How to photograph the northern lights with a digital camera

By Photographer Patrick J. Endres Updated 2/16/2014

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SECOND EDITION released Nov. 2013

The article below is brief overview of how to prepare yourself to photograph the northern lights. I’ve recently published an in-depth eBook on this subject, which expands considerably on the information discussed below. If you are venturing on a trip to photograph the aurora, I would strongly suggest that you check out my eBook. I’ve guided aurora photography tours for many years and have seen a lot of mistakes not to mention, made a whole bunch myself. There is a big investment in the process of getting yourself well positioned to photograph the aurora and it is too great to sacrifice to the misfortune of common mistakes. Getting the best prepared before hand lets you maximize your experience when the action happens. You might get lucky and have a few days to experiment and remedy any mistakes made the night before, but, you might not.

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How to photograph the northern lights with a digital camera

INTRODUCTION

For many, just viewing the northern lights is a life-long dream. And to capture them with a camera is both a thrilling and awe inspiring experience.Before the advent of the digital camera, photographing the aurora borealis with slide film was complicated and often involved a good deal of experimenting. Back then clients were attached to the hip looking for experienced-based guidance on exposure times and camera settings. While the advent of the digital camera has not removed the need for experience, its ability to provide  immediate exposure feedback has opened up photographic opportunities for many that may have otherwise been failed attempts. With today’s average digital SLR and a good lens and tripod, you are likely to get some very satisfactory images.This article is intended to give you some necessary information to help guide you in your northern lights photography venture. While much of what is written below is general in nature and applies to most all digital cameras, the many, many brands and models have their own uniqueness. I will focus on Canon digital SLR’s, since that is what i shoot an know best.

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Choosing a destination to photograph the aurora.

WHERE AND WHEN TO VIEW THE AURORA

Moon rise over the Chandalar shelf at midnight, Brooks range, Alaska. © Patrick J. Endres

Because the aurora are drawn to the earth’s magnetic poles, far northern & southern latitudes offer excellent opportunities for viewing auroral displays. Some points to consider when selecting a location for aurora photography:

  • Geographic Latitude: It would be ideal, although not necessary to find a spot within the auroral belt. (According to Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu, this is the polar region where the aurora is visible about two-thirds of the year). I live in Fairbanks, about 65 degrees latitude, which is geographically well situated for aurora viewing.
  • Light Pollution Free: Go somewhere free of light pollution, far from city lights or airports.
  • Direction/Orientation: Most of the shooting orientation will be between the northwest and southeast sky. With this in mind, position yourself to shoot with light sources (towns or cities) to your south. When solar storms are very strong and hit the earth’s atmosphere with strength, both the northern and southern sky will contain the aurora, and often in some wild colors.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR?

Aurora activity is directly connected with solar storm activity on the surface of the sun. Therefore, being aware of this will help determine the optimal times for viewing the most active aurora displays. According to SpaceWeather.com, statistically speaking, March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year; October is a close second. Although the reasons why are not fully understood, there is no doubt that equinoxes favor auroras. This graph from their website plots geomagnetic activity per month. Remember however, that times of year that have less storms and more clear skies can be equally, if not more, productive from a statistical perspective also.

Screen shot from my eBook. March and October are historically the most geomagnetically active months of the year.

Screen shot from my eBook. March and October are historically the most geomagnetically active months of the year.

AURORA BOREALIS FORECASTS

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Aurora science how to read and understand forecast data.

If you are checking aurora forecast websites, keep in mind that low activity can still be very acceptable for photography, particularly in the northern regions. So actually, your location may be more critical than the intensity of the aurora display. Below are a few links to aurora activity prediction and forecast sites:

  • UAF Geophysical Institute
    Offers Alaska-based auroral display predictions both in a long and short term context. Since there are many variables effecting whether or not the aurora will actually be visible, these predictions are generalized, in particular, the long term forecast.

    Band represents range and extent of aurora borealis visibility in the AK. The graph is not a current prediction, click to check current status.

  • NOAA’s POES website
    (Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite) offers a general, and fairly simple circumpolar pictorial representation of the current location of the auroral oval, which is updated every ten minutes.

    Aurora activity approximated in color bar representation. This image is updated every 10 minutes. See date stamp in graphic.

IS MOONLIGHT GOOD OR BAD FOR AURORA PHOTOGRAPHY?

I’ve photographed the aurora during all stages of the moon’s presence.

  • A snowy landscape that reflects the light is a big help on a completely dark night. It can provide the necessary light for a foreground landscape that contributes composition to your frame.
  • Moonless nights offer opportunities for extended exposures enhancing star trails, and silhouetting mountains or trees behind a starry night. Additionally, very stable, or slow moving aurora make good opportunities for longer exposures as well. I have written about this subject in a previous post and you can refer to that for further reading.
Comparison of two shots, one on full moon and one on a no moon night.

