by David Evans
Published November 10, 2019 in Escape – News Corp
WARNING: photographing the aurora borealis is addictive.
‘Is it as bright to look at as it is in photographs?’ This is the question I am most often asked about the aurora borealis. The answer is a frustrating, ‘well, that depends’.
Having seen the aurora dozens of times, I can say it is always different and you know when you have seen a good one. And you know it’s a good one when the snow turns green and the face of the person next to you is lit up, as if watching a fireworks display.
This generally happens at a kP of 5 or more – the kP index being a scale of 1 to 9, rating the intensity of an aurora and the radiation burst from the sun that reacts with the earth’s magnetic field, resulting in the aurora. I have seen up to kP7, which filled the sky with a dazzling, dancing display for several hours. The photographs didn’t do it justice. I have never met anyone who has seen a kP9, but I suspect they would have a permanent green tan!
But what if it isn’t that bright? Is it possible to photograph a dim aurora? Absolutely! And that’s where it’s particularly important to know how to use your camera.
Photographing the aurora is a popular pastime for visitors to the far north, with Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Canada being popular vantage points, especially in winter when the nights are long and ‘aurora season’ is in full swing. The chances are best under the ‘aurora oval’ which runs like a ring around the top (and bottom) of the globe, generally between 66 and 69 degrees latitude, coinciding with the highest concentration of magnetic field lines. It is best photographed with no moon, or up to half-moon – ensuring more darkness in the night sky and therefore more colour and contrast in the aurora.
Cameras are so good these days that almost any camera can be used. I have even seen someone create a decent photo using an iPhone by resting it on top of a car to keep it still! However, getting great images does require an SLR camera where settings can be manually controlled, and a tripod to keep it steady over several seconds.
Here’s a checklist of a good basic setup and settings;
1. SLR camera set to manual mode
3. Wide angle lens
4. Set the camera to manual focus and the focus on the lens to infinity (refer to your camera manual for this, or test the lens during the day by focusing on a far object)
5. Set the aperture (the opening in the lens) as wide as you can. This means the smallest f-stop number, such as f2.8. The smaller the number, the better
6. Set the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor) to 1600 to begin with. Most modern SLR cameras also go up to 3200 ISO without a problem
7. Set the shutter speed to 10 seconds as a starting point. This can be adjusted down or up depending on how bright the aurora is. Anything from 1 to 20 seconds is common, but for fast-moving auroras it is better to have a shorter shutter speed to freeze the movement
8. A cable release is handy so you don’t move the camera when pressing the shutter, or using the timer on the camera works too
9. Shooting in RAW format if you have the software (such as Photoshop or Lightroom) to process it will always result in better photos, but if you don’t use software, stick to jpeg
10. Have more than one battery, and keep the spares next to your body so they stay warm. The cold will drain batteries much more quickly than usual!
Finally, don’t forget to include some foreground in your composition for added interest. This could be some snow-covered trees or perhaps some mountains. This gives depth and context to the photograph.
Oh, and don’t whistle under the aurora, or point at it. Scandinavian folklore says this is bad luck!