Photographing the Northern Lights
Aurora borealis also known as the Northern lights is a spectacular dance in the heavens that occurs when solar discharges enter the earth’s atmosphere.
Some interesting facts on the aurora
- The Auroras ovals in the northern and southern hemisphere are nearly mirror reflections of each other
- Besides Earth, auroral emissions have been observed on Jupiter, Saturn & Uranus
- The total power output of the auroras exceed the present electrical consumption of the US
- Auroras can give off different lights, depending on the altitude and energy / excitement of the electrons. The typical color is green because oxygen at about 60 miles up gives off this color. Oxygen at higher altitudes (about 200 miles above us) can emit red auroras. Nitrogen produces blue auroras but can emit red when excited
For photography, I used the equipment below. I highly recommend a DSLR or mirrorless camera over a phone camera
Camera: Nikon Z6 with full spectrum conversion from LifePixelLens I used: NIKKOR Z 24–70mm f/4 S Z-mount
Ideal Lens: A 12mm-20mm, f/2.8 or lowerFilters: None, very important to remove any filters including UVCamera settings
Aperture: Smallest possible, f4 on my lens
ISO: ISO 3200 (for my camera/lens combination)
Off mode: Long Exposure Noise reduction, Vibration Reduction
White Balance: 3,800k for new moon and 5,200K for full moon
Focus: Manual set to infinity
Metering: MatrixTripod: Manfrotto carbon fiber with lever lock. This is the best combination for extreme cold. Avoid aluminium since it can cause frostbite and twist locks can fail in the cold
For those seeking to photograph the aurora, some do’s and don’ts
- Pick the Northern hemisphere since it is easier to see the auroras there
- Choose a time of the year when it is winter and the moon is half and waning
- Be patient and plan to watch over atleast 3 nights, I did not see the auroras till the 3rd night
- Use a good guide. I went with Aurora Chasers & Alaska Skies Aurora Tours in Fairbanks and recommend both
- Take aurora forecast apps with a grain of salt. All the aurora forecast apps I used mentioned a less than 10% chance of seeing the aurora on Feb 20, 2020 at my location, but I went anyway and saw the aurora for over an hour
- Watch your histogram. It is okay to underexpose. Do not blow your highlights and have a histogram on the right. Below was the typical histogram for most of my images
- Go without warm clothing (insulated/goose down tops & bottoms, hand warmers and cold weather boots)
We visited a few sites in Fairbanks over 3 nights before we saw the auroras. Our guides picked us up at the hotel around 10pm.
We went north and south of Fairbanks to Nenana, North Pole and lucked out at Mount Aurora
On the last night, first visit was to North Pole, Alaska where we did not see the auroras but we did see Santa Claus at the Santa Claus House.
Then we drove to Mount Aurora and waited for 2 hours before the aurora started teasing us in the sky starting with a faint glow and then the green ribbons started their ballet in the sky
I was able to get some decent pictures in the next hour. Note that your camera sensor will see more than your eyes so when you view your pictures, they will be more vivid than what you saw
After my first foray with aurora photography, I hope to go again. I also hope that someone figures out a way to harness the energy of the aurora to power our electricity consumption. That would give this green energy an entirely new light!