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Photographing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights: A Comprehensive Guide

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Capturing the mesmerizing Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is not only an exhilarating experience but also a test of one’s skills. With some strategic preparation, you can minimize distractions and focus on capturing stunning images amidst the chilly conditions.

In this guide, I’ll take you through simple steps to ready yourself for photographing the Aurora Borealis and offer tips for achieving breathtaking shots. Keep in mind that the initial images may appear somewhat flat, but a few adjustments in post-production, particularly with curve changes, can easily enhance them.

Getting Ready

To begin, gather a few essential items. Optimal gear includes a wide-angle lens, preferably between 12mm and 24mm, with a wide aperture. Ensure you have fully charged batteries, as the cold weather can deplete them rapidly. It’s advisable to carry multiple memory cards, and if possible, activate dual write functionality.

Take a large plastic ziplock bag that accommodates your camera and lens. Before transitioning your camera from the cold shooting environment to a warmer space, seal it in the ziplock bag and let it gradually warm up to room temperature. This precautionary step helps prevent condensation from forming on the camera’s electronics and glass. Avoid removing the lens during this process, as it can lead to condensation reaching the sensor. This practice is crucial, especially in extreme temperatures, and can be applied in varying temperature differentials, such as when moving from outdoors to a hotel with a temperature difference of 10+/- degrees. Additional insights on preventing condensation on your camera can be found in my earlier blog post from 2019.

Alternatively, you can opt to remove the memory card and batteries and leave the camera in a secure location, such as your car or an exterior spot.

Before embarking on your Aurora Borealis photography expedition, ensure your camera sensor and lenses are clean. Not only does this guarantee pristine images, but it also eliminates the need to spend excessive time in post-production removing unwanted spots from the celestial display. Regularly check your lens before each photography session to maintain image quality.

Location, Location, Location

It’s essential not only to position yourself in a location where the northern lights are visible but also to incorporate a captivating foreground element into your image. Whether it’s a rustic shack, a grove of trees, a majestic mountain, or any compelling feature, these additions will engage your audience while they marvel at your photographs.

From a geographical standpoint, aim to be around 60 degrees north, typically within or close to the Arctic Circle. Ideal starting points include Iceland, Alaska, and Northern Canada, all easily accessible from major airports worldwide.

Another crucial factor is ensuring visibility of the northern lights on your chosen date. Prioritize checking the sky conditions and the northern lights forecast. North American readers and those venturing to Alaska and Canada can consult the Alaska University Northern Lights Forecast, among other available online resources for cross-verification.

In regions with the most intense displays of the Northern Lights, such as Alaska, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia, and Yukon, the phenomenon is observed from late August to mid-April. Consider these time frames when planning your aurora borealis photography expeditions.

Great Places To See The Northern Lights

Aurora displays can be seen overhead on average at high northern latitudes as well southern latitudes. Optimal locations such as Fairbanks, Alaska; Dawson City, Yukon; Yellowknife, NWT; Gillam, Manitoba; the southern part of Greenland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Tromsø, Norway; and the northern coast of Siberia all offer a good chance to view the aurora in the night sky.

Camera Settings

For optimal results in capturing the mesmerizing Northern Lights, adhere to these recommended camera settings. Choose Manual shooting or M mode for greater control.

Shoot exclusively in RAW format to preserve maximum image data. Begin with an ISO setting of ISO 1600, adjusting as needed based on your camera’s sensor performance.

Set the white balance between 2,800-5,000 (k), knowing you can fine-tune this during post-processing while maintaining consistency for in-camera viewing. Employ a wide aperture of f/2.8 or wider for optimal light capture.

Adjust the shutter speed to approximately 10 seconds, modifying as necessary depending on the brightness of the Northern Lights during your expedition. Disable HDR or “Dynamic Range” assistance, and turn off any in-camera low noise processing features if present. If your camera offers a “night mode,” take advantage of it for enhanced performance in capturing the celestial spectacle.

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE AURORA BOREALIS OR NORTHERN LIGHTS

Utilize Manual Focus, employing the foreground and a tactical light to achieve precise focus, considering peak focus or infinity.

Take a Tactical Light

And just when you might have thought I overlooked the explanation, there’s a compelling reason behind incorporating a tactical light into your aurora photography toolkit, and I’ll delve into it now. Tactical lights prove invaluable for illuminating the foreground in dark, long exposure scenes. While capturing captivating silhouettes is enticing, there are instances where adding a touch of illumination to the scene enhances its overall appeal, and this is where the art of light painting comes into play.

Here’s a practical approach to master this technique: With your light turned on, selectively illuminate your subject in a sweeping motion from left to right. This motion introduces light to the foreground, preventing it from appearing excessively dark. Remember to extinguish the light at the end of the sweep, avoiding continuous illumination. Skillfully feather the light into the scene, remaining mindful of its edges to achieve nuanced results.

In the showcased scenes below, you’ll find examples illustrating the impact of additional light on the foreground subject, offering a side-by-side comparison of “with and without” light application.

Executing this technique involves some trial and error, emphasizing the importance of using a tactical light with controlled light spill and sufficient power. A recommended option is the Fenix PD35, priced around $80 USD, featuring a soft edge of light and a 5-stage power control. Opting to shoot without additional light is, of course, a viable choice as well.

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