Head out to capture the colours and textures of these spectacular natural light shows
The Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights) and its southern hemisphere counterpart, the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) are night sky spectacles that rank high on the bucket lists of many landscape photographers. Happily, Nikon’s sensor technology is now so good that it’s possible for anyone to capture high-quality images of this incredible light show, as long as you put yourself in the right location at the right time (see tip opposite) and follow these simple guidelines…
1 WORKOUT THE EXPOSURE
The aim is to record the aurora’s intensity and shifting shape. The sky is obviously the star of the show, so base your exposure on this and don’t expect the foreground to be correctly exposed unless it is lit by artificial light or strong moonlight. As with starscapes, it will prove easier to shoot a foreground image separately and combine this with the correctly exposed sky shot later on.
Your camera settings will depend on the prevailing conditions. Long exposures will blur the shifting lights, so limit the shutter speed to around ten seconds to start with, in Manual mode. You’ll also need to set an ISO of 1600 or 3200, and as wide an aperture as possible.
2 LOOK FOR REFLECTIONS
Although you may lose some detail in the land, it’s worth scouting for a location that has a reflective surface in the foreground, whether that’s a lake, a river or ice. This will allow you to fill the frame with colour and interest, rather than the action being restricted to the top half of the frame.
3 CHECK (AND RECHECK )SHARPNESS
Shooting an aurora is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many photographers, so it pays to keep checking that you’re capturing sharp images; this will give you an opportunity to correct things if you’re not. For instance, it’s easy to inadvertently nudge the focus ring when you’re zooming the lens to capture the changing light patterns and surroundings, ruining of all your remaining exposures.
Make sure that the locks on your tripod legs and your ball head are fully tightened up (a ball head is better than a three-way head for this type of photography as it makes it easier to point the camera towards the sky and re-adjust its position quickly). Manually focus at infinity, take a test shot, then magnify the image on the rear screen to check that the stars are sharp.
4 ENJOY THE SHOW!
As with the other types of night sky photography we’ve looked at, a remote release is an essential bit of kit. Not only does it allow you to take a sequence of exposures without touching the camera, it leaves you free to take in the light show as it unfolds above.