We will see here how to photograph the Aurora. First of all, as I already mentioned in my previous article “Northern Lights photography equipment”, you should know your equipment before going on a trip to photograph the aurora.
If you have to figure out what all the buttons and dials of your camera do when the aurora is starting, not only will it be very stressful for you, but you will also not enjoy the show as you should!
There are sufficient sources on the Internet to help you discover your camera. There are also too many makes and models for me to start about details here. A good way to start of course is to read the user’s manual of your own device.
All digital reflex cameras allow you saving your photos in the RAW format. This format is an uncompressed version of your photos. It gives you much more flexibility in post-processing because the image contains much more “invisible” information than a regular compressed Jpeg file.
I do not see any reason why shooting photos in the Jpeg format except for saving space. But with the current low costs of memory, this does not sound like a good reason either.
It is too dark at night to be able to count on the autofocus mode of your camera and lens. It is therefore best to work in manual mode and to set your lens on the infinity setting. I highly recommend checking before your trip that infinity setting produces sharp images of distant objects. Some lenses are unfortunately not completely accurate and you don’t want to discover blurry photographs after your night out with the aurora!
To make sure you get perfect results, point your camera at a distant small object in autofocus mode. Set the focus (usually by pressing halfway the shutter release button of your camera). Then shift to manual focus mode. While making sure that you do not touch the focus ring, look at the graduations on your lens to find out what corresponds to “infinity”.
If your lens does not have focusing function, then it is best using the live view function of your camera to set the focus on a distant object (use maximum magnification for best results).
My focus tip: I use adhesive tape to tape together the focus ring and lens barrel to make sure that I will not inadvertently turn the ring at night in the dark.
Even the brightest auroras are still dim in relation with the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. You should therefore use the highest possible ISO value that does not deteriorate too much the quality of your images. High ISO values tend to produce digital noise on photos. Most recent cameras will easily allow you working with a 1600 ISO sensitivity or even higher.
My usual settings: I always shoot the aurora at 3200 ISO sensitivity unless the aurora is extremely bright, in which case I would go down to 1600 ISO. If the aurora is extremely faint (barely visible to the naked eye), then I might push the ISO settings to 6400 or even higher, as the Canon 1DX Mark II is extremely tolerant with digital noise.
Because the aurora is often moving quite fast across the sky, it is better to try and shorten the exposure time. Of course this will depend on the intensity of the aurora. The brighter auroras will require a “short” exposure time while for the fainter ones you will need additional time.
My settings: for faint auroras, my exposure time can range between 20s and 30s. When activity increases, exposure times between 6s and 15s are more common. Exceptionally bright auroras might require me to go down to 3s exposure. If you are shooting photos for a timelapse video, you should not change the exposure time during a series of photos! You therefore need to anticipate how strong the aurora will be (we will see this in future articles on timelapse methods and aurora forecasts)
As we saw in the article about equipment, you need a lens with a small aperture value, which catches more light. When photographing the aurora, just use the smallest value possible.
My settings: all my lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8. All my photos are therefore shot with an f/2.8 aperture value.
If you save your photos in your camera’s RAW format, then you do not need to worry about this. As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend using this format as it allows you the most flexibility in post-processing. Some missed shots can be immensely improved afterwards, which in its turn will greatly diminish the disappointment if you did not manage to get the best during your first night under the aurora!
For those who still save their photos in Jpeg format, do not use the automatic white balance! Because the lights and colors always change, your camera will not be able to properly analyse the scene to define the white balance and therefore you will not have the same color temperature on all photos. I found that the “fluorescent” white balance setting comes the closest to reality in most cases (unfortunately there is no general rule, hence again the recommendation for RAW files).
While increasing the ISO setting of your camera, some digital noise starts appearing on your photos. Most recent cameras have a “long exposure noise reduction” option. I turn this option off and use noise reduction in post-processing software. I find the results much better and allows you to really fine-tune the settings, while with the cameras it is mostly “on” or “off” with nothing in between.
I already mentioned this on the page related to equipment. This is nevertheless such a common mistake that here it is again!
Filters: NEVER use a filter on your lens when photographing the auroras. Filters will produce a series of concentric circles in the centre of your image, which will be ruined.