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Capturing the Northern Lights – Aurora Photography Guide

Posted on Feb 28, 2014 by Tim Francis

You have done your homework. You have invested time and money to be in the best location at the right time of year and now it’s crunch time – catching your hopes and expectations on your camera.

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Capturing the Northern Lights - Aurora Photography Guide

The Aurora shimmering above the Cairngorms National Park.

 

This time, we’re here to share what we’ve learnt when we’ve out with our cameras: Capturing the Northern Lights – Aurora Photography Guide.

As with any trip to the wilds, preparation is key. Whilst you may have the latest DSLR it may all come to waste if only a few basic things could have also been remembered.

1. Research

Keep alert! I look at 3 websites daily to try and gain an indication that the aurora may be on that night.

http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/

http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/

http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/pmap/

2. Know your camera.

This may sound obvious but having read the manual and taking time to become familiar with settings and buttons will reward at the crucial time. This is especially true to those folk that have a basic digital camera and generally use the default point and shoot settings. Just take a little time as it will pay dividends.

3. Remember the kitchen sink!

A check list is very useful just to ensure that nothing is left behind.

  • Camera, bag and lenses
  • Head torch
  • Tripod – without a good tripod obtaining a clear picture may prove difficult with those longer exposure settings
  • Woolley hat and gloves – you will be at least in the north of Scotland at night and it can become very cold (although the excitement puts pay to a little chilliness)
  • Spare charged camera batteries
  • Thermos flask of warm drink

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4. Camera Settings

You are now setup and ready to shoot. We all have an idea of the image that we would like to capture and this will vary. Knowing how your camera is setup is crucial as this will allow you to alter specific settings to obtain the result that you require. The following is how I setup my camera. I then alter settings to suit conditions etc. Note that you could have your camera setup and ready to go before setting out thereby reducing faff.

  • Switch off the flash. If it cannot be switched off then put black tape over it.
  • Remove any UV or polarizing filters.
  • Lens type: wide-angle, ideally less than 35 mm focal length, i.e. a 14-42 mm.
  • Focus the camera manually. Pre-focus the lens to infinity. Switch off ‘Autofocus’ if you have it.
  • Set the camera speed to ISO 800 or above. The darker the sky, the higher the ISO setting should be.
  • Exposure time/shutter speed (Tv): typically 5-30 sec (possibly not adjustable on all cameras). If the Northern Lights are changing rapidly, use shorter exposure times. You may get some blurring but you may also like the effect. With ‘fast’ lenses(f/1.4) and high ISO settings (ISO 3200) exposure times may be reduced to 2 sec.

As you get familiar with judging the intensity of the aurora, you can make pretty good guesses on exposure times.

  • If you have a delayed action timer, set it to 2 sec. It will reduce camera shake.
  • Recording mode: If there is a great variation in the intensity of the auroral displays, and you have a fast lens, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode (Av), otherwise bulb or Manual (M) mode is required.

Using Bulb mode: If your exposure exceeds the in-camera timer of 30 seconds, switch your camera to Bulb mode. Plug in your cable release. Your exposure will go as long as you hold the release button down.

  • Aperture: Use the widest aperture possible, i.e. the smallest f/no. – Usually f/2, f/2.8 or f/3.5, depending on the lens you have.
  • Shoot in RAW or RAW & jpeg if you are uncertain. Even if you don’t know how to process a RAW file, don’t worry. Someday you will be glad you did. Consider the RAW file like a negative. It will always be there and you can process it at any time.
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction. In general turn this on.

“You can be forgiven for wondering why this noise reduction feature isn’t always ON at all times. The answer is that using it can slow down your shooting of one picture after another. Here’s why: to do its job, Long Exposure Noise Reduction has to re-energize your imaging sensor and in effect take a “blank” exposure, after your actual picture is taken, for the same length of time. During this time, you cannot shoot another actual picture — the red card busy light on the back of the camera stays on until the process is completed. If you shoot, for example, a 30 second exposure, the camera has to be tied-up for an additional 30 full seconds before your next picture can be taken.”

  • White balance: choose the ‘Daylight’ setting. OR Auto.

So now you are ready. October and March are times of high aurora activity. Start to study the forecasts now but always remember – don’t let the pursuit of a photo ruin your chance of experiencing a truly breathtaking phenomenon – good luck.

Interested in embarking on one of our photography expeditions? Our photograph holidays show you the very best areas in Scotland for photography, which are guided by experts in the field.

About the author

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Tim Francis

Tim's a passionate biker and hill-walker, who was a business development manager in a former life and spent 4 amazing years working in South America. Lucky for us he's returned to the Highlands to live and become a mountain biking and walking guide.

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