Photography 1001 : How to Capture the Northern Lights

Before We Start

You may want to know, what colours will the Northern lights be? The answer is that it depends on what types of gasses the discharged particles collide with. Collisions with oxygen typically produce green and yellow lights while contact with nitrogen results in reds, violets, and blues.

So now you get a brief idea of what you will be capturing, let’s get started on preparations!

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Gear

  1. A full frame DSLR (35mm or larger sensor)
  2. A good fast wide angle lens
  3. A cable release (for shake control)
  4. A tall and sturdy tripod
  5. Fully charged extra batteries

 

Surely, you can also use a smartphone to capture the lights, as newer ones allow you to play with the ISO and shutter speed. But then, it may not be as great as when you are using a camera with tripod and cable release, as our hands tend to shake slightly, and that affects the image captured, especially when in the dark. Not to mention that the weather in aurora viewing locations are very cold in general, increasing the chances for shaking photos.

 

Here are some recommended lenses:

For Canon users, you can use Sigma lenses with the EF mount –

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens
Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens
Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens

Or you can use Canon’s own lenses –

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM II Lens
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

For Nikon users, you can use Sigma lenses with the F mount –

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens
Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens
Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens

Or you can use Nikon’s own lenses –

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED Lens
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED

 

 1

Settings

If you really know nothing about camera and just want to get the “perfect” settings for taking Aurora, follow these steps:

  1. Camera Mode: Manual
  2. ISO: 1600 or above
  3. Aperture: f/2.8
  4. Shutter Speed: 20”
  5. White Balance: Auto
  6. Use a tripod on a steady surface
  7. Use a cable release for shake-proof
  8. Night sky without Light Pollution

 

If you want to actually learn about how to take photos of Aurora or any other night image, you should know that there is no such thing as a perfect recipe for capturing the night sky and the northern lights because the light is ever changing and it affects the exposure. But the following will guide you on how to tweak your settings:

  1. Camera Mode: Manual
  2. ISO: make a test shot at 800, if the photo isn’t bright enough, increase your ISO, the maximum lies around 3200, but you can increase it if you still can’t get the effect you want. At the same time, note that increasing ISO degrades image quality, adjusting aperture and exposure time do not! So adjust the other two settings first before adjusting your ISO!
  3. Exposure Time/ Shutter Speed: make a test shot using 15”, and try increasing the time up to 30” if the environment is dark eg. no moon and the Northern lights are not so bright in your picture. Note that shutter speeds above 15 seconds will result in a slight star movement for the aurora. Therefore, the quicker the Aurora is moving, the less time you should use for exposure, you can go down to 2” if necessary.
  4. Aperture: You can actually try between f/2.8-f/5.6, but note that aperture wider than f/2.8 may make it difficult to focus
  5. Focus: Set to infinity (opposite of macro) and use the Live View setting to zoom-in and focus on the furthest horizon to keep the focus sharp. Manually make the final adjustments if required using the focus ring. Some people may tell you to use the Mirror Lock-up setting, but that is not necessary as it only helps shake control when multiple conditions are met. Using a tripod and a cable release will do fine.
  6. White Balance: Use the K (Kelvin) setting at values of 2800-4000 to change up the temperature, depending how bright the aurora is and how you want the effect.
  7. Image Format: RAW Image Format, so that you can do post-processing.
  8. Use a tripod on a steady surface
  9. Use a cable release for shake-proof
  10. Check the Aurora forecast!

 

Don’t Forget!

Proper care, treatment, and safe storage of your camera gear are essential in protecting it from the elements and while traveling. Despite all everyday care, the cold extreme weather in Arctic regions makes it especially hard for maintaining camera gear in operational condition. This is why you need to remember be careful; gradually acclimating your camera gear to the temperature change slowly and to keep your gear at the same temperature while shooting.

Do not take your camera in and out of your warm bag or car, or keep trying on different lenses, for it may result in condensation inside the lens, which is usually harmless to the equipment, but irritating and problematic when trying to take pictures. If unfortunately this happens, place the lens near (and not on) a heating source like a vent inside your room and the problem should be solved in no time.

Finally, wear a red head torch to stop your eyes from burning out when setting up or changing lenses. Your eyes will not adjust to red in the same way to other colours, which makes it much easier to compose your images.

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Nevertheless, Aurora is a diva, and there is no guarantee that you will get to capture the lights even if you have found the “best” location with no light pollution and clear sky. At such point, don’t waste the perfect dark environment; try some light painting and enjoy the process of chasing the lights 🙂

 

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