How to Photograph the Northern Lights – Sky & Telescope

As the Sun heads south for winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the days develop longer and the alternatives to catch the northern lights, or the aurora borealis, will increase the additional north you reside or journey.

Aurorae happen when charged particles (largely electrons and protons) in the photo voltaic wind sneak previous Earth’s magnetic defend and collide with atoms in the higher ambiance. As the ionized oxygen and nitrogen molecules return to their “ground” state, they glow, very like a neon gentle does when electrical present runs via it. The outcomes are awe-inspiring, and for those who’ll forgive the metaphor, magical.

If you get an opportunity to see an auroral show, I extremely advocate taking a while to simply stand there and watch and let the expertise wash over you. But then, after all, you are in all probability going to need to take some photos.

Aurora Hunting

While on a household journey to Fairbanks, Alaska, a couple of years in the past, I received the proverbial northern lights lottery. We have been handled to an incredible outburst of exercise on two nights at our snowy lodge. The lodge proprietor mentioned folks come from throughout the world and keep for per week at a time, however nonetheless don’t catch an outbreak like this one. Beginner’s luck!

A spectacular Aurora show in early 2015 captured from simply north of Fairbanks Alaska.Richard S. Wright Jr.

Although the polar ring the place aurora sometimes seem usually favors far-northern latitudes, worldwide journey is not required for U.S. residents. Fairbanks is sort of an accessible and inexpensive choice for aurora seekers in the age of pandemic journey limitations. Of course, there are extra unique choices, like journeys to Iceland, Norway, and even aurora cruises in the North Atlantic.

The uppermost of the contiguous 48 states are sometimes handled to good auroral shows too. Canadian readers could make weekend journeys to attain a bit farther north when there’s a good auroral forecast.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric and Administration points house climate alerts like this one which you need to use for brief-time period planning.

“Did you say forecast?”

Yes, photo voltaic climate is carefully monitored and the Space Weather Prediction Center places out alerts. You may also look ahead to updates at or subscribe to their alert service for a small month-to-month charge.

The aurorae you see are about 80 to 500 kilometers up (50 to 300 miles) and might be seen from house as effectively. They are largely inexperienced due to oxygen atoms, however actually energetic shows can get nitrogen in on the act, glowing pink or purple. Sometimes seen to the bare eye, these colours present up extraordinarily effectively when photographed.

Aurora Photography Tips

Aurorae are simple to {photograph}, and lots of of the newer sensible telephones (when held regular) can seize stills and even video of the motion. Check your smartphone to see if its digicam features a night time mode that permits you to file exposures of a number of seconds or extra. Adding a tripod with a smartphone bracket and a Bluetooth shutter set off will enhance your outcomes.

Fast Lenses Help

For only a bit increased high quality, you would possibly go for a digicam with a quick, vast-angle lens. Just like nightscape images, the sooner your lens is the higher it’s for the topic, and also you solely want about ISO 1600 throughout a typical show. On my Fairbanks tour, I shot 8-second exposures at ISO 3200 utilizing an f/four lens. Often nightscapes on a tripod want a minimum of f/2.Eight and even higher, however the northern lights might be fairly vibrant, so you will get away with a slower lens and simply prolong your exposures or enhance your digicam’s ISO setting.

Use Short Exposures

Aurorae usually change form and are surprisingly fast, too. They seem like a gradual-movement movie of an enormous, glowing flag flapping in the wind. Although a barely blurred picture remains to be wonderful and does nonetheless seem like the precise aurora show, the shorter you may expose is sort of all the time higher. Make certain you employ a distant shutter-launch cable, or use the digicam’s timer to guarantee there is not any shaking at the starting of your publicity. I all the time focus manually, then begin the 10-second timer and hold my fingers off of the tripod.

This vibrant auroral show added inexperienced and pink highlights to the white snow beneath. Richard S. Wright Jr.


Just like when capturing the Milky Way, together with a bit of the foreground could make for a extra fascinating composition. On my journey there was thick snow cowl at our scenic location that contributed to some nice compositions. What I did not notice till afterward was that each the inexperienced and pinkish solid from the aurora was mirrored on the white snow beneath. Not solely did the aurora gentle up the complete sky, however additionally they supplied a superb bit of sunshine to seize the foreground objects as effectively.

Prepare for the Cold!

Aurorae have a tendency to occur extra in the colder months late at night time — the night time of my journey, it was -25°F and I stood in snow effectively above my knees. I can not stress sufficient that you just want to gown warmly and in layers. When the temps are excessive, for those who should expose your pores and skin and fingers in any respect, achieve this for very brief intervals.

Your gear is not going to like the chilly, both! My digicam stopped working after about 30 minutes (rechargeable lithium batteries drain sooner in chilly temperatures). Before bringing your digicam indoors, ensure to put it in a plastic bag and squeeze all the air out of it first. When I’d return into the lodge, my tripod would frost up like a calming beer mug — one thing I don’t need occurring to my digicam, as a result of this can happen on the inner surfaces in the digicam as effectively.

In reality, I did lose one in every of my SD reminiscence playing cards due to the excessive circumstances. So as quickly as your digicam has warmed up, dump your newest batch of photographs earlier than going again outdoors.

And sure, you want to return outdoors.

Especially energetic aurora will even embrace Nitrogen atoms which can glow a pink or magenta coloration.Richard S. Wright Jr.

Of course, it’s unlikely it will likely be that chilly for you for those who catch an auroral show, however all the time be conscious of your gear in chilly temperatures and concentrate to any warning indicators your personal physique might begin to ship you.

The days are brief, and the nights are lengthy . . . so blissful searching!


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