HOW TO SHOOT AURORAS
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.
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.