How to Capture the best aurora borealis photographs

Home » How to Capture the best aurora borealis photographs

No other subject is more intoxicating, inspiring, or technically challenging to capture. The aurora borealis are a phenomena that can create some of the most mesmerizing images you’ll ever see or capture. The challenge is finding them, and knowing the best way to capture the aurora borealis.

Camera Requirements for Capturing the Aurora Borealis

What kind of camera is best for capturing aurora?

These aren’t hard and fast rules but more so “ideals”. Like anything, don’t let your lack of gear stop you from getting outside and creating images or just experiencing the awesomeness of nature, especially if you might see aurora borealis!

I use a Sony A7RIII which is a high resolution camera, it has a 42mp camera sensor which is great for capturing a lot of digital information. Having too many megapixels can actually be a bad thing in the case of extremely low light though. Astrophotography, or capturing the aurora borealis for example. In my experience, the Sony A7R III works fine for me until I invest in a low light specific camera like the Sony A7s III which is a 12mp camera sensor.

The reason TOO many megapixels can be an issue is because each megapixel is essentially divided by lines. Those lines act like a barrier to light. The more megapixels, the more lines – the more lines, the less light is reaching the camera sensor.

Any full frame camera sensor is capable of capturing great aurora borealis photos. You can start splitting hairs a little too much in my humble opinion. The key is full frame cameras and fast lenses. I’d personally say the lens is even more important than the camera body.

What kind lens will I need for capturing aurora?

Lenses faster than f/4 like a 2.8 or faster is preferred. I typically use a 2.8 24mm. This comes down to preference. A lot of people love shooting really wide for aurora to capture as much of the sky as possible. If I’m backpacking or traveling, I only travel with an f/4 wide-angle to save on weight in my pack. I’ve used the f/4 wide-angle for many of my aurora photographs and it has served me just fine. Again, not ideal but it’ll do the trick so don’t stress about it too much if you only have an f/4 lens.

I personally find myself shooting at either 24mm or 16mm nearly 50/50. It really depends on the intensity of the aurora and the latitude I’m shooting them at. If the aurora is dancing right over head I’ll usually default on shooting really wide. If the aurora is over the horizon and in the distance I’ll usually start shooting at 24mm.

Equipment You’ll Need for Shooting the Aurora

Tripod

There’s no getting around this one unfortunately. You can make do with a crop sensor, a slower lens, and even a telephoto. However, you can’t really improvise your way out of needing a tripod. You can get creative and pile some rocks or use your camera bag to prop up your camera in a pinch, but you will get have almost no flexibility with your compositions unless you invest in a good tripod.

I use a carbon fibre Peak Design travel tripod. It’s so light I don’t even notice it in my pack and it’s worth every single ounce in my bag. You don’t have to have the best tripod out there but something truly sturdy is crucial. Something with an adjustable ball head is best for capturing aurora.

The excitement of auroras means acting fast. Setting up quickly, getting your focus and test shots as fast as you can. Then finally capturing your epic photos with the aurora dancing through the frame. It’s important to practice using your tripod as much as you can at night before you find yourself shooting aurora. Practice when the stakes are low. Missing shots of the elusive aurora is a real bummer, especially when it’s user error!

Intervalometer

You need some kind of means to capture your exposure without causing any camera shake. Intervalometers are great, and they can also give you the capability to shoot longer than 30 seconds without having to either hold down the shutter release or click the shutter button to begin, or end an exposure.

That said, you’ll probably never find yourself shooting longer than 30 seconds for aurora, but we’ll get into that. I’m a really big advocate of less is more – it’s not about the resources you have, it’s about how resourceful you can be. I leave the intervalometer at home most nights. Preferring to use my cameras’ self-timer.

Setting your self-timer for 5 or 10 seconds will ensure there is no camera shake in your exposure. It’s also nice to do things in camera. More equipment means more can go wrong, or missing, or broken, or have batteries dying etc.

Planning Your Aurora Borealis Shoot

In ideal circumstances, planning is an essential step in capture the best aurora borealis photos! There are a lot, I mean, A LOT of variables to consider for planning your shoot. Location being chief among them.

Understanding Aurora Forecasts and KP-Index

The Kp-index is a geomagnetic activity index based on data from magnetometers around the world. These magnetometers are used to make rough estimates of of global geomagnetic conditions. These conditions provide us with an “aurora forecast”.

Probability forecast levels

Kp-index is measured on a 0-9. It will usually read: (Kp(2)).

