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How To Photograph The Aurora Borealis

Tips for better pictures of those beautiful northern lights

The aurora borealis is a gorgeous nighttime phenomenon that becomes visible the closer you get to the North Pole. That’s why it’s often referred to as the “northern lights.” And while photographs of the aurora borealis are certainly beautiful, nothing compares to seeing these beautiful shimmering lights in person—and making your own photographs of them. To that end, if you’re up for a new nighttime adventure, photograph the aurora borealis with these tips in hand.

Pick A Good Place

Go north, young man! The northern hemisphere, that is. Americans can head to the upper Midwest and into Canada or all the way up to Alaska, while world travelers may choose to visit Iceland, Norway or other Scandinavian countries where aurora borealis tourism is an industry unto itself. Wherever you choose to visit in search of northern lights, make sure it’s got dark skies. That means a location that’s far from city lights and light pollution of any kind. You’ll also want to plan your travels closer to an equinox when days and nights are more equally divided, and be sure to head out on clear, cloudless nights.

Choose A Composition That Supports The Sky

An ideal northern lights photograph is going to contain more than the sky—it will also show earthly elements for framing and context. That means everything from mountain peaks to rocks and trees can all help frame and complement a colorful aurora sky. For peak aesthetic perfection, try to choose a location and composition that puts a water element—rivers or lakes, for instance—in the foreground. Not only does this visual element help complement a colorful sky, it doubles up the color by reflecting the aurora borealis in its surface.

Bring The Right Gear

You probably know at least one item you’ll need to photograph the northern lights: a tripod. But on it you should place a camera with a full-frame sensor if at all possible, as well as a wide-angle lens in the neighborhood of 18-35mm. You will also want to use a cable release or intervalometer so you can fire the shutter without touching the camera and causing shake that can ruin long exposures. (In a pinch, simply use the camera’s self-timer to create a 10-second delay between pressing the shutter and its opening.) Speaking of long exposures…

Use The Best Settings

Start by setting an ISO that’s high enough to allow fairly fast shutter speeds without being so high as to produce a ton of noise. I would suggest something in the neighborhood of ISO 1000 to 3200.

Next, you’ll want to set your camera’s ƒ-stop to one or two stops from wide open. Why not open up all the way? Because the widest aperture isn’t as sharp and it produces shallower depth of field. By closing down just a stop or two, you’ll get a sharper picture while still allowing in a lot of light. And that’s crucial to produce a fairly fast shutter speed. You see, too much motion blur and the aurora won’t register correctly on the sensor. So if the aurora is fairly calm, you might be able to get away with a shutter speed as long as 15 seconds or more. But if it’s shimmering and fast moving, that long of an exposure will produce a colorful blob. For these, a faster shutter speed of 1 to 5 seconds will be closer to ideal.

Some folks advocate a white balance near tungsten (in the 3200˚ kelvin range), but I suggest starting with a white balance near daylight (5400˚k) and shooting raw to maintain full control over white balance in post.

Lastly, you’ll want to switch your lens to manual and set the focus to infinity or perhaps at the hyperfocal distance indicated on the lens barrel in order to maximize sharpness and usable depth of field. Experiment with focusing and check the results on your LCD so you know you’ve got sharp shots before you spend hours in the middle of the night photographing a blurry sky. At the same time, use the in-camera histogram to check your exposure and ensure you’re not blowing out highlight details and losing valuable image-forming information from the brightest parts of the illuminated sky.

Fix It In Post

The tips above should help you achieve a pretty great result right out of the camera. But to take it to the next level, you’ll want to do some post processing in the computer. If your ISO crept up much beyond 1600, you’ll want to apply some noise reduction, and no matter what, do a basic level of sharpening, color and contrast correction as you might with any raw image file.

Even if you don’t make major changes, at least consider using an application such as Lightroom or Photoshop to dial up a bit of detail in the shadows, increase sharpness on earthly elements in the scene and boost saturation to make deep blues and vibrant greens in the scene really pop. While I like to keep my images grounded in reality, I also believe that an appropriate amount of “wow factor” can be added with some simple darkroom-style processing in the computer to help do those beautiful aurora borealis skies justice.

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