Photographing The Aurora Borealis
It isn't particularly difficult to capture a good aurora picture. However, it takes a little bit of planning, and knowledge and of course the more you photograph the northern lights the better you get. A little bit of preparation can go a long way when the unexpected glow in the sky appears.
If you plan a trip to photograph the northern lights it is very important that you try and schedule a time when the moonlight is low such as a new moon, or even 1st or 3rd quarter isn't bad. On the other hand, a full moon would be so bright it could cause weak aurora displays to become unnoticed in the night sky, and it would cause your pictures to become washed out with little color.
There are several things needed in order to be successful at taking northern lights pictures .
1) SLR camera (or any camera with bulb function)
3) cable or remote release shutter
4) lens with aperture settings
5) ISO between 200 and 1600 (iso 400 & 800 is most common)
6) a fast lens is preferred, lowest f-stop 2.8 or lower is good
Set your camera to the "bulb" setting and then put the camera on a sturdy tripod. Attach the cable release or activate the remote shutter. When the northern lights are visible, frame up the part of the sky that you want in your photograph. Set your aperture to lowest setting f/2.8 or lower and set your focus to infinity. Open the shutter with the cable release or remote shutter and wait 10 to 20 seconds before closing the shutter. Preview your results and readjust your exposure time and aperture.
Here is a table of some exposure times in seconds. Keep in mind these times can easily shift a little depending on the speed and intensity of the aurora and how much light pollution you have whether it be moonlight or city lights. Noise or film grain can have a big impact on the overall photograph quality. The larger your ISO, the worse your photo quality. The colors represent your overall quality. Note the gray colors are indicating that you will see star streaks with the corresponding exposure time. It isn't a preference of mine, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. For weak slow or nearly non moving displays, this may be the best option available. Also if you are off on your exposure times it is much better to error on the side of overexposed. If a picture is to underexposed it becomes very grainy and noisy when it is corrected in photo editing software. Keep in mind your LCD screen will appear very bright in the middle of the night. It is a good habit to check the histogram on your camera as well.
|f-stop||ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1600||ISO 3200|
During the day when the skies are clear, find optimal locations that would be good to snap aurora photos. Keep in mind safety, and a foreground/background that can enhance the photograph. This can make a big difference. The biggest thing to keep in mind is to get away from the city lights. The lower the light pollution the better the picture and experience. During weak distant aurora displays, it is possible to capture a green glow along the horizon after a long exposure even if it isn't visible to the naked eye.
Across the country Alaska sees the most frequent and beautiful displays. However during a solar storm every location in the country can witness the lights. Locations further north see more frequent displays. Click on the Aurora Tracker to find the northern lights.