Photographing Auroras (the Northern Lights)
by Kim Randolph
Adrienne asked me to write some tips on how to photograph auroras. I'm
by no means an expert but I will describe what I do as best I can and
then give you some links to websites of some real aurora photographers.
To be a true Aurora Photographer you have to be a masochist. An
obsessive/compulsive personality is a real plus here, also. Fortunately
for me, I was born with these qualities. Auroral storms caused by a
blast of sunstuff (my word) can last 3 or 4 nights and the best time to
watch them is when the rest of your family is snug in bed. You have to
go to bed early (or go without sleep) and set your alarm to wake you
every hour so you don't miss the best showing. You have to run to a
dark, north-facing room and peer out the window to try to see any kind
of glow between the trees. If you can't stand to take the chance of
missing something you drive in your car to an open field or lake to make
sure. If not you go back home and repeat the same in a couple more hours.
You will stand in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness listening
to enormous animals crashing in the woods around you. Last March I stood
in the dark listening to a pack of wolves howl and then saw these white
apparitions flying around the dark field. I realized they were horses
and they were spooked by the wolves (so was I!). They raced straight at
me and then came to a dead stop when they saw me. They immediately
started grazing as if thinking I would keep them safe. Ha!
Standing in the dark you will wonder if that tinkling sound could be a
rabid farm dog sneaking up on you in the dark. You will remember the
news article you read about the dozens of sightings of mountain lions in
the past year. You will park your car so you can jump in at the first
hint of danger! Because your car is usually parked in a strange way the
local sheriff will stop to check you out often. You will stand in below
zero temps until your fingers are numb because you cannot stop taking
pics of this mesmerizing display. Finally, when you fill up all your
memory cards, you will drive home very slowly because you are so sleepy
your eyes won't stop crossing. To avoid all this suffering you could buy
a house on a hill that faces north and then you can simply step outside
to take your pics.
When and Where
To know what the chances are of auroral activity I keep my homepage set
because it is simple to understand and refreshes
itself every 5 minutes. The Canopus Auroral Oval is generated with a set
of magnetometers planted on the ground in Canada. They can actually
sense where the aurora is and the graphic shows how far south the aurora
is moving. I will spare you a lot of nerdy explanation here. If the
color of the Canopus Oval is white and the activity level of the NOAA
POES oval is 10 then even you folks in the middle or southern states of
the US and much of Europe may be able to see the lights. Several times
in October and November 2003 the aurora was visible in Florida and
Arizona due to huge blasts from sunspots. Of course light pollution from
big cities will interfere with your viewing.
Near my home there are few areas with an open view of the northern
horizon so I travel in my car between the same 4 areas. I use the auto
focus to set the focus on a distant light or moon. When it is where I
want it I switch to manual focus and leave it there. I set the ISO to
400 (800 is better but too noisy for me) and open the aperture all the
way. The shutter speed depends on what kind of aurora display we are
having and how dark is the night sky - usually 15 to 30 seconds. If
there is a lot of movement in the display I use as short a shutter speed
as possible to capture as much of the detail as possible of the rays and
shimmers. A longer shutter speed results in more aurora light in the
image but it will lose its sense of movement and simply blur the light.
Of course, I use a tripod and the timed shutter release.
Composition and Color
I like to try to include interesting objects in my aurora images and not
simply shoot the lights in the sky. I always try to include the ground
or at least some trees for reference. I try to capture 5 or 6 images
without moving in between to create an animated gif to show the movement
of the aurora. Sometimes the lights are so dim I can't see them with my
eyes so I shoot a pic anyway. The camera is much more sensitive and
will even capture lights I cannot see. If there is a green glow I know
there is activity and wait a while for the show to start. A typical show
will last from minutes to hours and will fade in and out. Most often the
lights appear white to my eyes but the camera will capture it as green.
Red and blue and purple are also common colors. It depends on what
element in the atmosphere the sunstuff contacts.
Processing the Images
When I process an image I always run NeatImage first. Then I adjust
levels and contrast and bump up saturation with Digital Velvia. I often
run Neatimage again at the end. I prefer an image with smooth color and
don't worry much about crisp detail. I rarely sharpen the final image or
may lasso a small area to sharpen because I don't want to add noise.
Feel free to contact me with questions or comments. You can reach me in the forums by sending
a Personal Message (PM) to kimr55760
(you must be logged in to send a PM).
My Aurora Gallery at pBase
My favorite aurora photographer is Dennis Anderson of Alaska