Between late September and late March every year in the Arctic Circle, the Aurora Borealis, a celestial ballet of dynamic colour, dances across the polar skies. Capturing this vivid display is on many travellers and photographers bucket lists and, armed with some insider information and the right tools, it’s easily achievable.
It goes without saying that it needs to be dark to see these magical lights, but some other factors also come into play. Let’s break it down and see what we can do to give ourselves the best chances.
The Cause of the Lights
The Northern Lights are the result of energy emitted by particles interacting in the upper atmosphere, quite simply. If we go into a little more detail on the cause, we can learn how to predict it. The matter that makes up the sun is plasma. This plasma is regularly sent hurtling through space as a result of coronal mass ejections, occasionally heading straight towards us here on planet Earth. When that happens, the plasma, which is travelling at thousands of miles per hour, is drawn into our ionosphere via the magnetosphere, attracted to the poles and repelled by the equator. The plasma that does enter our ionosphere collides at break-neck speeds with the gas particles, and the energy expelled by the collision is expelled as light. The colour of the light emitted is determined by the particle hit, and these displays of light happen between 50km and 200km above the surface of the planet. Knowing this information means that if we keep a close eye on the space weather forecast, combined with the terrestrial forecast, we know that if it’s dark and the skies are clear, and if there is solar activity sending plasma towards us, we stand an excellent chance of seeing lady aurora.
Shooting the Northern Lights requires some fairly simple gear, but the critical aspect is the gear's care and maintenance. Here’s what you need: -
- A camera with a suitable sensor, such as a Mirrorless or DSLR
- A tripod for stability
- A fast lens, ideally f/2.8 or faster
- MIOPS RemotePlus camera remote
The amount of light when shooting the aurora may be limited, depending on the strength of the show in the skies. It’s important to have a camera with a sensor capable of capturing scenes with limited light and with good performance at high ISO. In tandem with this, we need to ensure that as much light as possible enters the lens, so a fast lens with a wide aperture is important. Because our exposure time will be several seconds long for still shots, and because our camera needs to remain in position for timelapse, a tripod is essential. Finally, in order to control the timelapse intervals or to remotely operate the camera so as to not disturb its position, the MIOPS RemotePlus is an ideal tool for triggering our camera.
The care of our gear, as I mentioned, is perhaps worth giving a little more of our attention to when shooting the northern lights. The chances are that we’ll be shooting somewhere cold, which takes its toll on our glass and our electronics. Keeping our gear acclimatised will prevent any unwanted condensation caused by a change of environment from the warm to the cold. To achieve this, we can try to minimise movement between warm and cold places or insulate our gear inside a sealed camera bag if it’s necessary to move the gear when travelling. A top tip for driving in the arctic to find the northern lights is to keep your camera gear in the trunk, so it’s as far away from the heat vents as possible, keeping it closer to the outside temperature for longer.
For still photos of the northern lights, I always start at ISO100, f/2.8, 15 seconds shutter time. I use this as the baseline to determine what changes are required and adjust the settings as necessary, keeping the aperture fixed but changing the shutter speed and/or ISO, based on the exposure of the image balanced with the intensity of the light show. I tend to go to my ISO first if the scene isn’t bright enough, and this can extend into the thousands as many of our sensors are capable of handling such high ISO’s now.
Finding the aurora
It goes without saying that we need a dark, clear sky. The northern lights happen at a minimum of 50km above our heads, which is way above the level of any clouds we’ll see in the sky. It can feel like they’re right on top of us, but the scale is so large that they really are that high up. To find an area without clouds, it’s important to plan ahead by using a local weather service. Our weather apps can be effective, but far more effective will be the local service. In such locations, there can often be mountains and, along with them, valleys. These mountains and valleys can trap clouds and weather, so if one valley has cloud cover, the next may not, and we can simply move.
The aurora can happen at any time, day or night. The problem is that we need to be able to see it, so we need the contrast of the night sky. I’ve seen aurorae at sunset whilst the sky is still in twilight, but it’s not very common. Dark skies are important for this and for our photography. When we plan an aurora photo, we need to consider what light sources are around us, just as with any other night-time photography, because any artificial light around us will creep into our image. Positioning ourselves far from any town or city or any lit road will enhance our chances of a clear image with no artificial light.
As for the aurora itself, it comes directly from the sun as charged particles of plasma. These interact with our atmosphere, and the light emitted by this interaction is determined by the plasmas speed and density. There are services we can use to predict any incoming plasma, and I find a simple and effective app to use across the world is ‘Aurora.’ This shows the chances at our current location and gives us a visual representation on a map of where the aurora is right now. To plan ahead, though, spaceweatherlive.com shows us what is forecast to happen for the coming days by utilising an array of satellites and ground instruments to come up with a pretty good outlook.
The aurora is inherently unpredictable – the only thing we can really do after applying our hunting skills is to ensure we have a dark sky. Travellers can spend many hours in a cold, arctic, dark environment waiting for a light show that never comes. With this in mind, it’s vital for us to consider two things: - firstly, don’t plan around the northern lights. Plan around everything else in the environment you want to see the lights in, such as any towns, museums, galleries, waterfalls, mountains, etc. If we do this rather than plan around the lights, we ensure we have had success on our trip and with our shoot, and if the aurora does put in an appearance, it can be considered the icing on the cake. Secondly, the aurora can be considered like a slower version of a waterfall when it comes to our camera settings in that we can slow them down and smooth them out with a longer exposure and freeze their motion with a faster exposure.
The northern lights are on so many peoples bucket lists, and I highly recommend making an effort to see them. It can be easy to forget about our camera and become mezmerised by natures light show overhead, which is why I use a MIOPS RemotePlus to fire off my shots, that way I can set up a composition and dial in my settings, then enjoy the show while my camera takes the photos and I can simply come back to my camera every now and then to make any adjustments.
Dave Williams is an author, writer, photographer and speaker, specialising in travel. With experience throughout the photography industry, he captures the world from his perspective with a view to sharing all the tools and techniques he can in travel, photography and photo retouching, with nothing held back. Dave’s mantra is, ‘lend me your eyes and I’ll show you what I see.
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