There are high altitude and low altitude probabilities as well. As I mentioned above, Kp-index is a global forecast. High altitude and low altitude forecasts provide a more detailed estimate of what to expect above the arctic circle or below the arctic circle (66° latitude).

I’m near 51°N here in Alberta. Fairly low altitude for aurora. That means I look at the estimate for low altitude. That also means Kp4 could be something, or could be nothing. Kp5 is usually a good show or even a great show. Kp6 is typically a great show! Anything higher than Kp6 is spectacular (and rare).

A great app for the most accurate Kp-index in my experience is Space Weather Live.

You can get really technical and dive into aurora forecasts really deep. There’s hemisphere power, solar wind speeds, interplanetary magnetic fields, disturbance storm index. Honestly, I don’t know half of it.

A fundamental understanding of Kp-index will serve you well enough on most of your aurora pursuits.

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH STARS AND LANDSCAPES AFTER DARK

Dark skies

Light pollution

Depending where in the world you are, this might be the most challenging variable. Light pollution from nearby towns, cities, airports, etc. are a big problem. There are less and less wild places where we can escape the light pollution from all of the city lights and get a clear view of the solar system above.

Luckily here in Canada dark skies are abundant if you’re willing to drive out a little. I’m in the middle of two pretty massive dark sky preserves where light pollution is actually being suppressed in order to preserve the natural beauty of the heavens above!

Light Pollution Map – Dark Sky is an app that’s available in the app store and android stores. The app will show you what the light pollution looks like around you and your city or where you would like to shoot the aurora. You can also use lightpollutionmap.info on desktop.

If you can get at least 25-50km away from any towns or cities, you should have pretty clear skies, at least clear from light pollution.

Moon phase

The next hurdle to overcome is timing your aurora shots with the moon cycle. A quick google search will tell you what phase the moon is at. In a perfect world, you want to shoot the aurora with 0% moon. That means a new moon which will be illuminating the least amount of light from the sun.

You can still get great photos with a half moon. Anything from 0-50% will be fine. You might just have to get creative with your compositions not to include the moon. If you wait until the wee hours of the mourning, the moon should set well before the sun comes out which will also give you time with a moonless sky. (Obviously this depends on time of year).

Tracking and Anticipating Weather

Nothing ruins your chances at seeing and capturing aurora like clouds! Clouds have been the cause of more wasted fuel and late nights than any other element. You just have to accept that you’re not always going to get perfect conditions when chasing aurora. But, you can try your best!

Keep an eye on the weather radar and local weather forecasts when the conditions look promising for aurora activity. Nights with less than 50% cloud coverage are preferred. Depending on the KP forecast, if it’s below KP 6 but over 50% cloud coverage, I might now bother. But if it’s only KP 5 and clear, I’ll go out every single time.

ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER SHARES 8 TECH TIPS FOR COLD WEATHER SHOOTING

How to Focus Your Lens for Capturing Aurora

Getting a sharp focus is the toughest, and most crucial step in capturing the best aurora photographs! Much like focusing for start or any kind of astrophotography. If you can, setup your composition in daylight, well before the skies are dark and while you can find an autofocus point far away like a distant mountain or something at least 300 meters away.

Anything beyond 300 meters is where you’ll want to focus on. If you manual focus later to infinity, you’ll actually end up with a soft focus. There’s a bit of a sweet spot just before infinity. If you can dial that in during the day, you won’t have to mess around after dark.

But, if you’re like me, I often get to my locations after dar for auroras. You just can’t plan for these things! If that’s you, focus on the brightest star in the sky. Zoom in if you have a zoom lens.

I recommend always using focus peaking if your camera has that option. Focus peaking will turn the star to whatever colour you set your focus peaking to, like red or yellow. That will indicate the star is sharp and you have achieved perfect focus for your aurora.

If you don’t have focus peaking, you can take a few test shots and then zoom into your starts to ensure they’re sharp. If they look a little soft when you zoom in 200% in preview, adjust until they’re totally sharp. This is more time consuming for achieving focus, but it will do the trick.

Taking Test Shots Prior to Shooting Auroras

No matter what method you use to achieve focus, always take test shots before you begin shooting for real. I usually shoot a handful of high ISO test shots to quickly ensure I have good focus. After I confirm my focus is perfect I’ll work on my composition. If I arrived after dark and it’s the first time I can see my composition, I’ll shoot high ISO test shots and adjust until I find something I love.

