Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide IV: Photographing auroras

Part I: Introduction and terms
Part II: Expectations
Part III: Preparation is everything
Part V: Links

If you see the aurora borealis for the first time, there is a good chance you will be so amazed and thrilled that your photos won’t be what you hoped for. With any bad luck you’ll have the settings figured out just when best part of the show is over. Reading through this section should help you to be ready for aurora photos.

Photo equipment
– Tripod: To photograph at night you will need a tripod to minimize camera shaking. Handheld aurora photos will not be what you want.
– camera: your camera should have the option of manual focus (see next paragraph why) and have a manual mode where you can adjust aperture, exposure time and ISO separately.
– lens: you need a fast lens (wide aperture, small f-number like f/2.8 or faster. F/4 is still ok) to make the most of the little light available. Also, auroras often stretch all over the horizon. To capture a big part of it, you want to have a wide-angle lens (24mm or wider. In some rare cases 50mm is ok)
– remote control: to further minimize camera shaking, take a remote control with you for taking pictures without touching the camera. Many cameras have a delayed shutter mode (1sec..20sec) which also helps to reduce shaking.
– spare batteries: in cold weather your batteries will discharge quite fast, so it is good to have at least one extra with you. Using hand warmers you can revive the batteries to get the last bit of energy out of them (tip from Jake D., thanks buddy).
– sun hood: at times you will be in damp weather or it will be windy. Moisture can be a problem then for your lens. One way to solve this is putting the sun hood onto the lens.

Manual focus
If you are in a dark place to watch auroras your camera‘s auto focus will not work because there isn’t enough light. So you need to turn off auto focus and focus manually using the manual focus ring! To get e.g. trees or mountains on the horizon sharp, you need to focus on infinity.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Focus ring on the lens

To achieve this manually there are a few options:
– some focus rings have a hard stop at infinity. Usually you will find the sharpest image by turning the manual focus ring all the way until it stops and then turn it just a tiny bit back. To be sure, do that in day light and make some test shots. Then remember the right position or mark it.
– other focus rings do not have a hard stop, so what you can do is to focus on a bright star using live view. Live view means seeing the scene you try to capture through your cameras display. Many cameras have that option and you can zoom into that picture. Try to find a bright star and point your camera towards it. Via live view, zoom into the display to see that star as big as possible. Once there, turn the manual focus ring until you find that star to be at its sharpest.
– say you can’t find a star. Point your camera towards a rock, tree or anything which is about 6-8 meters away. Then switch on your flashlight and point it at the same object. With a strong flashlight you may be able to use your cameras auto-focus. Once the image is sharp, turn off auto-focus and don’t touch the focus ring. If the light is not strong enough, follow the above steps via live view.
– if you don’t have live view your only choice is to do some trial shots and zoom into your shot and see if the photo is sharp as you wish. If not, adjust and start over until you find the best result. What you also can do is use the auto-focus during daytime, then switch of your camera and place it carefully in the camera bag. This works sometimes but is certainly not the best way.
It’s difficult for me to tell you which method is the best for you without having your camera in my hands. So get familiar with your camera settings and be ready to try out some of these. To do that you – of course – don’t need auroras, so you can do it at home beforehand.
One more thing, if you have a zoom lense and you do zoom, you may need to re-adjust your focus. Always check your images via the display if they are sharp.

Camera settings
Photographing auroras is all about finding the best combination of aperture, ISO and exposure time. All three are dependable on each other. In the end it’s up to you to experiment and come up with the best result.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Camera display with 10 sec exposure, apterture f/4.0 and ISO 1600

With short exposure times you can ‘freeze’ more details of the aurora. The faster your lense is (wider open, small f-number) the more light gets into the camera. This will allow for shorter exposure times to capture more aurora details.
High ISO settings also allows for shorter exposure times and/or wider aperture (smaller f-number). But for many cameras high ISO results in a lot of noise.
Let’s say the following settings result in a good image:
Aperture 4.0 | ISO 800 | Exposure time 10sec
If you want to shorten your exposure time to freeze some aurora action, there are two things to do: Aperture to 2.8 or ISO to 1600. Both will cut the exposure time in half to 5sec.
If you want less noise you can do one of these: Aperture to 2.8 or exposure time to 20s. Again, both allow you to set your ISO to 800.

Moon phases
The moon light will change the nature of your capture photo. To get the best mix of landscape and auroras a quarter to half of the moon should be visible. This will give enough light to capture the landscape and still be dark enough to preserve a lot of details and colors of auroras.
At Full Moon the landscape will be very bright and photos will look like daylight photos, which can be very cool. Auroras however will suffer as many details will be overpowered by the moon light.
At New Moon your camera will see all the details of the auroras, you’ll love the photos. Capturing the landscape nicely is a struggle. It’s so dark you will have to push the ISO up and be ready for noise in the photo.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

No moonlight in total darkness.

