better than others for a chance at seeing them. The further north you travel, the better your chances! Once you’re there, there are quite a few applications for smartphones these days that will alert you if there is a chance of a solar flare up nearby, based on the SWPC ovation auroral forecast. Which makes the science bit a lot easier.I use the “My Aurora Forecast” App for iOS for this and not only does it help you understand if you will see them, but also the cloud coverage, and the best places to view them from!
- Know your camera. If there was one piece of advice I could give to EVERY budding photographer it would be to really know your camera intimately. So you’re in the right place, and your App has alerted you to a big flare up of solar activity! Photographing the aurora borealis can be tricky since the lights, although predictable, can flare up unexpectedly and intensely or fade away in the blink of an eye. Planning ahead helps but nothing beats knowing your camera like an extension of yourself. Being prepared for northern lights, like any other sort of luminous event requires the ability to adjust camera settings quickly, paying attention to the speed of movement of the lights and adjusting settings accordingly! Which brings me to the next tip.
- Watch the Histogram. Depending on the brightness of the lights, its possible that your cameras metering system ‘could’ work, but I wouldn’t trust it to expose properly in such circumstances. Since the lights will be most intense when it is most dark you will need a relatively wide aperture and high ISO and keeping in mind that you probably don’t want your stars to trail at the same time. This means a relatively short shutter speed (~<20-25 seconds). USE your histogram! If your metering system doesn’t work your live view histogram will not accurately represent the scene, but your image review histogram doesn’t lie. Try exposing to the right as best you can without overexposing your highlights. Reviewing your playback histogram often. This should result in better image quality and dynamic range should you have to manipulate the shadows or darker tonal values.
- Capture the Landscape. Ideally we would all love to capture the amazing dancing lights with a really creative and dynamic composition and in the same frame as our landscape but in some cases the dynamic range and brightness of the aurora make it difficult and sometimes impossible.. For this reason I say capture some frames of just the landscape while the lights are going! This will allow you to focus (no pun intended) on getting the landscape right. For example, if you have a great composition but are forced to shoot the lights at a wide aperture like ƒ/2.8 then your landscape will likely be out of focus and you might need to Focus Stack. Taking a separate frame or set of frames of the landscape will ensure you have a sharp image front to back! Likewise you can also expose precisely for your landscape, similar to how one might create Milky Way images, like in this older video tutorial I created on “Blue Hour Blending” . Then we can blend them all back together seamlessly with a properly exposed and epic sky, and a sharp, clear and focused landscape! Now I am not talking about fabricating a scene, but if you have the tripod in the same position and the lights are really happening over the scene you’re photographing then I say its perfectly ok!
Below are some examples of VERY different settings for each image based on how quickly the lights were moving. (Click to enlarge)
~Angel Dust~ Vestrahorn, Iceland. Taken with a Nikon D850 and Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 lens. This image is a blend of a landscape taken at a different range of settings than the sky due to the intensity of the lights and the landscape being woefully underexposed. The Sky was taken at ISO100, ƒ/2.8, 20mm, 5 seconds. The landscape was taken as a focus stack of 6 images at ISO100, ƒ/8, 20mm, 25 seconds while the lights continued to dance.
~The Endless Valley~ One of the endless valleys of Iceland away but not far from more well known locations. This image was Entirely captured in a single frame. The lights were intense enough to cast ambient light throughout the whole valley allowing me to use a single range of settings and capture the entire image in one frame. Taken with a Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm ƒ2.8 lens at ISO640, ƒ/4, 24mm, 15 seconds.
If you’d like to join me in re-visiting Iceland for some Aurora chasing fun, were going back!
The Wonders of Iceland ~ Waterfalls and Dancing Skies
Sunday September 6th – Sunday September 13th 2020
This workshop includes Lodging for 7 nights, Transportation for the duration, a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon and more!