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How to Photograph the Northern and Southern Lights

One of the most beautiful phenomena on our little blue planet is the display of light and color that appears near the poles when particles carried by the solar wind collide with gases in the atmosphere. The resulting dancing ribbons of light, known as the Aurora Borealis (in the Northern Hemisphere) and Aurora Australis (in the Southern) are a spectacle that every earthling should witness at least once.

For photographers, these auroras can be both a treat and a challenge. While not as unpredictable as lightning, they can be visible in a wide array of colors and intensities, not to mention as anything from a stationary ribbon to a writhing serpent of light. What's more, that's only if you're in the right place at the right time to see them. Fortunately, we're here to give you a quick breakdown on capturing and creating images of the Northern and Southern Lights, and it's not as difficult as it seems.

Geographic Location

The first thing to know is that the methods for shooting the Northern Aurora are basically the same in both hemispheres, with the exception of location. Because of that, from this point on, we're going to discuss shooting the Aurora Borealis. We're not at all prejudiced; it's just easier to talk about just one and you can apply the same rules down on the other end of the planet.

The prime location for viewing the Northern Lights is in the north latitudes from 65 to 75 degrees. It can be visible much farther south when conditions are right and during times of intense solar activity, surprisingly farther. If your goal is to photograph the most spectacular displays, you'll increase your chances by planning your shoot in locations like Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Denmark and the like.

Time of Year

The Lights are sporadically active year-round, but as temperatures decrease, denser air provides a clearer view. That means that the optimum viewing times are in the fall, winter and early spring. So, when you consider that you're going to head closer to the North Pole in the colder seasons, you need to plan for extreme conditions.

Take precautions to protect yourself and your gear from the cold. Be prepared for the worst conditions, and hope for the best. Cold-weather survival is beyond the scope of this article, but needs to be your first consideration when visiting these regions in the winter. One important tip we will provide is to avoid condensation buildup on your equipment caused by rapid warming and cooling.

Weather

The weather is an important consideration for both safety and visibility. You need clear skies to see the Aurora, since the activity occurs high in the atmosphere. Precipitation isn't helpful, and wind can make photography difficult.

Check weather forecasts well ahead of time and keep checking. If you plan to travel far, you might want to have a backup plan in place, so you'll have something to do if Mother Nature isn't cooperative. It just might save you from a ruined vacation.

Other Factors

Keep in mind that dark hours can be limited in some parts of the world, particularly in places like Norway. The Midnight Sun isn't your friend when you're out to shoot the Northern Lights.

Light pollution from cities is the other most significant factor. Although the Lights can be seen in some towns and villages, the farther you can get away from lights, the better your chances will be.

The Shoot

Let's assume you've made it to your destination and conditions are looking favorable. You've arrived early to get set up before the “show” starts. Ready to get down to it? Shooting the Aurora is  much like star photography, and you'll probably be capturing stars as well. There's no “proper procedure”, but here are the basics:

Set your camera up on a tripod and use a remote or cable release. The choice of focal length is up to you, however, the wider your lens, the more action you're likely to capture. Make sure the setup is stable, especially if it's windy. A sandbag may help anchor the tripod firmly.

Settings:

  • White Balance: Daylight
  • Focus: Turn off autofocus and image stabilization/vibration reduction. Focus at infinity and verify the focus with a distant object, magnified in Live View. Lock the focus if possible.
  • ISO: If your camera has a full frame sensor, you can probably get good results with settings up to 3200. With smaller sensors, noise is likely to be extremely high at settings above 800.
  • Aperture: Start with a wider aperture, around 5.6 or so for normal/wide lenses and 2.8 or less for wide angle lenses.
  • Shutter Speed: If stars are visible and you want to avoid streaks/trails, use the 500 rule to set your shutter speed. Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to determine the maximum length of your exposures. If this isn't a concern, try 15 to 30 seconds as a starting point, then check the results.

The exposure settings above are intended as starting points. Experiment with them as necessary, but remember that the lowest practical ISO setting will yield the least noise, especially with long exposure times.

Fire away!

When the “dance” begins, frame up the action as well as possible and keep shooting, testing your exposure regularly. Try including some of the landscape or man-made structures in your frame. Try a little light painting while the shutter is open. Have fun with it!

Processing

Chances are good that you'll want to do some adjusting on your shots to get the most out of them. Whether you use Lightroom, Photoshop or a more intuitive software package like  Luminar, the most common adjustments will be  noise reduction, Levels, Curves and sharpness adjustments , and careful color enhancement. Try to avoid oversaturation.

A Final Note

Even in the most active seasons, auroral displays can come and go in a heartbeat. Cloud cover, fog and haze are also hard to predict and the window of opportunity can often be narrow. Plan your trip to allow as  many nights as possible to shoot, and be ready when the opportunity presents itself. It may be hectic and frustrating as well as cold, but remember that you may end up with once-in-a-lifetime photos for your trouble. Enjoy the experience and reap the rewards!

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