How to photograph the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) pt.1

Here is a quick photography tutorial

Checklist

1. Download an Aurora forecast app (be ready to act fast)

2. Check the weather forecast. Clouds = no aurora 3. Prepare yourself and your camera to be cold for a few hours

4. Prepare to be working in the dark 5. Bring a heavy tripod or attach weights to your tripod 6. Switch to manual focus MF & manual photography 7. Frame your shot with a wide angle lens and analyse the Aurora activity 8. Adjust camera settings accordingly 9. Start snapping photos


Photo of an arctic couple looking up at the northern lights, the aurora borealis
Photo by: Jannicke Mikkelsen, IG @jm_fnf 📸Shot on Canon EOS R5

1. Select your Aurora Forecast app.

I've spent so much money on getting all of the aurora apps. I cross reference pretty much all of them and right now my favourite app with the highest accuracy is Aurora Forecast. by TINAC Inc.





The pages I am most interested in are the 'Aurora Map' to see if the aurora activity will hit as far north as I am located here in Svalbard, then I look at the '30 min Forecast' of Earth's northern hemisphere to see how fat that aurora band is, then third I look at the 'Forecast' tab to check what times and dates I can expect aurora activity. From experience the dates that indicate high activity will shift a day forth or back, but the level of activity is pretty accurate.


2. Check the weather forecast.

Most people will say you need to pick a location with low light pollution, yet nobody tells you to check the weather. If you have a clear sky, you can shoot incredible photos above towns. If you have a few scattered low clouds you can get incredible photos too as these catch any ambient light around you. If there is full cloud cover, don't bother. You won't be able to capture anything worth your time freezing in the cold.


3. Prepare yourself and your camera to be cold for a few hours.

Speaking from my own experience, you will get cold. Very cold. I live pretty far north on our globe, 78degrees North to be exact, which is North Pole-ish in latitude. When the skies are clear, it is also extremely cold. Typically I'll only decide to head out into the wilderness 24 hours before an aurora photo shoot. This is when I start charging my Canon EOS R5 camera batteries, batteries for my BlindSpotGear lights, and go over my Lynx snowmobile to make sure the tank is full and I have extra 2-stroke oil. I'll cross check all the aurora forecast apps, weather report and local observatory imagery as the time gets closer. If the aurora activity is moderate to high (Kp index 3+), the sky is fairly clear, and the weather looks to be stable, I will head out. I dress in layers. Wool/marino wool thermals, ski pants, knitted wool sweater (knitted by mum), and a down jacket, and if it's extra windy, a windbreaker on top of all of that. Batteries always go in a pocket where my body heat will keep them warm. If a battery is in an outer jacket pocket, you will soon find that the cold has drained the battery of all power.



'Some of you asked me how dark it is during the day?'

'Answer: It's dark'



4. Prepare to be working in the dark

Just bring a head lamp. -And bring something reflective you can tie round your tripod so you can find your camera again when using your headlamp to find where you left your camera. Talking from experience here. I even recommend attaching an Apple air tag tracker to your camera and tripod. This has proven to be very useful.


5. Bring a heavy tripod

I use a medium weight tripod made out of a carbon fiber body to prevent the tripod getting too cold to the touch when sitting outside for a few hours. The tripod I use is the Benro Bat 15C from foto.no which has a hook where I can hang my backpack to add extra weight. The Benro Bat also has a twist lock adjustment for extending the tripod legs. This is important because clasps on a tripod really hurt to snap open and shut when your fingers are freezing. With other words, clasp locks are a complete no-no when working in the cold. When you have adjusted your tripod and added a bit of extra weight for stability you are ready for a sharp long exposure shot.



Still image from aurora time lapse
Photo by: Jannicke Mikkelsen, Instagram @jm_fnf 📸Shot on Canon EOS R5


6. Switch to manual focus (MF) and manual photography (M)

Not only will you be shooting photos in the dark, but you'll also struggle a good deal finding anything to focus you lens on. Forget auto focus and switch to manual focus. The way I sharp the sky is to turn my focus ring to the infinity point and then dial it back 'a touch' to where I know from experience both the mountains, and sky will be in focus on my Canon RF 16mm f2.8 lens. It's not science, although your local lense expert will disagree. For me as the photographer it's more of a feeling and knowing what points on the lens is sharp at what distances. Sometimes I'm outside waiting for the northern lights with no moon light to give me any distant point to focus on. Everything is completely submerged in darkness until the aurora shows up, and by that time you want to be ready to snap some shots. Best tip is to spend time getting to know your wide angle lense and where all the focus points are manually compared to distance. Shooting manual on your camera is an art form finding the correct balance of f.stop (aperture), ISO and shutter (exposure) time. My settings always vary depending on the intensity of the aurora. The reason why I don't shoot on Aperture Value (AV) or Time Value (TV) is simply because I feel like something has to give in quality of the image if a value is automated.

7. Frame your shot with a wide angle lens and analyse the aurora activity


OK, so you've got your camera ready, your extra batteries protected from the cold, your tripod set up and weighted, camera mounted, wide angle lens mounted, focus set, and mother nature is dishing up the best conditions for a night of aurora photography. Now start framing your shot.



Timelapse by Jannicke Mikkelsen, Instagram @jm_fnf 📸 Shot on Canon EOS R5

Setting up your frame before the aurora arrives is far more crucial when shooting a time lapse as you don't want your final video assembly to have any frame movement.

First consider your position and locate North, South, East and West. For us here in Svalbard, the aurora typically starts in the southern horizon and travels East to West. Frame your camera with this in mind. 💡Pro Tip! Everything about the aurora borealis is unpredictable. Usually is shows up in the south and travels east to west. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the aurora will swivel in a spiral above you, or come at you from the North. Be prepared to capture the unpredictable events.


When the aurora first shows up you want to be quick on the manual settings. Sometimes the aurora is so active I've switched to video mode 60fps because it is so active. Other times the aurora is slow and the dance across the sky is stable with subtle movements. This is when you can have more choices in your settings on how you capture the light.


8. Adjust camera settings accordingly


For both time lapse and stills photography on my Canon EOS R5 I will start out with the same settings. ISO of 12800, f.2.8, and 1/4 shutter time. These values put me roughly in a ball park where I can easily estimate my correct settings for that evening's aurora event. You will find your camera setting are never the same, simply because the aurora activity is never the same.


For bright aurora activity I will reduce my ISO drastically to get as little noise as possible, then I will adjust my shutter time to get the right exposure. Longer exposure times give vibrant aurora photography, but you may end up with star trails as well. If you wish to have crisp sharp stars in your photo I would recommend not to go over 0"6 on your shutter time.



Photo by Jannicke Mikkelsen Instagram @jm_fnf 📸 Shot on Canon EOS R5

9. Start snapping photos

If you've covered all the basics you should be ready to snap some incredible photos. I recommend bringing friends who also enjoy photography which will distract them from the cold weather for as long as it takes you to land that perfect shot. This takes time. I've seldom just pointed my camera at the aurora and gotten the perfect shot. I set my tripod up and spend time thinking about my frame and camera settings. Once I'm happy with the basics I'll start adjusting my camera settings and setup for HDR photography and subtle light painting of the landscape below the aurora. Enjoy! ...and let me know how you get along with your aurora photo shoot. You can always reach out to me on my Instagram account @jm_fnf

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