After I have I confirm I have all the elements I need to make a great aurora borealis photo, I’ll finally lower the ISO to a better more usable value. I’ll then also adjust all my other camera settings that are optimized specifically for shooting aurora!

Camera Settings for the Best Aurora Borealis Photos

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is key here. Unlike milky way photos or star filled skies, there’s less wiggle room for what you can use to get the best aurora photos. That’s because the aurora are actually move fairly quickly through the skies. They also have sharp lines and edges. Creating sharp, crisp and photos that accurately depict their shape is hard to do when you’re juggling other elements like low light.

If you can avoid it, try not to shoot any slower than about 6 second long exposures. Anything longer than 6 seconds will cause the aurora in your frame to become smooth and washed out. You really want to accentuate the lines bold shapes the aurora can make!

Because light is so limited though, you likely can’t shoot too fast either. 4-6 seconds has always been the sweet spot for me. This of course depends on so many factors, but it’s a great rule of thumb.

ISO

Cruise around a few photography forums or watch enough YouTube videos and you might be discouraged to use ISO. There’s this false idea that even a little ISO can degrade the quality of your photos, especially at night. That’s simply not the case. Remember, you can always edit the noise and grain from ISO in post-production, but you can’t ever make a blurry subject sharp. It’s a trade off, and I would rather have well defined, sharp aurora, and a little bit of noise that I can remove in post.

For my test shots I’ll bump up my ISO to around 48000 so I can shoot a quick 1 second exposure. This just helps with efficiency which is important with a fleeting subject matter like aurora!

Once I have all my stars aligned -pun intended- I’ll lower the ISO to about 6400,3200, or even as low as 1600 if the aurora is really strong. The stronger the aurora, the more light on your scene, the less you’ll have to push your ISO.

Modern day cameras have such incredible ISO potential. Don’t be afraid to push your ISO and get a proper exposure. The more experience you have pushing your ISO, the better you’ll be at gauging for yourself what ISO values you are comfortable shooting with. I know that with my Sony A7R III that I don’t ideally like to go beyond 6400. I know that with the A7s III though that I could easily shoot 12560 without any issues!

Aperture

Aperture is an easy one. Shoot wide open. Whatever your lens capability will allow for. If you have a 2.8, go to 2.8. What about 1.4? Even better! Don’t over think this one.

White Balance

This is one more step in the process that I wouldn’t overthink. Aurora come and go and your opportunity to shoot a composition might not last long. Don’t over think it. If you’re in auto white balance (AWB), that’s fine, you should be shooting in RAW and you can adjust the white balance in post.

That said, if you have the time and would like to prepare before-hand… I recommend setting your white balance (WB) kelvin (k) values between 4000k-5500k.

I like to have the WB represent the night sky accurately. I like a true representation of what I’m really seeing. Sometimes in post I might cool down the image by 1000k-2000k. It’s not uncommon for many photographers to use a little creative liberty and cool it down by a value of 3000k-5000k. Try it out, it’s not for me, but sometimes it looks great!

CHECKOUT MY GEAR LIST FOR A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE OF WHAT WORKS BEST FOR ME

Composition Techniques to Taking the Best Aurora Photos (Insider Content)

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Summary

Make sure to have to right gear. Full frame cameras work best. Fast lenses like a 1.4-2.8 Don’t forget your sturdy tripod. Bring a few headlamps for your setup. Plan in advanced as much as you can. Understand how to read a Kp forecast. Know the moon phase and your local weather.

Set your focus during the day, if not use high ISO test shots at night until you can confirm you’re sharp. Typically ISO 1600-6400 is best. This allows you to keep your exposure time down – ensuring you have well defined aurora shapes.

Aim for exposures between 4-6 seconds long. Shoot wide open (eg. 2.8). Don’t over think your AWB, if you have time 4000k-5500k is best. Ensure that you’re still considering your fundamentals for composition and try to get creative with foreground and the elements around you.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Ryan. So interesting about mega pixels and shooting the best aurora photos.
    I don’t see much aurora here in Southern Ontario. When I was well drilling in Northern Quebec in the 1980’s, I got to witness it a few times. Such an incredible show.

    Back then I only had a Kodak Instamatic film camera. I’d take pictures dreaming they would end up in magazines. But they were always blurry. Interesting reading about tripods and how important they are with aurora filming

    I still only have a point and shoot camera. Hopefully some day I’ll get a better camera and a tripod. Hope you are well. 🙂

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