Aurora Borealis – 7 Steps to Taking Great Photos

by Paul Kirtley

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Ok, so this is not a photography blog but many wilderness areas are, almost by definition, beautiful.  Capturing these stunning places with good photographs is naturally high on most travellers’ agendas. 

The northern, or boreal, forest is a beautiful wilderness environment.  It’s a winter campers paradise!  In winter it is harsh, yet enchanting and you’d be justified in visiting just to sample this terrestrial beauty.  Anyone who travels to northern lattitudes in winter also stands a very good chance of seeing something extra-terrestrial – the aurora borealis, or ‘northern lights’.  I have been lucky enough to have worked in northern Sweden every winter for quite a few years and I have seen aurora every time I have visited.  I know one person, however, who has visited northern Sweden, Alaska and Canada and never seen this natural wonder.

If you are lucky enough to see aurora, it’s worth making the most of this experience by taking good photographs.  When I first went to the North, I had only a disposable film camera.  Camped out in the forest, I lay awake in my ‘snow grave’ looking up at the stars and caught my first glimpse of the northern lights.  I didn’t even attempt a photo with the disposable.  I just soaked up the scene and committed it to memory.

When I started photographing aurora I was using a 35mm camera, a Nikon F100 SLR camera with a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S lens.  I used Fuji Provia 400 film with exposure times of 30-40 seconds at f2.8.  If this means nothing to you, don’t worry about it.  I don’t worry any more either.   I used to worry about things like ‘reciprocity failure’. Getting good results using 35mm film was harder than it is today, using a digital camera. When I got my slides (remember them?) back from the lab, many of my shots were under-exposed.  Below is one of my first successful shots.  This was taken in northern Sweden in 2004 using Fuji Provia 400 and is a scan of the transparency (slide).

These days I use a Nikon D200 digital SLR and with this camera I’ve captureds some really nice shots of aurora.  Below is an image taken in 2008.  ISO was set to 400.  Again  the lens was my Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S.  This time the lens was set to f3.5 and the exposure was for 20 seconds.  It’s a compressed version of the 15MB orginal. 

If you haven’t realised already, to get crisp shots at exposure lengths of 20-40 seconds, you must use a tripod.  I use a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod (I can’t remember the model as I’m not that much of a geek but its quite light for a full-sized tripod) and a cable-release.  This ensures no camera shake.  It also means you don’t have to hold a very cold camera in temperatures that are often minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

If the technical details haven’t stopped you reading already, let me tell you that you don’t need a fancy camera or any technical knowledge to get good shots of aurora any more.  You can get good images of aurora with compact digital cameras. It is important to follow a few simple rules, however.

1.  Turn the ISO up high.  Somewhere between 400 and 800 ISO (this increases the camera’s sensitivity to light);

2.  Turn the flash off (a flash will just illuminate the foreground, spoiling the shot);

3.  Don’t worry about f-numbers or exposure lengths. If the camera is on automatic, it will do this for you;

4.  Hold the camera REALLY still;

5.  Even better, use a tripod (you can use a mini, pocket-sized, tripod for a small compact digital);

6.  If you are using a tripod and the aurora are not changing too quickly, use your camera’s timer setting, so you are not touching the camera when it takes the shot.  This helps eliminate camera shake;

7.  Review your shot on the screen and if it’s not good, take another one!

If you follow these 7 rules, you can take really good shots.

So, with some forethought and making just a little more effort with the shot, you can capture what could be a once-in-a lifetime experience.  But don’t get so hung up about photos that you forget to pause, take a deep breath and marvel at one of this world’s most amazing natural phenomena.  Remember to soak up the scene and commit it to memory. 

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Grant

Hi Paul
Great article! Photographing the Northern Lights is right up there on my To-Do list and it’s good to know you can still get decent shots with a digital compact.
One issue I’ve experienced when taking photo’s in the extreme cold is battery life. I found out the hard way that the chemical reaction inside camera batteries basically stops altogether if they get cold through; and it appears as if your batteries run flat every 5 minutes.
Fortunately the chemical reaction continues if you warm them up again. But to avoid having to open your jacket every 2 minutes, or put batteries in your mouth (yes apparently I AM an idiot!), just be prepared and have a couple of spares along with you…

Grant

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Grant, glad you like the article. Good tip re the battery life. Definitely take a couple of spares and keep them close to your body so they stay warm. When I used to use my Nikon F100, it ran on AA batteries so I used to buy lithium AA batteries, rather than regular alkaline AA batteries. Lithium batteries work much better in the cold than alkaline. They are good to use in torches too as you have the same problem with shortened battery life in the cold. Also, lithium batteries last longer than alkaline in ‘normal’ temperatures. You also get the added bonus that lithium batteries are significantly lighter too. Do check the manufacturers guidance, though, as some LED torches can be damaged by lithium batteries. Others such as Surefire torches are designed to be used with lithium batteries. The Petzl e-lite comes with a small lithium battery. Good as an emergency back-up headtorch. I keep one in my first aid kit. Anyway, I’m well off-topic now so I’ll sign off!

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David Southey

Simply stunning shots there Paul, Not been lucky enough to be in the right spot with a camera yet, but will continue to try, Many thanks for the tips.

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Marcus Hackney

Hopefully will get to do the same sort of Photography next year Paul……. Hopefully. Great Shots..

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Marcus

Are you heading north then?

Best

Paul

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Gary Waidson (Wayland)

Even with digital cameras this is an easy thing to get wrong as I know to my cost.

The first time I shot the lights with a digital SLR I checked the images on the camera screen without allowing for the fact that my eyes were dark adapted. The result was underexposed images full of digital noise and more or less useless for my purposes. A mistake I shall never make again.

The tip to avoid this is to shoot raw and check the histogram. It’s the only way to be really certain you have the best image.

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Paul Kirtley

Very good point Gary. More and more cameras have easy-to-use histograms on them these days.

The Leica D-lux 5 I bought earlier in the year is very user friendly in this respect.

Thanks for the comment.

Paul

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Leena

What I really liked about this article is that…as novice or someone who doesn’t understand lens numbers or exposure times, yet enjoys taking pictures…this articles caters for that in a very simple way, and simple language. It could be both a beginners guide as well forum for advanced discussion. I learn quite a lot from the discussions as well. Awesome pictures! ( I know this article is dated….but that’s the beauty…one could read a previous articles many moons ago and still learn from it!!)

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Paul Kirtley

Hey Leena,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, there is still a lot of relevance in this article. It’s the first one I put on here but I go back to Sweden every year and these principles have been used to take many photos, including some which have been published in magazines.

I hope it allows you to take some great photos of the aurora too.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Leo

hi Paul,

Good tips – I’ll try them out next time I catch the Lights. I’ve got a fairly good small camera (a Panasonic Lumix LX7) but I am at the novice stage of photography. A camera is a wonderful thing to know how to use in the wild, as there is always something that will take your breath away with it’s beauty.

I remember sitting on a snowmobile in the middle of the forest, watching an incredible Aurora without any form of light pollution. Unforgettable. It’s forever in my memory, but all the same a decent photo would’ve been nice!

The Swedish friend I was with had seen it a hundred times before and wanted to get home for a single malt, but I kept him waiting for some time in that clearing… 🙂

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danny barrett

great article paul,this is def on my bucket list

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Paul Kirtley

One of the wonders of the natural world for sure 🙂

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