A beginner's guide to photographing the Aurora Borealis
Winter is coming, the nights are getting longer and the aurora borealis season is well under way. For years I never imagined I’d see it, and I can only remember a couple of times up in the mountains at night when I wondered if some strange movements in the sky might be it. But I wasn’t convinced it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination.
Now we know better and in more recent times, the Northern Lights have proved to be good to us. During the famous Mothering Sunday display in 2016, Andrew took a photograph from Musselburgh which won him the accolade of UK Young Landscape Photographer of the Year, and since then we have always been tempted to go looking for them when the opportunity arises.
Many people regularly ask us how they can see them, and how they can photograph them, so this is a fairly basic article on what you need to do. If you’re a seasoned photographer, don’t bother reading any further. It won’t be of much interest!
I’m not going to get into detail about what creates auroras, but the likely cause will be an ejection from the sun, either from a sunspot or a coronal hole. The sun also has an eleven year “cycle”, when activity grows to a maximum and then decreases to a minimum. We are now just past a solar minimum and whilst the number of sunspots has at times been virtually zero, things are really starting to ramp up in 2021. That’s good if you want to see lots of strong auroras in the next few years.
So the first question we get is “how do we know when its possible to see an aurora?” There are a number of apps you can get which will tell you when things are kicking off. By far the best is called Glendale Aurora. You can’t get in it the App Store or places like that, but you download it from the website of a bloke called Andy Stables who lives on Skye. Not only does he understand the graphs and charts better than we ever will, he goes out every night with his camera for a look. And if you follow him on twitter or Facebook, you can also get notifications – just in case you’re not paying attention! http://www.glendaleskye.com/aurora_borealis.php
However it does help if you get a bit of warning, and for that, I follow organisations such as NOAA Space Weather or Spaceweatherlive on twitter, and make sure notifications are turned on. You will get about three days warning of possible activity. Then you can prepare, set up your camera and get batteries charged. If activity is actually happening, the Facebook group Aurora Research Scotland is very useful for getting reports from around the country of what can and can’t be seen, and therefore whether its worth going out. There are other apps such as Aurorawatch, but in all honesty, its pretty useless. By the time it alerts you to activity, you’ve probably missed it. I might add that if something big is happening, don’t wait for a while before deciding what to do. You have to get out immediately.
Lets imagine you’ve been notified that something is happening, and you decide to go out and brave the cold – where do you go? Ideally you want somewhere with a good view to the north, and away from light pollution. So if you live near Edinburgh like we do, you need to head towards the Forth. Our favourite spot is actually at Musselburgh harbour, because its only a few minutes drive for us, you can walk out to the end of the pier and you get in front of the street lights. Portobello beach isn’t that good because to get away from the street lights you need to be down on the beach, and anyway it doesn’t actually face north! Don’t bother trying to get up Arthurs Seat or Calton Hill. Unless the display is extremely strong, you won’t see a thing.
If you live in the country, you don’t need me to tell you where to go.
Now you’re standing there in the cold, looking north, and you still can’t see a thing. Anyone who does live in a rural area knows that your eyes need quite a while to adjust to the darkness. It can take twenty minutes, maybe half an hour before you might just see something, and even then you won’t be sure. The disappointing thing is that the amazing photographs you see on social media look nothing like the real thing. All those bright colours, the reds, the purples, are not quite a figment of a camera’s imagination, but are definitely born out an overactive saturation slider. I’m afraid that unless you are in the Arctic Circle or in the very north of Scotland, you are very unlikely to see anything other than a dull grey/green colour. That Mother’s Day evening was the only time we have ever seen purple.
Now lets talk cameras. If the display is strong enough, it is not impossible to photograph it using a “point & shoot” using one of the specialist presets, or a mobile phone. There are even some long exposure mobile apps that will help. The basics are the same though. You have to keep the camera steady.
I will point out that waiting until you’re out in pitch darkness in minus temperatures is not the time to start wondering how your camera works. It probably came with an instruction booklet. If you don’t have it, there will be an online version. You must spend time reading it to understand how to set it to manual. This is really important. A camera on automatic setting thinks it is broad daylight and when it tries to take a photo in the dark, it just doesn’t know its dark. I’ve worked with my camera for a very long time and I know where all the critical buttons are by touch, which is so helpful when there is no light. You really don’t want to switch torches on if you can help it, as it ruins your night vision.
So make sure your camera is switched to manual, which means you have full control of everything. The first thing you need to do is focus it on a bright light in the distance. If necessary, use a bright star. Most DSLRs allow you to zoom in on the rear screen and focus in on something that way. The camera will just not be able to focus by itself in the dark. I’ve known people to pre-focus it in daylight then tape the lens to stop it getting knocked. A last resort is to adjust it manually until it reaches the infinity mark and hope for the best! Once it is properly focussed, switch the autofocus off and don’t touch the lens again.
Next you need to set the ISO. This dictates how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. I set mine to 1600 and most modern cameras will be fine at this setting. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light, but the grainier the photo will be. So if you’re photographing in broad daylight you would almost always be at 100 ISO to get a sharp image. Older cameras can sometimes get far too grainy at high ISO levels, but you really don’t have a choice.
