How To Photograph The Northern Lights & For The First Time

1/10/2015 04:22:00 PM

I still have few images to post-process before I could publish the half-cooked 2nd installment from the Nevada-California trip, and If I begin now, It'll sure eat away my weekend. But I can not just allow that, Sun is shining bright and I really want to head out, besides I have something brand new waiting for me downstairs at the concierge, that I have not picked up yet, only because I am not ready, and Yes its a new gear. :) yay. So I thought I'll write a short one today, that's been in my mind for about a year now.

Alaska | Aurora | Northern Lights - are zillions of tutorials from every subject-matter expert, floating around on the internet currently then why would I really waste my time in writing this? The answer is, I am not writing it for who has already photographed the aurora and I am also not giving you an equipment lists and website details to find out if the sky is dark enough or there are clouds, or how do you prepare and later process the images. I am only giving you a short and simple list of things that I did not do and I think you should. This in a way is a checklist for me as well,  since I may be heading north, where Aurora has been seen before, and who knows I might get lucky and I definitely do not want to make the same mistakes that I did when I saw them for the first time. So you see it can be used the second time as well.

In past 5-6 years of my photography life, and choosing between 'using and letting the dslr sit home' and only use iPhone etc, there is one thing  I can tell, I haven't done yet and that is carrying a list of instruction, a checklist of settings or what  & where to do etc.  The other thing is I have GND , Haze and Polarizer filters etc and I haven't even used them once. The initiation of this write-up kinda got me thinking why I didn't ever and I think the answer was pretty simple, Its all too cumbersome, I managed few good images without them, and 3rd the foremost actually I was simply tired and I never had enough time at a place to set it all up and shoot. So technically I have not been photographing at all for all these years, in other words adventure took over, and when you are driving 2000 miles nonstop, braving the weather,  and processing all the new information your brain receives while on the road, photography does take a back seat. i.e. you are not prepared.

Having said all that, You do not need a 4 Page instruction list to carry with you when you are out photographing, and specifically when you go see northern lights. This is all you need and not need to know and do.

The Kp-Index Forecast

Seeing Aurora is not in your hands. "Let see if I may get lucky" is said for the right reasons. But having known the probability helps. looking up at the sky is also an exercise, and a thing you need to remember you have to do. besides who knows you may be sleeping in the backseat of your car, and your friends may be busy driving while Aurora may come, dance, have fun and go.. and You are still dozed off, because hey its post midnight, who can blame you.

If you know the kp-index you can stay alert of the aurora activities, in the region you are. You may take some rest in the day, That way you'd be more active at night and not yawn.
anything above 4, you should keep your hopes and eyes up, hands folded in a prayer. who knows it may rain, the clouds may disappear and auroras may flickr.

27 Days Aurora Forecast 
3 Days Aurora Forecast

When dim, Auroras are colorless

Now, did anyone tell you that, ever?  They may be unmoving and barely visible, the ripple, the sway and pulsation, may be missing, and you may think these are just clouds. If you're seeing 'em for the first time, great is such possibility. so unless you shoot, and see your DSLR screen green, you can not really be sure. bottomline, you think its aurora? take a shot immediately and confirm.

Stop Shooting. Just Watch.

Sorry, but someone had to say it. right!
I have written about Northern lights in details in this blogpost and also covered a bit in my Alaska feature. So I wouldn't repeat the superlatives and technical stuff. But everyone knows. Its one thing thats part of every bucket list ever made. A traveler's dream, and for s/he travelers thousand of miles north just to witness the spectacle, and when mother nature being super kind puts up a magic show in front of you, would you get busy setting your tripod and look for camera settings? really? seriously?

At one time I was driving and couldn't stop, the second time I was on the back-seat, and pretty much dozed off due to nyquil and couldn't really see, Third time I tried to set up the tripod but we were in the middle of the road and there were monster trucks behind,  at last we stop on a narrow road, took few test shots, and 2 fine and then just enjoyed the show for about 80 minutes, until they almost fade. and when I say enjoyed, meaning standing tall looking up, in all directions, sitting quietly in the corner of the road, and lying on the ground in  shavasana ( yoga pose).

My point, when something you see in dream comes right in front of you, see it, embrace it, and not worry about recording it for other to see and you to announce the world, that hey look my dream came alive.perhaps one image is more than enough.