When photographing in a group
Having led quite a few groups to shoot aurora photos, I’ve seen some ‘actions’ which wasn’t liked by others. Many are so excited to take aurora photos, they don’t think about anyone around them. For example:
– to see the camera dial, some use a flashlight and point to the camera. That often means it’s also pointed into the scene and so destroys someone else’s photos. Pointing the flashlight backwards near the camera will provide enough light. Also it is polite to ask other if it’s ok to switch on the flashlight.
– when changing the place of the camera, some just walk in front of other cameras or even place their camera right in front of someone else. Walking behind other cameras does the trick. If there is not much space, speak up and tell the others what you do. In that way they’ll be ready.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Don’t point your flashlight like this

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Group of photographers next to each other

Some more things
– unless you shoot in RAW and post-process on your desktop or laptop, you want to get the right white balance at night. If you have only presets (sun, shadow, etc) try them out and see which works best. If your camera can adjust Kelvins, go somewhere cool, below 5k.
– when you check your image at the cameras display in the dark, photos will appear brighter compared to watching them on your screen in daylight. Use the histogram and make sure the right end is at least somewhere near the middle. If all light is on the very left your photo is most likely too dark.
– at times you can see star trails in photos of the night sky. Sometimes it is wanted and sometimes not. To avoid star trails all you have to do is follow the ‘500 rule’. Divide 500 by your focal length and the result is the maximum exposure time. For example, let’s say you use 16mm full frame, the maximum exposure time without star trails will be 30 seconds. One more example, for 16mm on a cropped frame the maximum will be 20 seconds. (16mm x 1,5 crop factor / 500).

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Unwanted star trails in a 30 sec exposure at 24mm

Hopefully this will help you to get some decent aurora photos. In the last part of this guide you will find a list of useful and interesting links.

14 responses to “Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide IV: Photographing auroras

  1. Pingback: Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide III: Preparation is everything | Salamapaja

  2. Pingback: Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide II: Expectations | Salamapaja

  3. Pingback: Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide: Introduction and Terms | Salamapaja

  4. maybe a question ill have 3 lenses one: 18mm-250 with f 3.5 two: 35mm with f 1.8 three: 10mm-20 with f 4 on a cropped frame witch one should you use ???? thank you claude

    2013/11/24 Claude Bogaert

    > thank you for the information and camerasettings > claude > >

    • The 10-20mm should be your first choice here to capture vast parts of the aurora. Most of my photos are shot with 14-24mm on full frame, so it’s about the same range. f4 is not too bad and f3.5 is only a bit better, therefore I’d leave the 18-250 at home.
      I’d take the 35mm also with me and try it out to get a feeling for it. To capture needles and aurora details this fast lens will be great, but for landscape it’s limited.

  5. Pingback: Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide V: Links | Salamapaja

  6. fantastic article and explained in a good lay man’s terminology. Me and my wife are scheduled to visit the Abisko National Park from 8th Feb to 11th Feb, 2014 to see the Aurora’s (God willing). I am carrying the Oly EM 1 with the 12-40mm f2.8. any recommendations? Would it be good to carry the BlackMAgic Pocket camera for the Aurora video shoot instead of the Oly for photography?

    • Thanks for your comment, Bhupesh Patel, glad you find it understandable and got some good tips 🙂 Abisko is a great place, you the aurora gods are with you! The EM 1 will be good to have there, definetely. You probably want to use it at 12mm and keep the aperture open at 2.8. Try some 15s @ ISO1600 or so and see if you need to adjust. Not sure about how it works at higher ISOs, so I suggest you go out into the night at home and make some tests to see which ISO level brings you to the point of pain (too much noise). When you find it, use that ISO in Abisko and adjust exposure time.
      I’m not very familiar with the Blackmagic but it looks pretty good. The sensor is small though. Again, try it at night, perhaps with some thin clouds in the sky which could work as an ‘aurora trial’. If you have space in your luggage definetely bring both. Would be nice to hear how your trip went and what settings you ended up using.

      • Hi, I had a great trip to Abisko. Ultimately i bought the Voigtlander 25mm f0.95 for the Olympus EM1 and i was able to capture the aurora with a 1600 ISO and 1 Sec setting. The images turned out great with nearly no noise. Unfortunately, due to very high cloud cover, i was able to sight the aurora on my last night there.

    • Wow, f0.95 sounds great! Gotta look into that one. So glad you god some nice photos. You can be happy you saw auroras, we had so much clouds this winter and I know quite a few travellers who didn’t get to see them 🙂

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