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Northern Lights - Useful Information for Photographers

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VIEW? According to SpaceWeather.com, statistically speaking, March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year; October is a close second. Between 10:00pm to 2:00am seems to be the time frame most conducive to aurora activity. Scout your location in daylight. Displays can vary in duration, hours or minutes. Be prepared.

AURORA BOREALIS FORECASTS & INFO :
Tromsø Geophysical Observatory
Aurora Forecast
Weather Forecast
Space Weather
Moonrise /Sunrise Times

My tips for aurora photography...not exhaustive nor in any order  but hopefully helpful.  Based upon my experience and many disappointing mistakes made over the last 10 years :

  • Practice night photography before hand , use of a tripod ,with spiked feet add ons for ice/snow setup and which needs to be sturdy and importantly comfortable to use and set at the right height to avoid neck and back problems and with a ball head or similar that is easy to move around  and most importantly practice operating all camera controls in the dark till it becomes second nature.
  • Check for auroral activity and weather forecasts using the many different phone apps available to warn when activity if high in your area or on the way
  • If you can afford a full frame camera remember it will give superior results with less noise and the ability to use high iso routinely - i am happy to use iso 12800 on my canon 6d if necessary
  • Spare camera and lenses if you can afford it although most dslr's are pretty reliable even so lenses do suffer problems with contacts sometimes
  • Remember aurora is fickle and there is enough to do without being confused by your camera controls and so if you are ready to capture it you are half way there.
  • Use professional large fast cards and batteries as they are cheap enough - currently using sandisk extreme pro 32/64 gb 95 mb/s transfer speed.
  • Check for street lights or other light pollution or then just maybe it can add lighting to your image idea...
  • Locate at a high point with westwards view to horizon especially if coastal as aurora appears from the west when at its strongest.
  • Find interesting foregrounds, scope locations  during daylight but beware they become very different in the dark of night with safety issues
  • Pre focus lens manually on stars - live view helps or focus peaking on the most recent cameras is very useful
  • Tape lens to keep focus point from moving off position
  • Use f2.8 or faster lens. Currently my favoured lens is the 14mm samyang which is inexpensive, sharp at f2.8 and lacks chroma manifesting as colour halos around periferal stars in images
  • Dim rear camera display to minimum helps avoid under exposure by thinking your images are too bright
  • Use histogram to ensure best exposure which by the very nature of aurora will generally have a  left hand side histogram bias.
  • Remove filter to avoid rings caused by interference fringes, concentric rings on your images are not desirable !  
  • Manual mode select, turn off all in camera noise reductions
  • Try say iso 1600 start 10 seconds exposure
  • Arriving early means you can practice getting the right exposure for the current ambient night sky and set up in good time for any impending display. There is nothing worse than driving to your location when activity begins....
  • Check trial images for "green" on a regular basis, a prelude to the start of the display which your eyes may not see and additional practice in advance of the display proper
  • Small torch with red light is essential to keep your eyes accustomed to the dark and to see what you are doing when all hell breaks loose and you get confused with settings and which way to go with exposures - this happens more as you age...
  • Constantly monitor and change settings as display strengthens
  • Increase iso to the known limit by experience of your camera without excessive noise which provides raw images you can work with.
  • Reduced shutter speed retains structure and means you can capture more images rather than a dissapointing "green splodge"
  • Initially set 2s timer - already connect your intervalometer or shutter release cable on camera so that at times of strong activity you can set continuous shooting mode
  • Aim 1s to say 10 s range overall but not prescriptive
  • Shoot raw not jpegs - this is most important or you could try shooting raw + jpeg
  • Set flashing highlights, remember try to never over expose as blown highlights can't be recovered and opportunities of capture will be lost
  • Process raw images using lightroom ( my preference ) or any other editing software
  • Remember to back up all images in 2 places
  • Continuously check lens in cold weather for condensation or you could ruin a whole nights shooting. Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens
  • In between shooting, point your camera lens down or replace lens cap to prevent frost gathering on the glass.
  • Have a cleaning cloth at hand to clean frost from lens if necessary
  • when experienced take live video off tripod when display intense at same time as multiple exposures on tripod with second camera. Testing but achievable..
  • appropriate clothing...goes without saying
  • consider the time of year...snow, ice , autumn lake reflections, moonlit landscapes etc all add different dimensions to your aurora  images
  • some cloud cover and light pollution can make for interesting effects, try anything

 

Most of all "find time" to enjoy your experience whilst shooting
©  Colin Palmer Photography


 
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