10.03.2015

How to shoot the elusive Aurora Borealis

10.03.2015

How to shoot the elusive Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) is a natural phenomenon that takes place in the Northern Hemisphere. Mostly seen in places of high latitude, like above the Arctic Circle, the Lights are as if nature’s very own light show.

Spotting the Lights is not very easy and capturing the phenomena in photography definitely requires you to keep certain techniques in mind.

Traveling to Northern Latitudes is imperative to increase your chances to spot the Aurora. Tromso, in Norway, is one of the most popular tourist destinations to do so, as this is a relatively easy to reach city. But you may also be lucky in other locations in Northern Alaska, Greenland or Iceland.

Even in these places, the Aurora Borealis is not a visible phenomena all year long. Solar activity needs to be high, while skies must be clear and dark. In the city of Tromso, late December tends to offer the best possibilities of spotting the Lights, as the beginning of Winter often means cloudy skies and poor visibility.

1_Maxium amount of day light during the Polar Night in Northern Norway
Maximum amount of daylight during the Polar Night in Northern Norway

To see and photograph the Aurora Borealis, you will need to head to a dark location. That doesn’t mean that the lights are only displayed in the sky in those locations. But if you remain close to a city, the light pollution will make it impossible for you to admire the shades of green that color the sky. Along the same lines, a dark night made clearer by strong moonlight will also prevent you from seeing the Aurora. Keep in mind that above the Arctic Circle there are 24 hours of sunlight in summer. So September-March, during the so-called “Polar Night”, is the best time to spot the Aurora.

2_It is very rare to spot the Aurora Borealis
It’s very rare to spot the Aurora Borealis over Tromso due to the city lights pollution

Where, When & How

Make sure you are in the right part of the world at the correct time of the year, following the tips mentioned above. Let’s recap: head to a Northern Latitude during a time of the year when the sky is more likely to be clear and with prolonged hours of darkness.

If you don’t want to travel in vain, keep track of solar activity and the likelihood of Aurora Borealis display. This EU website shares solar activity levels and even real time sky cameras that show you exactly what you’d be able to see once in the location covered. If you plan to travel to Norway, check yr.no, which is the national weather website for Norway. This is a good resource to understand where you will be able to get a clear sky.

Reality vs Photography

It’s important to keep in mind that the way photographs usually show the Northern Lights is not exactly the same as seen with naked eye. As such, it’s better to adjust your expectations accordingly. The way you see the lights above you in nature is indeed very impressive. But long exposure images may make them look even stronger than in real life, as cameras are more sensitive to certain light characteristics when compared to the human eye.

Some popular images of the Aurora shared on the internet and by tourist companies are heavily saturated and post-produced to highlight the WOW factor. The photos shared on this article, on the other hand, did not involve any corrections and are a pretty accurate representation of how I was able to see the Northern Lights in Tromso.

3_Spectacular View of the Northern Lights over a Fjord near Tromso

Spectacular View of the Northern Lights over a Fjord near Tromso. Lakes and still water bodies tend to be great areas to shoot the Aurora Borealis, for the sake of capturing the light’s reflection in the water

Gear

You will need to take long exposure shots in order to capture the lights, so a regular camera phone will not work for this. Some “point-and-shoot” cameras may work, but as they normally have limited time exposure ability this may mean only very strong lights will eventually be visible in the image.

Further more, a tripod is essential, in order to have a stable base for the camera during the shot (the photos in this article were exposed for 20 to 30 seconds).

Once your camera is attached to the tripod, set it to manual mode and adjust the focus to infinity. Regarding the aperture, set the lens to the widest setting available, in order to expose the Aurora as much as possible, during the shortest time possible (basically, before anything shakes and your image is ruined). If you plan on involving other elements apart from the Aurora in your image, then set the aperture to medium, so that these other elements are also in focus.

Play around with the ISO to understand what works best considering the light conditions where you happen to be. It will need to be high considering you are shooting in the dark, but try to keep it as low as possible to avoid grainy images.

4_Fast moving thin waves of light would require a high ISO but not to long exposure time

Fast moving thin waves of light would require a high ISO but not too long exposure time

Different framings can be possible depending on the surroundings. Raw natural landscapes work great as you wouldn’t normally want to have anything else with light in the image. But sometimes, if possible, introducing other lit up elements like the moon or a house with soft lighting can add an interesting touch and a little context too.

5_Stunning Aurora Borealis over a cottage near Tromso

Stunning Aurora Borealis over a cottage near Tromso, Norway

You do not need to be a professional to shoot the Northern Lights. But it’s important to keep in mind that to capture such a tremendous natural phenomena deserves more than just a click in Auto.

Remember that temperatures as low as -20C are common in locations where you are likely to see the Aurora Borealis. So, along with decent camera gear, don’t forget your personal gear to keep you warm and dry. Be comfortable and enjoy the show!

Zara Quiroga

Zara is a Portuguese blogger who quit her job in Dubai in 2011 to travel around the world with her husband Ashray, from India. They’re the team behind Backpack ME, a travel site that aims to share tips and ideas with people all over the place, inspiring them to go travel, no matter where they come from!
A&Z are East meets West and Backpack ME is all about a multicultural perspective on travel: www.bkpk.me

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