Solar Flares make for great Northern Lights (Aurora) – Canon EOS 5D Mark II captures them

by planetmitch13 Comments

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)

Redrock Micro

Copyright Travis Novitsky-Exposure 25 seconds, f4, ISO 1000.Canon EF 24-105mm L

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.

Copyright Travis Novitsky-Exposure 30 seconds, f4, ISO 640. Canon EF 17-40mm L


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.

Copyright Travis Novitsky-Exposure 30 seconds, f4, ISO 1250. Canon EF 17-40mm L

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.

Copyright Travis Novitsky-Exposure 30 seconds, f4, ISO 640. Canon EF 17-40mm L

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)

Zeiss Cinema Lenses


  1. Fantastic photos. Im from the UK and was hoping to see something tonight but no luck. These photos make it better though, what an amazing photographer.

    thanks for sharing


  2. Those pictures are really GREAT–thank you Travis for sharing them with us!!

  3. Inspiring! Wow! I am curious why Travis did not use a lower ISO when it was going to be a long exposure regardless. Ideas?

  4. Hi,

    Thank you all for your kind comments! They are much appreciated :-) The main reason for not using a lower ISO was to keep the exposure length at 30 seconds or less. Any longer than 30 seconds and the stars start to become trails of light. Using a lower ISO would mean that I would have to use exposure times of longer than 30 seconds in order to expose the image properly. Besides, with the great low-noise performance of the Canon 5D Mark II, shooting at ISO’s of up to 1600 produces nice, clean images. I’ve even shot night skies at up to ISO 6400, although then you start to have quite a bit of noise. Also, by using a lower ISO (and thereby also having a longer exposure time), the aurora would become even more of a blur than they already are in these images. By using a shutter speed of 30 seconds or less, you can retain some of the “shape” of the lights, for example some of the vertical lines of color that can be faintly seen in some of the images. Its similar to shooting water at slow shutter speeds. The longer the exposure time, the “smoother” the water is going to look. Its the same principle when shooting northern lights. Again, thank you for your comments!


  5. Thanks for the education, Travis. You can tell I am a novice but hopefully learning actively through these wonderful blogs! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Hope you continue to get such incredible photographic moments :)

  6. I saw the your link on Shawn’s Wall on fb- incredible shots Travis. I hope to get lucky and see something lingering around this Sunday through Tuesday night in Grand Marais :)
    Thanks for sharing the beautiful shots.

  7. The silhouette of the tree certainly makes it very striking. Awesome! Thanks for describing how you shot it, I learnt something today :-)
    One thing -how does one set the white balance for such a shot? Did you leave it on AWB and then tune it to your liking while post processing?

  8. When shooting the aurora, I usually leave the white balance on auto. Other times, such as when shooting star trails, I often set the white balance to fluorescent, as that helps bring out the nice cool blue of the sky at night.

  9. I love your photo very much.
    It’s amazing. i like night photography, but i have never ever make all this shot.
    anyway, i live in malaysia. i think over here i can’t capture all this kind of photo in my life.

    thanks for sharing.
    Gavin Lim

  10. Thank U very much for the info & beautiful images..going to northern Finland next month, and i am “drinking” all the info i can get, using similar equipment to yours..

  11. Absolutely beautiful photography. Thanks for the tip on the filters. I generally keep a polarizer on my camera at all times along with a UV filter. We are up to Superior in March so I’m going to take them off and see what I get – if better than usual. I’m just an amateur trying to get pretty pictures for our family. Thank you for sharing the pix and information.

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