Tips for Photographing and Capturing the Beauty of the Aurora Borealis

by planetMitchLeave a Comment

This is a guest post from Ryan Tollefsen

Tips for Photographing and Capturing the Beauty of the Aurora Borealis

The dazzling, dancing colored lights of the aurora borealis are one of Mother Nature's best shows. But because they are always moving and shifting against a dark sky, these ethereal lights can be tricky, but definitely not impossible, to photograph.

Your Equipment

You don't need a fancy camera to capture the beauty of the northern lights. You simply need one that can be put on a full manual setting. Why? Because automatic settings are fine when the conditions are bright, and your camera can find a subject to focus on.  But in the dark, your camera will struggle to locate something on which to focus. That is why you will want to manually focus your camera on the northern lights. Also make sure to turn off your flash, which will wash out your pictures of the aurora and other beautiful sites you see on your trip. And while a wide-angle lens is not necessary, it is definitely preferable, if you have one.

A tripod, on the other hand, is definitely a necessity, and you will also need either a shutter release cable or a wireless trigger. If you don't have either, you can always use the camera's timer. But you will definitely need to have some hands-free way to control the shutter. Because of the camera settings you will be using, even the slightest vibrations from your hands could ruin your pictures.

You will also need to carry a good supply of fully charged batteries. Cold weather will sap your camera's batteries very quickly. And do you really want to be that person who traveled thousands of miles to photograph an amazing natural wonder, only to have a dead camera on your hands? Of course, not.

Cold air can also cause other issues. For example, taking a camera in and out of a warm vehicle or hotel room into the freezing night air could cause condensation to form on the inside of your lens. While this won't cause any permanent issues for your camera, it could result in less-than-stellar photographs. If your camera lens does fog up, resist the temptation to wipe the lens. Instead wait to see if the condensation will clear up on its own, or you could place the camera in an airtight bag with something that can absorb the moisture, such as a silica gel pack.

Your Settings

Before you set out to capture the aurora, make sure to change your camera settings. The exact settings will vary depending on several factors, including the camera you have, the type of aurora you are trying to photograph (for example, fast moving or not moving at all) and its location. In general, however, you should set your ISO at 1600 or above. But, remember, a higher ISO also leads to lower picture quality.

The next tweak you will want to make will be to your f-stop. To best capture the northern lights, you will want to set your camera's lens as wide open as possible, which — confusingly enough — is actually the lowest f-stop number. So set your camera to f-2.8 or the lowest f-number you have. Next, set your shutter speed. Depending on a number of factors, this could vary between two and twenty seconds.

And, finally, make sure to practice shooting at night so you can figure out which settings work best for your camera. Otherwise, you could end up fumbling around at a crucial moment and miss out on a potentially stunning photograph of the aurora.

(cover photo credit: snap from previous planet5D post on auroras)

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