Shooting The Northern Lights
Shooting the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, can be an incredibly rewarding experience. There is nothing quite like seeing the sky light up and dance over head, it sends shivers down your spine and will be a moment to treasure forever. Once you've seen them you can see why people chase Aurora storms with a burning passion.
Capturing the northern lights can be a challenge, if you are an experienced photographer camera settings are not the issue, the timing, commitment and knowledge is what you'll need to be successful.
Why do the Northern Lights Occur
Now I'm no expert, and I'm sure there are better, more detailed explanations out there but I'll do my best to explain! Aurora storms are caused by the sun, more specifically a coronal mass ejection or CME from the sun. A CME is a substantial release of plasma and magnetic field from the solar corona, these often follow solar flares. The particles released from the sun then travel towards Earth at high speed traveling down the magnetic field lines of the North and South pole. When they enter the atmosphere they react with gasses, reactions with Oxygen give a green and red light and reactions with nitrogen can give off blue and purple hues.
When to see the Northern Lights
This is probably one of the most common questions I get asked and see other people asking: 'When's the best time to see the Northern Lights?'. There is simply no set time of year or place, of course there times and locations that can better your chances but they are a relatively unpredictable beast. To increase your chances you'll need a couple of things; firstly dark, clear and preferably long nights as well as the opportunity to be as north as possible. Due to these reasons winter is often the best time to see the lights, not because there are more storms but because the nights are longer. Also the closer to the Arctic Circle you can get the better your chances, this is because, as mentioned before, some of the particles and energy produced by solar storms travel down the magnetic field lines of the North and South Pole. Therefor, the closer you are to either the more chance you have of seeing a storm, even if it's weak. I'm based in Banff National Park in Canada, North but not that North, to see the lights down here we have to have a strong storm.
How to predict the Northern Lights
There are endless ways to monitor the Auroras and an in depth knowledge can certainly help your Aurora chasing, there are scientists and hobbyists that monitor solar flares and solar winds to gather information to help predict the phenomenons behaviour. Although I in no way discourage delving into this level of learning for the majority of people, myself included, there are a series of websites, apps and Faecbook groups that can be of great aid. I find using a combination of apps and websites to plan your shoots is often very useful, things like Photopills for general planning, Stellarium for Milky Way and google maps for location scouting. Planning Aurora shots is no different, below I've listed the sources I tend to use, normally checking each one before deciding to head out.
The main things I look for are the KP number of a storm, essentially the higher the number the bigger the storm, the BZ number, which is to do with solar winds, the lower number the better and clear skis.
Aurora Service: A great up to date website showing you predicted KP numbers for the current time and predicted changes. There are multiple versions of this website depending on where you are located:
North America: www.aurora-service.org
New Zealand/Australia: www.aurora-service.net
Aurora Apps: There are several of these, the one I've found to be the most user friendly is called 'My Aurora Forecast' this provides a fantastic map showing your location and overlaid with where the storm is predicted to currently be. It also offers predictions of future activity over hours, days and weeks as well as the cloud coverage in your area. It can be down loaded on iTunes for iPhone and Google Play for Android.
Facebook Groups: I find these to be invaluable, even though I consider myself to be a committed photographer there are always people out there more willing than me to venture out on a cold dark night just in case something is happening. This can be by far the best indicator, if there are other photographers getting excited about a storm or currently shooting one you know it's worth getting your gear together and jumping in the car.
As I'm Alberta based I closely follow Alberta Aurora Chasers on Facebook, this is a group of highly dedicated, highly active individuals addicted to the Northern Lights. If there's a storm nearby they'll be people out shooting, it's also a great resource to learn and build on your Aurora and photography knowledge. There is most likely a Facebook group for your area too.
Shooting the Northern Lights
So the sky is clear, the storm is big, you're heading out but what to take? What and where to shoot?
Equipment: As for camera equipment this is very similar to Milky Way Photography. As we're dealing with low light there are a few things that will help capture great images and although not the be all and end all the following equipment will certainly make it easier.
A Full Frame Camera: This will mean your camera is more sensitive to light, gathering more information in a shorter time and in turn most likely better at higher ISO.
A Fast Wide Lens: A wide lens can be great as it allows you to capture more of the sky but for certain situations you may prefer a narrower focal length. Having a fast aperture will allow you to freeze the movement of the Aurora giving you more defined shapes.
Tripod: This is a must when shooting long exposures, the sturdier it is the sharper your images will be.
Remote/Timer: To guarantee those images are sharp it's best to not be touching the camera. You can do this by using a remote or setting your camera on a timer delay.
Head Torch: These are incredibly handy when trying to shoot at night, being able to illuminate the equipment in front of you hands free is endlessly helpful!
Warm Clothes: If you start shooting the Northern Lights you'll find it hard to stop so dress up warm, you'll be out all night!
Settings: Similar to Milky Way photography you want to be using a relatively high ISO, fast aperture and then depending on the strength of the storm an exposure time between 1 and 15 seconds. It's best to play with these settings though and have a good idea of how your camera works. Practice with your camera before you head out, you don't want to miss out on epic shots due to not knowing how to operate your equipment, this always becomes more difficult in the dark.
White balance is one of the most important things with the Northern Lights, your camera will pick up colour much better than your eyes but the colour will be heavily effected by your white balance. I would keep it around 3500 K, you can manually adjust this on pretty much any DSLR and if you shoot raw can adjust it in post if things go wrong.
Where to Shoot: During all the excitement it's easy to forget everything you've learnt about composition and photography however the most compelling images are ones that are thought through, that would be great shots without the Aurora and are simply enhanced by it's presence. Scout out locations during the day so you know your surroundings, get away from light pollution and if you're in the Northern Hemisphere point your camera north, south if you're in the south! You can often pick up colour on camera before you can see it with the naked eye so it's always worth firing off a few test shots.
Seeing and photographing the Northern Lights is an unreal experience, I'll never forget the first time I witnessed them. If you get the chance to see them you'll be addicted to chasing them for life!