Chasing the Lights: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis
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Finding clear skies is probably the most challenging aspect of all of this. I spend a great deal of time watching cloud radar, anticipating breaks in cloud formations and getting the group to the right place at the right time. On occasion I have driven for 6+ hours to get to the right place when the geomagnetic forecast is high to ensure clear skies of truly spectacular light shows. There are many evenings, myself and the group I am leading have photographed aurora from just after sunset to just before dawn, on these evenings if we had simply stayed where we had been based we would have seen nothing but cloud all night.
Whilst the North Atlantic Current provides warmer conditions around the coast it can also provide more changeable weather systems. Often the only option is to head inland to get away from cloud cover. This does come at a price however, one really needs to know the areas to travel to as the landscape becomes Arctic tundra, far from inspiring! Knowing the inland areas is crucial. Simply photographing aurora borealis over snow-covered tundra, with sticks and branches poking through the snow, does not generally provide us photographers with beautiful aurora photographs.
Having found the right location and the right conditions, the making of technically sound aurora images is still very challenging. Due to the incredibly low light levels with night photography, obtaining relatively fast shutter speeds is a challenge in itself! The auroras can move very quickly indeed when activity is strong. Anything more than 5-10 seconds exposure time will often result in soft capture of the aurora and just a green hue in the sky. I tend to use wide-angle lenses with very fast maximum apertures to freeze the action as much as I possibly can.
My preferred equipment for photographing the northern lights would be a Canon 5D MkII coupled with a Canon 24 f1.4 L ii lens. The 5D MkII is a sensational camera to use at high ISOs. I can use this at anything up to ISO 3200 for these images. Coupled with an aperture of f1.4 it is possible to get exposure times down to ¼ second which is truly stunning for really freezing fast moving needles and bands of strong, colourful aurora.
I also use a Nikon 14-24 adapted to my Canon body for stunning optical quality and a fast aperture of 2.8. It is possible to photograph aurora with slower maximum aperture lenses but always at a price. The longer the exposure, the more the aurora will move during the exposure time and also the stars. In my opinion these images always look better with sharp stars and aurora frozen in a night sky.
Using such extreme settings can cause problems with focusing, especially at night where it is indeed challenging finding enough light to focus anyway. When using apertures such as f1.4 and f2.8 there is a very limited depth of field. One has to be incredibly careful to achieve perfect focus with such settings. I have tested my lenses in daylight and marked them using tiny stickers to achieve infinity focus easily at night. With only moonlight and or aurora illuminating a landscape, Liveview is probably the only means of achieving focus relatively easily.
There is definitely a great deal to think about to achieve great images of the northern lights. Probably the biggest challenge of all is remembering to physically press the shutter while watching something so spectacularly beautiful unfold in front of you! Just one night under a clear sky with the lights dancing overhead will make any trip completely worthwhile and an experience to remember for a lifetime!
Antony Spencer is a key member of the Light & Land team and was the 2010 winner of the coveted Landscape Photographer of the Year. Antony’s tours include Arctic adventures chasing the spectacular Aurora Borealis in Finland and his next tour available runs 21-26 March 2012.
All images copyright of Antony Spencer.