In this Aurora Hunter post Alexander Kuznetsov shares some of his tips and techniques on how to capture photos of Northern Lights.
Cameras nowadays are constantly getting better and sometimes, when the Auroras are bright, it is even possible to take some photos of them with a cellphone. I assume, however, that this is not enough for you and you are reading this post to discover some better techniques. So, here we go!
The Basics – Stabilisation
I am a Canon shooter, so I will be showing the examples with this equipment, but by all means use whatever brand you are happy with – the photography principles are universal. To photograph the Northern Lights, however, we need to sort out the basics, and that is stabilisation.
The Lenses: an important part of photographing Aurora Borealis
No matter which lens you are using, it is a good idea to put the lens on manual focusing and set your focus to infinity. Removable lenses generally have their own dedicated switch to do that. If you have an in-built lens, try searching for the appropriate item in your camera settings (usually the manual mode where you dial your own settings). Adjusting focus to infinity will give you the best option to capture the nocturnal landscape, because automatic focus will not work in the darkness and is likely to mess up your shot. Also, don’t even think that using a flash will get you anywhere, unless you want to take a selfie.
The Camera Settings
Because we are shooting at night, we need to expose the sensor for some time before it gets enough light to produce a good image. How much – depends on the situation, the lighting conditions, your camera and your choice of lens.
The sensitivity of the sensors is measured in ISO numbers. The ISO comes from the times when there were different film stocks with different sensitivity, but on modern digital cameras you can change the ISO setting to your liking. The higher the ISO – the higher is the sensitivity or the ability of your camera to “see in the darkness”. However, at higher ISO settings noise is introduced in the image, eventually making it unusable. A little bit of noise is ok though, because you can remove some of it when you edit your image. How high do you set your ISO and how much noise is acceptable depends on your preferences. My Canon 5D mk3 camera can produce good enough images with ISO up to 4.000, some people think even higher, but I usually go for less, because I don’t like the noise. The older version of this camera, Canon 5D mk2, in my opinion, is only good up to 2.000 ISO. In order to determine the maximum usable ISO number for your camera you have to experiment and see what works for you.
When the lens is wide open and ISO is set to its workable maximum, you set the exposure time. How much? There is no ready answer. You have to try different values to see what works for you in the specific conditions.
I have taken Aurora Borealis photos with exposure time ranging from 1 sec to 30 sec, because the conditions were different. In Autumn, when the land is still dark and without snow, the exposure time is usually the longest. Often a 20–30 sec exposure is a must to produce an image. I took the next photo in October and apart from the Auroras dancing in the skies it was pitch black. It took 25 seconds and some heavy post editing to produce this image.