Next is aperture. This one is easy. You need as much light through the lens as possible so the aperture needs to be as big as possible. That means a LOW f-stop number, probably something like f2.5 but all lenses are different. A wide angle lens is better as they let more light in but they will also get you more aurora in the photo.
Finally, your shutter speed will also dictate how much light gets in. The longer the better? Not quite - there is a limit! With my set-up, after about 25 seconds, the earth’s rotation means that the stars start streaking across my photo. That’s fine if you’re doing star trails, but it won’t look good on your aurora photo. This varies according to the lens and camera you are using (see below). My starting setting is about 15 seconds but that is often too bright and I sometimes reduce the shutter speed to 10 seconds or less. This all sounds very complicated but if you do most of this in the comfort of your living room beforehand, it is a lot simpler! I also have a pre-set on my camera where I've already put the basics of ISO, shutter speed and aperture in, and instead of going to "manual" I go to the pre-set. The lens obviously still needs to be focussed.
It should go without saying that you need to remember to charge your batteries beforehand, and take a spare if you can. All these longish exposures use a lot of power and the cold can kill your battery charge very quickly.
So back to the very most important thing of all. You must keep the camera steady. That is a rule for any photograph. Even when taking a landscape photograph, you need to do everything you can to keep it steady. A tripod is therefore almost essential. In case you don’t have it with you, you can sit the camera on a rock or wall or something, but it’s not ideal. Invest in a remote shutter cable too. They only cost about £10 but even the action of pressing the shutter button can cause a slight movement. I’m lucky in that my camera has wi-fi, and I can control the camera from my iPhone, but it uses a lot of power on both devices and the remote cable is simpler. I also carry a small umbrella in case it is windy and you can shelter the camera from any big gusts. Others hang their camera bags from the bottom of the tripod to help steady it – many of them have a hook for that very purpose.
So that’s about it. One thing I might add is that once you’ve taken your photo, actually look at it to see whether it is correctly exposed and is in focus. Don’t just blindly keep taking photos and then get home to find they are all fuzzy green blobs. If its under or over exposed, adjust the shutter speed. If you really need longer than 25 seconds, you'll need to increase the ISO. Once you are home, most photographers will spend a while processing and editing them, darkening the sky and bringing out the colours of the aurora. How much you do that is subjective, but I am not a believer in some of the more garish and frankly, unbelievable images you see.
There are countless YouTube tutorials explaining how to edit your photos. I recommend you look at a few.
The final thing I’d mention is about composition. If you can find something to place in the foreground - a tree, a house, even a person, it gives your photo some scale and helps improve the overall composition. That’s why Andrew’s skatepark photograph works so well. Without the half-pipe in the foreground, the photograph would have been nothing special. Another tip is to find still water, either a loch or even just a pond. You can use the reflections to make your photos amazing.
If you have a decent camera and want some more technical stuff, there are a few settings that will also help.
File type - unless you're only taking a holiday snap, set the type of photo you are taking to RAW, not JPEG. RAW files are original unadulterated images whereas JPEGs are processed in camera, and they are much harder to edit later. You will almost certainly need to edit an aurora photo, so shoot in RAW if you have the option.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction – Every camera sensor will have a few “dead” pixels which show up as tiny white or coloured spots in your photo. This function acts to eliminate these by effectively taking a negative photo and removing the spots. However if you’re taking a long exposure, it takes the equivalent length of time to deal with this, and just makes everything happen much slower. Best just to switch it off. You can deal with any problem spots during editing anyway. Most of the time they just look like stars anyway.
Vibration stability or reduction – you will usually find this as a small switch on your lens. Different manufacturers call it different things but it’s designed to reduce the effects of any vibration or slight movement. But it has the opposite effect with long exposures, so switch it off.
White balance – this adjusts the “colour temperature”. So on cloudy days the colour of a photo will be different to that of the same photo on a sunny day. The same is for photos taken under different lights, whether tungsten, fluorescent or something else. It is often just set to auto and if you have decent image editing software you can easily adjust it later. However if you want a bluish or colder colour to your aurora photo, especially if you are near orange street lights, turn your white balance to tungsten.
Mirror Up – this function is designed to further reduce camera shake. It opens up the mirror in your DSLR before you actually take the photo, so the mechanism moving within the camera doesn’t cause camera shake. You therefore have to press the shutter once to open the mirror, then again to take the photo. That’s all fine until you forget to switch it off and the next day wonder why you can’t seem to take a photo.
The 500 Rule - this helps you choose your maximum shutter speed to avoid star trails. Basically you divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. The camera sensor (full frame or cropped) and the lens both play a part. A full frame sensor and a wide angle lens will give you about 25 seconds, but a cropped sensor and telephoto lens is unlikely to give you more than 5 seconds. You'll know if you have a full frame sensor as you'll have paid a lot of money to buy it. If you don't know, you will most likely have a cropped sensor (which basically means its smaller). If you want to know more about the 500 rule, Google it. There's plenty of info out there.
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