In this article we would like to outline how to get great photographs of the Northern Lights. You will find loads of instructions on the net, so the below is just our own account on the subject. It may sound a bit ambitious, but realistically any person with half decent equipment could get great shots once in the right place and at the right time. Indeed, for an experienced astrophotographer the below info would be no more that a routine workflow. However, for a person not quite familiar with astro or night photography that could hopefully be useful.
Most modern days cameras are well suited for quality night time imaging, as well as many mobile phones can quite surprisingly work wonders. Here we will focus on cameras, although overall process can be well applied by phones’ users too.
While making a good image technically is fairly straight forward, it is much more challenging to catch auroral nights and more so, even if you know an aurora is ongoing, it is sometimes not easy to find the right time slot when the Lights would be looking at their best.
Naturally, we should start form our own website data.
- For relatively long-term forecast check NOAA Alerts section. There you will find official NOAA forecasts, which are normally fairly good for up to three days. Longer forecasts are known to be not quite reliable. Pay particular attention to the below Kp index forecast table in the 3-Day Forecast That gives you a quick three days outlook if any geomagnetic storms are expected.
Then read through the Forecast Discussion notice, the last section of it - Geospace Forecast briefly outlines expected geomagnetic conditions up to three days.
- On suspected geomagnetic storm’s date check frequently our Aurora Forecast section. NOAA Aurora Forecast oval is really good as up to an hour visual forecast. Additionally, Kp and Bz values can give a hint where trends are moving.
- Getting closer or in to an auroral time slot check really often all available indexes, magnetometers’ deflection rate and cross-check with our VLF Plotter deflections.
- When you get in to this stage, you are likely outside with a camera already or at least within minutes from your favourite photographic location and the next step would be your camera setup.
- Any camera, capable running in Manual mode + Manual focus
- A tripod or other means to keep your camera steady for a period of a dozen of seconds.
- As dark location as possible.
- Set your camera on a tripod, turn on the Manual mode + Manual focus. Manual mode and focusing gives you full control of your camera, allowing you to set your preferable values, ensuring no settings changes unexpectedly.
- Select your preferable focal length - 24mm or wider is good for auroras. However, in some cases you may opt for a telephoto (e.g. if you want to capture a remote object with some auroral background).
- If available, turn on your camera's LCD screen and point a camera to any bright star you can find or any distant bright object.
- Center a star (or an object) on LCD screen, digitally maximize the image as much as you can and adjust manual focus until you get a star pinpoint. This is a basic astrophotography hint, ensuring you get proper pinpoint stars and not out of focus blobs. In the old world, with older lenses, that would be your infinity focus. This focusing technique works really well for night landscapes and auroras.
- Point a camera northward, frame an area you want to capture. Don't change the focal length or you will have to re-focus!
- Set aperture as fast as your lens allows initially (f/1.4-5.6 is good), however bring it down one or two stops if stars are not looking good at corners. That largely depends on lens quality. Generally, fixed focal length lenses are preferable to zooms in astrophotography world.
- Next, set the shutter speed. To avoid trailing stars, use the following formula to calculate:
For a full frame camera use: 500/focal length, e.g. 500/24mm=20 seconds of shutter speed or less.
For a crop sensor use: 500/crop factor x focal length, e.g. 500/1.5x24mm=14 seconds or less.
Generally, anything in between 10 – 20 seconds is great for Irish latitudes’ relatively weak auroras; however, you are free to experiment with longer of shorter exposures.
- Set your camera sensor sensitivity to ISO 400-1600. That should be sufficient for most situations, but feel free to re-adjust if needed.
- Make few test shots until you happy with the result on your camera screen.
- Re-adjust focusing and/or other settings if needs to be.
- Once fully happy with test imaging, make yourself ready for the actual aurora hunt.
- Check website data often, especially VLF plotter deflections, which gives you live, actual ionosphere state.
- Start photographing, press shutter often (every few minutes) and examine closely on the LCD screen for any signs of auroral colours and their intensity.
- Be prepared to make several dozens of shots and longer waiting times as Northern Lights are changing, sometimes rapidly, sometimes more slowly. If you are lucky, you can get a great shot very quickly, but in some cases, you may need to wait really patiently for that shot of the night.
It is also a good practice to record resulted imaging timestamps. That helps in future hunting, especially if you later comparing with magnetometers’ timestamps or our plotter data.
It is important to know; the forecasts are not always correct and expected impacts can be under- or over- estimated, so we would take live magnetometers’ readings as a priority. Additionally, our VLF plotter has a good archival base of proven auroral detections and can be equally well used as a reliable live auroral monitor, although due to its sensitivity it can also detect auroras further North, so always cross check with magnetometers' readings.
A word of caution for people expecting to see visual auroras - it is very rare you can see anything worthy on Irish latitudes with the naked eye. In most cases auroras are very faint and mostly visible in very dark areas with little or no light pollution. The majority of pictures on social media are post-processed. There is nothing wrong with it as that is standard workflow for any astrophotography session. Some pictures require more work and some very minimal. Also, some people believe filters are required to capture all the colours. This is not quite right. Although filters are indeed widely used in astrophotography world, the usage is restricted to very specific areas, such as Deep Space or planetary photography. There is no need to use any kind of filters for Northern Lights imaging.
To finalise the article, see the below pictures of 2023-11-05 strong Aurora we've managed to capture in Greystones, County Wicklow. There were no filters used, just plain tripod/camera/lens setup as per below. Both images were post-processed in Adobe Lightroom. That particular Aurora was very faintly visible with the naked eye during the period below pictures were captured.
Camera: Nikon D800 // Lens: Sigma 24-105mm @ 24mm // Aperture: f/4.0 // Exposure: 15 seconds // ISO 800