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Photographing Auroras (the Northern Lights)

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.

animated aurora


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. wink

When and Where

To know what the chances are of auroral activity I keep my homepage set at 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.

Camera Settings

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

Other links