WHAT TIME OF NIGHT IS BEST FOR VIEWING THE AURORA?

It is difficult to say what exactly is the best time of night to view the aurora. There are however some generalizations:

  • Between 10:00pm to 3:00am seems to be the time frame most conducive to aurora activity, so say the scientists and my experience confirms that.
  • Stay awake and be ready. I’ve never had much luck by going to sleep and then checking periodically. By the time you actually get dressed and get all the camera gear ready, the show can easily be over.
  • Plan to spend a chunk of time viewing. The aurora displays and activity follows a somewhat predictable pattern. Whether it is a homogenous arc, a rayed arc, or a corona, they present different types of photo opportunities, at different times of the night.
  • Scout your location in daylight and thus be ready. Displays can vary in duration, sometimes hours, sometimes only minutes. Be prepared when the action happens.
  • Remember, it varies widely. I try to get out as early in the night as possible with hopes of catching a little bit of the fading dusk light (and it does not take much) since it offers some wonderful blue colors in the sky.

HOW TO DRESS – WHAT TO WEAR:

This is what happens to a normally pliable shutter release cord in minus 40 degrees below zero. One need not photograph the aurora in such cold temps, but be advised that all things rubber and vinyl become very rigid. © Hugh Rose

Because aurora viewing is best in polar regions, you are likely to be in cold weather, and sometimes, very cold weather especially if you are coming to Alaska in the winter. If the thought of cold weather freaks you out, consider a time like late September or early April, when temperatures are a little warmer, but the skies are still dark at night. Getting yourself dressed properly and outfitted with the necessary equipment will greatly increase both your efficiency and enjoyment while spending a night photographing the aurora. Below are a few suggestions to help prepare you:

  • Good winter boots are critical. Make sure they do not fit tight. They should have a substantial base depth to them since you are often standing on cold ground in one place for long periods.
  • A pair of wool insoles inside the bottom of the boot add additional insulation, especially since one ends up standing and waiting for long periods.
  • First layer clothing: This is important! Do NOT wear cotton as the first layer against your skin. Use either polypropylene, fleece, or a soft Merino wool.
  • A warm parka: The conventional wisdom of “layering” is not so true when you are just standing around in cold temperatures. Layering is great if your heat output varies frequently as when climbing and hiking. But loft and air are what really insulate against the cold, so a puffy down parka will do the job great with a sweater underneath.
  • Glove liners that can fit inside larger warmer mittens work well.
  • Small chemically activated hand warmers are a big help. I put them either in the pockets of my down parka, or in the mittens themselves.
I dedicate an entire chapter in my eBook on the subject of dealing with the cold. Both for you and your camera gear.

CAMERAS AND PHOTO GEAR:CAMERAS

I photograph with Canon cameras, Currently the 5D Mark III, which is an outstanding high ISO performing camera. Canon’s other digital SLR’s are excellent options as well. Nikon has a strong lineup. I dedicate and entire chapter to this in my eBook. THE IMPORTANCE OF ISO When photographing the aurora, high ISO capability is critical. For a good read on the importance of this over megapixels check out this article at Gizmodo: Why ISO is the New Megapixels. The upper end of today’s digital cameras have excellent  in-camera noise reduction. If you are shooting .JPG files you will want both Long Exposure and High ISO Noise Reduction turned on. If you are shooting RAW, you only need Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on. And there is some debate on the need for Long Exposure Noise Reduction due to the cold temperatures in which aurora photography takes place and noise is a function of heat on the sensor to some degree-test your camera first.

Screen capture from my eBook

A NOTE ABOUT POINT AND SHOOT CAMERAS:

While it is not impossible to photograph the aurora with a little point and shoot digital camera, it is challenging indeed and I don’t recommend it. The models are constantly changing, and perhaps in the near future it will become easier.

TRIPOD AND BALLHEADS

A tripod is absolutely essential for northern lights photography. A tall tripod will be more comfortable, as you will be aiming the camera up towards the sky. Squatting under a short tripod cranking your neck can become very uncomfortable, very fast. (NOTE: A GOOD BALLHEAD AND TRIPOD IS REALLY IMPORTANT, ON OUR PHOTO TOURS WE HAVE HAD MANY FRUSTRATED GUESTS WHOSE SMALL TRIPOD AND FLIMSY BALLHEAD EITHER BROKE OR OPERATED SO POORLY THEY MISSED MANY PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES. A GOOD TRIPOD IS WORTH IT.)

