Witnessing the Aurora Borealis, “Northern Lights” is a once in a lifetime experience for most people, an event we dream of seeing as a young child. The excitement of watching the first aurora brings back the inner child in many of us, an exhilarating experience, which never seems to fade.
Memories aside, having some great pictures to remind us of the experience, and to show to friends and family of course, makes sense. The problem is, capturing a good shot of the elusive dancing lights is not simple, each aurora is different, they are never the same.
However, all that is required is a sound knowledge of your camera, enabling you to employ the right techniques needed. The basic principles of astrophotography are relatively easy to learn, the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO, then it’s a matter of experimentation to get the best results.
An expensive camera is not essential, most modern digital cameras are highly sophisticated and capable of capturing more than acceptable images of the aurora. I have seen plenty of excellent northern lights photographs taken on cameras which can only be described as point and shoot compacts. Provided the camera has the facility to select aperture, shutter speed and ISO to enable creative shooting, the results can not only be acceptable, they can be spectacular.
Long exposures of several seconds will be required, and using a slow shutter speed will require a stable base, therefore one essential is a reliable tripod. It is possible to improvise, using a backpack, item of clothing or other support, but these will prove more challenging and the results will usually be more miss than hit.
I usually carry two tripods when travelling, both are carbon fibre so relatively lightweight, but they have different specifications and therefore, quite separate uses. My ‘go to’ for trekking and city exploring is the BeFree, which is lightweight and is compact when packed, but for landscapes in general and astrophotography in particular, my choice is the 190Go!, which provides a more solid base, ideal for shooting long exposures.
A remote release to prevent camera shake when squeezing the shutter is useful, but if one isn’t available, setting the self-timer will also work satisfactorily.
The lights move, they are like a living thing, so to prevent blurred images, keep the shutter speed as fast as possible, while still capturing the all the available light in the scene, this is the holy grail. Open the aperture as wide as possible, dialling back slightly from maximum to prevent any vignette at the edges i.e. a lens with a maximum aperture of f1.4 set at maybe f2.
Increase the ISO as high as is necessary to achieve the desired shutter speed. The trade-off is increasing the noise, so know your camera capabilities and set the ISO appropriately. Somewhere between 1000 and 1600 is a useful starting point.
A shutter speed of below 8 seconds seems to work best, anything slower and the lights begin to lose sharpness and can even begin to appear over saturated. I have even managed shutter speeds of around a second during particularly impressive displays.
These speeds will also ensure the stars remain pin sharp, shutter speeds above 30 seconds may start to produce star trails, so be wary of this.
The most suitable lens is probably a wide-angle, this will ensure plenty of the display is included as possible and provide a useful depth of field, ensuring the image is tack sharp, front to back. There is also a simple formula, known as the 600 rule which can be employed to calculate the maximum length of exposure to avoid star trails.
Simply put, divide 600 by the true focal length of the lens i.e. a 16mm lens on a full frame camera will provide a maximum exposure time of 37.5 seconds, while a 16mm lens on a 1.5 cropped sensor camera will allow 25 seconds.
A final tip is to include some foreground interest, even better if it has a light source, apart from adding an additional element, something more interesting to the image, it will also provide a focal point. Focal points will provide the photographer a subject to focus on and the viewer’s eye to settle on within the image.
These tips should help you capture better pictures of the northern lights, vivid memories for yourself and images to impress your friends. Remember to experiment and enjoy the experience, it may be your only chance.