Recent “coronal mass ejection” (solar flares) have caused a huge burst in Northern Light activity and I wish I were far enough north to see them – but Travis Novitsky is lucky enough – he's in Grand Portage, Minnesota and got to witness a beautiful Northern Light show (Aurora) the other night. We found Travis' photos on spaceweather. Travis was kind enough to share some of his Canon EOS 5D Mark II (reviews) photos with us and they're quite amazing! (And, you can see some older Aurora photos on his smugmug site)
We asked Travis how he shot the Northern Lights and he sent us this:
It would be an honor to have my images on your blog! I've been following your blog for a while now, and I really enjoy it
Well, the aurora made a pretty good showing last night! It sounds like most everyone in Minnesota had cloudy skies but lucky for me the clouds didn't move in to my area until after the aurora faded. These images were all captured between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. At about 11:45 I noticed the moon was coming up, so I made a couple of exposures of the moon as well as the northern lights. These were all shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera.
It was nice to see the northern lights make a comeback to northern Minnesota, since it seems its been a few years since we've had a nice display of the lights. I did see a display of the lights back in late May of this year, but those only lasted about 15 minutes. Most people seem to think that winter is the best time of year to see the northern lights, but they can be seen any time of year. Winter does provide more opportunity for seeing them since the nights are so much longer, but really the best displays I've seen have been either in late spring or early fall.
As far as tips go, the main things are to use a good tripod if one is available, or in a pinch setting the camera on a stationary object such as a deck railing or the roof of a car will work. Also a bean bag can be helpful for composing and recording a shot if a tripod is unavailable. A bean bag will hold the camera still and you can position the camera on the bag the way you want, therefore allowing for a bit more freedom in your composition. Also, be sure to NOT have filters covering the front of your lens. Years ago the first time I shot the aurora I couldn't figure out why the images weren't turning out the way I was hoping… well, it was because I had a polarizer filter attached to the front of the lens! Generally, you want to shoot the aurora with your lens as wide open as possible. On most camera lenses this will likely be either an aperture of f4 or f3.5. Some lenses have an aperture of f2.8, which will let even more light in.
I usually shoot the aurora with my camera in Manual mode, and when I start shooting I start off with the ISO set at 800 and an exposure time of 20 to 30 seconds. Depending on the intensity of the lights, I can either increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed, depending on the look that I am going for. Also, most of the time your camera's autofocus will not be able to focus on the lights, as usually they are too faint for the camera to focus on. A strong flashlight is a must in some situations. If there are other lights in the scene (such as the moon, or city lights, for example) you can use those lights to focus your camera on. Otherwise, if you have a strong foreground element (such as the tree in my photo) you can use a strong flashlight to shine light onto the foreground element so your camera can “see” it, then use your autofocus to focus on the foreground element. Once you've obtained focus, turn your autofocus OFF, otherwise when you go to press the shutter button the camera will try to focus again.
I absolutely love the vertical one with the tree in silhouette don't you? Sound off in the comments below!
(Photo credit: snap Copyright Travis Novitsky)