This Aurora Borealis, known as “Corona”, was taken by Jan Curtis in North America
Where and when to go?
To be able to photograph the Northern Lights, a bit of planning is required. In fact, the Northern Lights are only visible in the “Auroral Oval” at high latitudes around the Polar Circles, and where there is no light pollution, far from the big cities. Some well known areas for photographing the Northern Lights include Lapland and the north of Scandinavia, Alaska and Iceland. It’s more difficult to find a good spot in the Southern hemisphere around the Antarctic Circle. In the Southern hemisphere the Southern Lights are called the Aurora Australis.
Aurora Borealis taken in Kiruna, Swedish Lapland by Davide Vadalà – Pentax K7 – Pentax smc DA 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR – 18mm – f/3.5 – 30s – ISO 800 – Tripod: Cullmann Nanomax 250 CW25
The primary component of a decent photo of the Northern Lights is to have a dark and clear sky, this means from September to April in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Arctic Circle, during the rest of the year, there is almost 24 hours of constant daylight! According to statistics, the months of the equinox generally register more Aurora displays. The intensity of the Aurora Borealis is connected with the activity of the sun, which is following an 11 years cycle and will have a peak this year, so right now is a very good time to plan a trip to the north.
Northern Lights are a 3D phenomenon that can be seen from the space. Credit: NASA
A spectacular show of Northern Lights taken in Norway by Bjørn Jørgensen
Photographic kit to put in your camera bag
When taking pictures of the Northern Lights, you’re typically going to want to use an SLR in manual mode. The best lens to choose is a wide-angle prime lens which can let in a lot of light. If you don’t have one of those, a wide-angle zoom lens would also do the job, although you might be compromising slightly on the image quality of the resulting photo. Since a photo of the Northern Lights is typically going to be a long exposure shot, a tripod is essential, along with ideally a remote control or cable to operate the shutter. A spare battery or maybe two and an extra memory card should find their place inside your camera kit too!
Northern Lights in Norway. Thanks to the moon and the trees, the composition of this photo is very pleasant Credit:Esen Tunar
Another beautiful shot taken in Lapland by Chad Blakley
The first things to set on your SLR include setting the manual focus to infinite, format to RAW and decide on a suitable F stop for the aperture; these parameters are not going to change during the shooting session. Some lenses have an optimum aperture for image sharpness. For example, the Canon 17-40mm F4L lens is sharpest above F7, but choosing a higher aperture is going to impact the exposure time of the photograph. It’s better to deactivate any built-in Noise Reduction settings inherent in your camera; noise reduction can be carried out when post processing on your PC. A good starting point for the exposure is 30 seconds. That can change according to the intensity of the Aurora. For longer exposures, the SLR has to be used in ‘Bulb Mode’ with a shutter release cable or remote control. ISO can be anywhere, but usually between 400 and 1600 according to the quality of the camera and the noise produced: ISO 800 can be used to begin. If too much noise is apparent in the photo, this can be improved in post-processing, since photographing the Northern Lights doesn’t typically produce a frame that requires sharp edges. It’s even possible to shoot a few dark scenes, a dark picture taken with the lens closed can be subtracted from the original photo to reduce noise (you’ll need the camera on a tripod taking exactly the same scene for this to work). The last important thing to consider for the photo to be a success is the composition, an object in the foreground, some trees or a hut can add a lot to the photo and provide a sense of scale. Even the moon can be a dear friend if the intensity of the Aurora is great enough to not require complete darkness.
Thanks to the composition with the house in the foreground, a warm feeling is added to this shot taken by Fredrik Broms
Some useful tips for shooting Northern Lights in cold weather
A spare battery can be kept close at hand, ideally in your pocket. Low temperatures decrease the efficiency of the accumulator, and the warmth of your body can give them an added boost! Chemical hand warmers can also be useful for this purpose.
Aurora Borealis taken in Björkliden, Swedish Lapland by Davide Vadalà – Pentax K7 – Pentax smc DA 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR – 18mm – f/3.5 – 30s – ISO 1250 – Tripod: Cullmann Nanomax 250 CW25
Pay attention when passing between environments at very different temperatures, because humidity can cause your camera and lens to mist up. An old trick to avoid this, is to put your camera inside a plastic bag or something similar, and let it to adapt slowly to the new weather conditions. In order to avoid having any unwelcome surprises and to find the best spot, it’s best to explore the area in daylight.
Don’t be shy to take pictures even when the Aurora doesn’t seem too bright, with long exposures the camera will render more colors and more intensity than a person can see!