  • This Bogen 055XB tripod, although on the shorter side, is an adequate inexpensive tripod available at B&H Photo. It even has built in leg warmers to protect your hands from cold metal.
  • The GT3541 is an exceptional, and expensive, tripod from Gitzo. It is lightweight and sturdy carbon fiber, and fairly tall. Notice
    it has no center column. If you get a tripod with a center column, the ability to remove it can be advantageous for close up photography. Additionally, one should not rely on expanding the center column completely for aurora photography, since this makes the camera less stable and susceptible to wind movement during long exposures.
  • Ballheads are preferred over pan/tilt heads.Kirk Enterprises makes the BH-3, is a great smaller ballhead.
  • Foam pads on your tripod legs will help keep your hands warmer

LENSES

There are several desirable qualities to look for when considering lenses for aurora photography, As a general rule of thumb, you can pick any of the three:

  • Wide angle
  • Fast (large aperture of F/2.8 or wider)
  • Sharp
  • Minimal vignetting
  • Inexpensive

I have yet to discover the perfect lens, but here are a two of my favorites, I discuss this more thoroughly in my eBook:

  • Canon 16-35mm F/2.8 USM favorite!  
    F/2.8
    : Outstanding optical performer, but not exceptionally fast. A bit expensive but versatile for both aurora and excellent for daytime general landscapes.
  • Nikon Zoom Super Wide Angle AF 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF lens (I use this lens with a Canon converter mount - favorite!)
I dedicate an entire section on lenses, including which ones and why wide angles are preferred, along with recommendations for your camera model.

OTHER RELATED EQUIPMENT

  • Batteries Have a few batteries at your disposal. Keep on warm in a parka pocket.
  • Cable release Prevents camera shake and allows for exposures in excess of 30 seconds. (Some wireless remotes only offer exposure options of 30 seconds. Make sure to check the version you have if you plan on using a wireless remote)
  • Chemical Hand warmers I use them all the time. They can be kept inside an over mitt or in a pocket of your coat for a quick hand warming option.
  • Headlamp A headlamp allows two hands to be free while handling your camera. Consider the on-off switch before purchasing, as you will be operating the headlamp with gloves on. This Brinkmann Focused Beam LED Headlamp is a good choice, and there are mnay others available on REI’s website.

PREPARING YOUR GEAR

Filters on a lens can cause concentric rings to appear in the center of an image (this is a crop) be sure to remove the filter when photographing the aurora.

TAKE OFF YOUR LENS FILTERWhen photographing the aurora it is important to remove the filter from your lens. Why? Look at the photo at right and you will see a series of concentric rings, which appear at the center of the image. This can be a disheartening discovery after a night of shooting the aurora, since the rings are very difficult to remove, with even the best photoshop geek on the job.What causes the rings? Charles Deehr, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute has been quoted by Dick Hutchinson as saying:”These are interference fringes due to the parallel faces of the filter and to the narrow spectral emission at 5577 Angstroms in the aurora. That green, atomic oxygen emission line is the strongest emission in the aurora near our film and eye peak sensitivity, so it shows up first when there is any device in the optical path which sorts out the spectral emissions.”

This whole subject is extremely important.

This whole subject is extremely important!!

ACHIEVING CRITICAL FOCUS

Pre-focusing your lens: Don’t overlook this important step. I have found this to be the biggest problem with photographing the aurora. With the new genre of autofocus cameras and lenses, there is tolerance built into the lenses to accommodate for changes in temperature. For this reason, you can’t just manually turn the focus dial to infinity and be confident that it will be in sharp focus. The old manual lenses did this perfectly, but the new ones don’t. (a few manual focus lenses still work this way, like the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 and Zeiss 25mm f/2 @ $1700- $1900).

Using Auto focus before it gets dark:

  • Before it gets dark, focus your camera on a distant “infinity” focal point, like a mountain horizon.

Using Live View to focus: In my experience, pre-focusing has worked excellent for all lenses except the Canon Canon 24mm 1.4L. For this lens, I’ve switched to using the live-view function (if your camera has it–most DSLR’s have it).

  • Find the brightest object in the sky and center your camera on it by looking through the viewfinder.
  • Turn on live view and maximum zoom in on the object and adjust until sharp.

(Achieving focus and using live view is discussed in depth in my ebook).

BATTERIES, COLD WEATHER, MEDIA CARDS

  • San Disk is a flash card manufacturer with a line of cards called “Extreme” which are made especially for extreme temperatures. My experience with these cards has been good.
  • Camera batteries: it is a good idea to have at least two, three is better.
  • Keep one in your pocket, or in a nearby warm place. Switching them out occasionally will keep you powered up.
  • Long exposures tend to chew up batteries quickly.
  • When waiting on a chilly night for the aurora, I remove the flash card and battery and put them in my pocket. When the action happens, I quickly put them back in the camera and start shooting.

