How to Photograph the Aurora (Northern Lights) in 5 Minutes
We’re on location in Alaska a couple of days prior to our photo expedition group participants arriving, and the Aurora (or, Northern Lights) are forecasting to be fantastic in the next few days!
That said, we wanted to get into the tips and tricks of shooting the Aurora so everyone is up and ready for them and not stressing about camera settings during the actual majestic occurrence!
All you need is some of the right gear, the right camera settings, and your excitement (and maybe coffee) to witness the Aurora!
Tripod. Yes you really need a tripod to shoot the Aurora. You need to capture images that are longer than one second, and we don’t know anyone that can hand-hold a camera perfectly still that long! If you don’t have a tripod on you and the magical moment is happen, let nature help you out. Try positioning the camera so it is steady and secure amongst some rocks. Then, set a 5-10 second timer on your trigger (this will give the camera enough time to shake out any vibration from your finger pushing the trigger).
Remote trigger. We just explained this above. You want to make sure you reduce any possible shake to the camera. A remote trigger will allow you to fire away as many attempts as you’d like to capture the Aurora without vibrating/shaking the camera by the touch of your hand.
Lens. We’re going to recommend a wide-angle lens (12mm to 35mm) so you can capture as much of the Aurora as possible and perhaps some foreground too.
Hand warmers and rubber bands. We’re not suggesting these to keep you warm, we’re suggesting it for your lens (hehe, just kidding, you should keep yourself warm too so you enjoy the experience)! Have these with you, but do not put them on your lens until after you’ve monitored what’s happening with your lens over the course of the night. Moving from a warm interior to the cold outdoors can sometimes create condensation on the lens, and if you don’t check, you may be disappointed to find out that half way through your shoot, all of your images got hazy from the lens condensation! Again, this may not be necessary, so don’t use them unless you see they are needed! If they are needed, rubber-band them to the neck of the lens.
Headlamp with a red light setting. It takes the human eye 20 minutes to adjust to night vision. Every time you turn on or see a white light, that has to start over. You may miss a weaker display of the Aurora if your eyes are not adjusted (and trust me, your camera would catch a weak display with it’s couple-second-long shutter speeds). The red light preserves your night vision. I do recommend using the white setting on the headlamp to initially trek out to where you need to be, so you are walking safely!
Gloves. Keep yourself warm, cozy and comfortable during the shoot. It will make the experience much better.
Aperture. f2.8 or faster is ideal! If your aperture doesn’t open that wide, go to your widest aperture and try to accommodate by using a slightly longer exposure time and/or bumping up the ISO.
ISO. Again, this depends on the capability of your camera, but something in the 1600 range is a great starting point. If you know your camera performs excellent at higher ISOs, consider going up around 3200 if you wish.
Shutter Speed. After the aperture and ISO are sorted, you can start to experiment around with different exposure times. Start with 5 seconds and see if you need to increase or decrease the time. Note the Rule of 500s (in Tips section below).
Rule of 500s. Do this math: 500 / your lens’ focal length. That number equals the longest shutter speed possible before you’ll start to get star trails in your image. Some people like them, some don’t. In most cases, this number would be quite longer than what you’d be using to capture the Aurora anyway.
Take lots of shots, and from a couple of different locations. This is a good insurance policy on just about any type of shoot!