Not all those who wander are lost - but I'll be disappointed if I don't get lost frequently!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Currently Standing Under the Aurora Without A Clue How to Photograph Them?

At this very moment, you are standing out in the open on a crisp, clear winter's night. You have come hundreds or thousands of miles north to try your luck at the hunting the ethereal Northern Lights. The beautiful aurora is dancing overhead, curtains of green, yellow, or even blue and red are swathed across the sky. Your dSLR camera is hanging around your neck....

....And you haven't got a clue how to photograph them.


To make matters worse, this could be your only chance to capture the beauty of this unpredictable phenomenon.

Never fear. This is the Currently Standing Under the Aurora Without A Clue How to Photograph Them Guide.

If you have actually read the manual for your dSLR and have a good understanding of how the interaction between aperture, exposure time and ISO impact and image, then this guide isn't for you. This guide is for those unfortunate souls who don't have time to read the manual or learn principles of photography, but need to know what to do to take an aurora photo RIGHT NOW!

Set the camera to M on the capture mode dial.

Step 1: Turn your camera onto the 'Manual' mode. Generally signified by the 'M' on the mode dial.

Zoom is set at wide as possible, the focus ring turned to
infinity and adjusted and lens filters removed.
Step 2: Put on the widest angle lens you have. Something that starts at 18mm or less is preferable. Zoom out as wide as the lens will allow (ie. 18mm on a 18-50mm lens)

Step 3: Switch to manual focus, generally designated by 'MF' on the switch on the side of your camera.

Step 4: Set the focus dial to infinity (\infty). Check that something in the distance is in focus, such as mountains or a tree. Adjust the focus dial accordingly.

Step 5: Remove any lens filters. They will cause concentric circles to appear in your photos.

Slide the focus switch to 'MF' (manual focus) and turn on the
RAW+JPEG mode. 

Step 6: Set the camera to shoot in RAW or preferably RAW+JPEG mode. This means that the camera will keep all of the information it captures during the exposure, and you will have more options to enhance your photos when you get home.

The LCD  panel showing the camera has been set to 30
seconds exposure time, an aperture value of 3.5 and ISO 800.

Step 7: Set the aperture as wide as your lens will allow. This means set the f number to as small as possible ie f3.5 or lower if possible.

Step 8: Set the exposure time for a long exposure. A good place to start would be 15 or 30 seconds.

Step 9: Set the ISO to 800. If your camera doesn't go this high, try 400 or 200.

(Adjusting the settings in steps 7 to 9 will vary from camera to camera. On most camera, the value being changed will have an arrow next to it or be underlined. On your camera the value may be moved up or down possibly using the e-dial or up/down/left/right buttons. To change which value is being adjusted, try holding down or pressing other buttons such as the Ev (+/_). In some camera models, values such as ISO might be adjusted in the Function Menu. Press Fn to see what can be adjusted from this menu.)

Step 10: Take a photo of the aurora. Place the camera somewhere secure where it won't be moved during the fifteen seconds or more that it is taking the photo. Using a tripod is best, but if you don't have one, setting it on a rock, chair or vehicle with something like a pillow or folded jumper to prop it up at the right angle will work. Make sure to include something interesting from the landscape to give scale and depth to your photo. Mountains, trees, people or buildings are good subjects.

Review: Now that you have taken your first picture, review it. How does it look? Depending on your camera and the strength of the aurora, you may have to make a few adjustments.

Is the picture grainy? Long exposure times and high ISOs result in more digital noise in the photo, which is what causes that grainy look. Try reducing the ISO, or using a shorter exposure time.

Is the image too faint? This means the camera is not picking up enough light. Try increasing the exposure time (longer exposures mean the camera has longer to take in light). You can also try increasing the ISO to 1600 to increase your camera's sensitivity to light.

Is the  whole image blurred? This is probably caused by camera shake - small movements create very blurred images over long exposure times.

  • Perhaps the wind is blowing the camera - if so, create a wind block or move somewhere more sheltered. 
  • Be careful when pressing the shutter button that you don't move the whole camera. Setting a two-second delay between pressing the button and taking the picture will help you avoid this problem. 
  • Make sure what you have the camera resting on isn't moving. If the camera is sitting on your vehicle, don't lean on the vehicle or get in or out during the exposure. 

Is the aurora blurry but everything else fine? Sometimes the aurora barely moves, and it takes several minutes to notice that the shape is changing. Other times, it really does dance, changing shape very quickly. As the speed of the aurora picks up, reduce the exposure time to minimise the 'blurry aurora' effect. You may need to increase ISO to compensate for the reduced exposure time.

Keep playing around with the settings until you have the best exposure possible.

My final piece of advice? Don't forget to take a step back and enjoy the wonderful show that Mother Nature is putting on for you. 


If you have any more helpful hints from your Northern Lights Photography experience please share below!

Northern Lights Photography Resources:


I was in a very similar situation the first time I saw the Northern Lights. With flat batteries to boot. With lots of trial and error, in the end I was happy with the results of my aurora hunt

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