Amateur Photographer - - Technique -

WITH AN aurora shoot you are at the mercy of a number of fac­tors. So let’s start by ex­plain­ing what causes the aurora bo­re­alis, also known as the North­ern Lights.

The amaz­ing lights start their jour­ney at the sun, and are pro­duced when so­lar storms send gusts of charged par­ti­cles to­wards the earth’s at­mos­phere. When the par­ti­cles re­act with the earth’s mag­netic field, light is cre­ated (typ­i­cally green, but also red, blue and vi­o­let) and these dis­plays can last from a few sec­onds to over an hour.

Even if there is strong so­lar ac­tiv­ity, other fac­tors play a role when it comes to get­ting the best pos­si­ble re­sults. A clear night sky is re­quired, and it’s im­por­tant to find shoot­ing lo­ca­tions with low lev­els of light pol­lu­tion. In ad­di­tion, a high lat­i­tude is ad­van­ta­geous. While you can shoot the aurora in the UK as far south as Lin­colnshire, trav­el­ling to North­ern- Lights hotspots like Ice­land or Nor­way’s Arc­tic Cir­cle area will re­ward you with more im­pres­sive dis­plays. None­the­less, there’s still more you can do to bet­ter plan your aurora adventure.

Smart­phone apps

A smart­phone can be a use­ful ac­ces­sory when hunt­ing down the lights, with the aurora sea­son run­ning roughly be­tween Septem­ber and April. Weather apps will fore­cast cloud cover while ded­i­cated aurora apps will do their best to pre­dict the strength and tim­ings of any dis­plays us­ing so­lar storm data. While there’s a wealth of apps avail­able, I use Auro­raWatch UK for UK- cen­tric in­for­ma­tion and My Aurora Fore­cast while shoot­ing fur­ther north in Nor­way and the Faroe Is­lands. One com­mon mis­take pho­tog­ra­phers make is to pick a lo­ca­tion and hope the aurora drifts into view. If you have trans­port avail­able, I find that search­ing out the light in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions can be a bet­ter ap­proach.

1 Man­ual fo­cus

With the cam­era on a sturdy tri­pod, the best ap­proach is to switch your lens to man­ual fo­cus (MF) and use live view to zoom in and fo­cus pre­cisely. Re­mem­ber to switch off any im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion as this can be counter-pro­duc­tive with the cam­era on a tri­pod.

2 Use a re­mote re­lease

Con­nect a re­mote re­lease or a ra­dio trig­ger to avoid touch­ing the cam­era dur­ing the ex­po­sure. Se­lect the raw file for­mat to give you more tol­er­ance when edit­ing the im­age. Your ex­po­sure will de­pend on the am­bi­ent light and how strong the aurora is.

3 Dial in your set­tings

A good start­ing point is to se­lect an ISO of around 1000, an aper­ture be­tween f/2.8 and f/4, and a shut­ter speed be­low 15 sec­onds to avoid any move­ment of the stars in the frame. Take a test shot and ad­just the ex­po­sure set­tings if your im­age is too light or dark.

4 Don’t for­get about fram­ing

It’s a good idea to ex­per­i­ment with fo­cal lengths – us­ing a 70-200mm and zoom­ing in can de­liver great de­tail shots. Go­ing wide can cap­ture the full scale of the aurora, but just re­mem­ber to be con­sid­er­ate with your fore­ground.

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