I can not possibly describe my feelings, even after 15 months, but I can assure you, The moments like these are those most intimate experience, the time when you are one with yourself and all the facade of the world disappear. nature does that, and its in our best interest not to interfere.

convinced? no? Okay. Alright.

Widest Aperture, High ISO, Manual Mode - Focus on Infinity ∞ 

Do one of these things - Keep your camera settings ready in advance ( best practice) or keep a little sticky note, with these settings written somewhere easy to find. As I mentioned somewhere above, I don't do it. Perhaps few folks do, and I think its a good practice, specially after all these trips I realized, I am so high on adrenalin when I am the road, I pretty much forget everything, like if I have the remote in some pocket, or why I dint use Grad ND filters when I had the light issue. There is so much information inflow in the brain, overload actually, everything except "living fully in that moment" goes on the back seat. to tell you the truth, I forgot I had a manual mode in my DSLR when I saw the northern lights. Silly me. yeah of course.

It can be fun sometimes, like for example, my friend called me in the dawn hours. he was in alaska, I was in new york. He was lip-shivering, he's seeing the lights but he can't get anything on camera, and I was yelling out loud - push that bloody ISO to whatsoever max limit it has- now do you see anything?

That was good. fun. hmm.

On serious photography note :
  • Put that camera in Manual Mode,
  • Lens in Manual focus.
  • Slide the focus to infinity.
  • Set the aperture to f/2.8 or max you have on your camera. and
  • Shutter speed to 30sec.
  • ISO to 1600/3200 whichever max you have.
  • Beginning with these settings, when you start shooting, check how exposed is your image.
  • Too bright - stop down ISO to lower values 1600, 800, then 400..
  • and in that sequence go about aperture and then shutter speed.
  • Too less of light, you can use the bulb mode and remote to keep the shutter open for as long as you can.
  • A lot of folks suggest the bottom up approach, but I think it waste less time, and its less erroneous, if you start w/ a max out.  Those who regularly use SLR may understand this. its easy to read & understand light from top up. simple tip but useful in such circumstance.
  • Shoot in RAW. you know it already. read a zillion times, that tip. 
  • Don't care about white balance, you can change it later. if you shoot in RAW that is.
I assume you know you need good full batteries? these are those times when your camera gets a crazy appetite. you wouldn't want to keep it hungry and cold. the many other preparation tips you can see in most of the websites. Just google away.

No DSLR ? Shooting with the Digital Camera or iPhone

I never tried digital camera, however I remember my friend telling me he tried iPhone and din't get anything. from what I know, you are in Hard luck if you try anything but DSLR, BUT, it also depends on How bright the Auroras are. a very high KPindex and you can see and also get entire spectrum in your image.

Thats one, and for 2nd, Try some slow shutter or long exposure apps on your iPhone. Yup. The other day I tried a few free ones on the dark night and they can get you a decent night shot, now what you do need to see is, how many shutter seconds it give you. Most of the free apps have 10 second limits, anything that give you about 25-30 seconds, thats the one for you. try that and let me know.

You can thank me later.

P.S. I'll try one of these free apps in my next trip and let you know which one is for keeps. Someone, do remind me of that..

Scouting Location & Compositions

If you're at a certain location already and just waiting for Auroras to show up, You can use your day/evening time to look for nice compositions to go with the sky images easily. seen the place already, go there and set up the tripod and wait. But if your encounter is as wild as mine, use the minima rule and shoot. check your surroundings if you can find something interesting to have as your foreground.

Its pretty tricky, for as I recall, unless you shoot in the dark and look at your screen, you ain't really seeing or realizing how it is 10-20 ft ahead on the ground, because the dark nights. Road looks pretty good in the foreground with leading lines on the sky, but make sure you're on the road that has no traffic, or its a goodbye. I had nothing interesting so I used my car for couple of shots, kinda unusual, I know, but gave me a totally unique image.

Not to repeat, you are mostly away from the citylights, and also the signals, so pretty hard to just google/gps out a nice water body or some perfect location at the last minute.

Well, That is about all I can remember as of now, I' shall update if something comes to my mind that I missed. Its January, and still plenty of days to go Aurora Hunting this season. All the best.
to you and me both. 

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  1. You'll have to take me there ;-)

    Good tutorial.

  2. @Adi - Haha Yes.. lets go hunting Aurora...


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