HISTOGRAMS & EXPOSURE:

There is a whole lot to say about exposing for the aurora, so I expanded this section considerably with examples.

The digital age has taken much of the exposure mystery out of aurora photography, however, there are some specific issues to be aware of.

Snow loaded spruce trees and aurora with a slightly backlit sky from a low angle moon. © Patrick J. Endres

HISTOGRAMS

  • Read your histogram: The preview on the back of your camera is a good reference, but an LDC monitor on a dark night can fool you by making things appear brighter than they are. Michael Reichmann of www.luminous-landscape.com has written an article on how to read a histogram: Understanding Histograms. I strongly recommend reading through it.

EXPOSURE

  • Proper Exposure is critical: Even though a RAW file offers latitude for exposure compensation, accurate exposure is imperative, especially when shooting high ISO.
  • Shoot in RAW format: If you are uncomfortable with RAW, shoot in RAW&JPEG format (if your camera permits it). Even if you don’t know how to process a RAW file, don’t worry. Someday you will be glad you did. Consider the RAW file like a negative. It will always be there and you can process it at any time.
Corona display with the big dipper, Fairbanks, Alaska. © Patrick J. Endres

NOISE AND NOISE REDUCTION:There are two in-camera settings that many digital cameras have that can control noise in a digital file. I recommend visiting these two articles from Canon’s website if you would like to learn more on this subject:

  • High ISO Noise Reduction
  • Paragraph on Long Exposure Noise Reduction: With long exposure noise reduction (LENR) turned on or set to auto, all long exposures (over 1 second on the Canon 5D Mark III) are followed by a second additional frame with the shuttter closed.  The in camera software compares the two and subtracts the noise and saves that image. It will slow down the LCD preview process but you can still keep shooting.

High ISO Noise Reduction:

  • If you are shooting in RAW format, you can ignore this in-camera setting as the noise reduction takes place in the post production process: As Canon States:

Long Exposure Noise Reduction:

  • It is preferred to have this turned off, but it should be turned on unless you have tested your camera before hand with it turned off and are satisfied with the quality.

“Some users wonder why this noise reduction feature isn’t always ON at all times. The answer is that using it can slow down your shooting of one picture after another. Here’s why: to do its job, Long Exposure Noise Reduction has to re-energize your imaging sensor and in effect take a “blank” exposure, after your actual picture is taken, for the same length of time. During this time, you cannot shoot another actual picture — the red card busy light on the back of the camera stays on until the process is completed. If you shoot, for example, a 30 second exposure, the camera has to be tied-up for an additional 30 full seconds before your next picture can be taken.”

 SHOOTING MODES

If there is a great variation in the intensity of the auroral displays, and you have a fast lens, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode, otherwise bulb or manual mode is required. I shoot both in AV and manual modes, depending on the circumstances and lens choice. As you get familiar with judging the intensity of the aurora, you can make pretty good guesses on exposure times. Remember your histogram!

  • Set your camera to Aperture priority mode.
  • Set your lens f/stop at its largest opening.
  • In general, a slight overexposure tends to be helpful when doing this, perhaps ½ to 2/3rd’s of a stop.
  • Using Bulb mode: If your exposure exceeds the in-camera timer of 30 seconds, switch your camera to Bulb mode. Plug in your cable release (or if you have the Nikon D3 you have the benefit of the built in intervolometer–come on Canon–give this one to us Canon shooters!) Your exposure will go as long as you hold the release button down. Be aware of the helpful clock that counts in seconds on the top LCD panel when shooting in bulb mode.

PROCESSING RAW FILES

There are a number of programs for making modifications and corrections to raw files:

In these programs you will find the necessary tools to address white balance, color saturation and tonality, noise reduction, shadow and highlight control, etc. The question of shooting a raw file over of .jpeg file will be immediately answered at this point!

screen shot from my eBook on a few recommended apps.

NORTHERN LIGHTS CHECKLIST

  • Shoot in RAW format
  • Set LCD Brightness to low
  • Remove the filter from your lens
  • Pre focus your lens on infinity or use live-view with loupe
  • Test exposure, consult histogram
  • Have 2 batteries and 2 flash cards
  • Use a tall but sturdy tripod
  • Check the aurora forecasts
  • Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens
  • Put black tape over your red processing light under the wheel (for Canon users-your fellow photographers will like you)
screen shot from my eBook on a few recommended apps.

I go over a much more thorough pre-flight and checklist in the eBook. along with a section on recommended Smartphone apps.And finally, good luck and have fun! Getting yourself in the right spot, with clear skies, good aurora activity, and smooth working gear can take a few attempts. Be patient and enjoy the night sky. You are likely to learn a few constellations in the process!

Please link back to this page when sharing.
Thank you ~ Patrick