When shooting the Northern Lights, there is a bit of homework that should be conducted before traveling to attempt to get any shots. This step is often overlooked and can lead to poor results when ignored.
- Scout locations by satellite view on Google Maps prior to travel
- Focus your location search on areas free of light pollution, I use DarkSiteFinder.com
- Map out as many possible locations as possible so that you can have a variety of foregrounds in your shots.
- Download the “Aurora” app on your phone so that you can stay up to date with aurora forecasts during your trip.
- Visit the sites that you plan to shoot during the day so you can check for road conditions, whether the location is as good as it appeared on the map, etc… You may want to take an odometer reading from a reference point in order to be able to come back in the dark.
- Check Weather and gauge your activities based on whether you can see the stars or not.
- Okay, you have done the preparation and you are ready to leave to go shoot the Aurora! Well, not so fast. Before leaving to shoot the Aurora, I would recommend pre-focusing your lens (I will get into that in a minute).
What equipment is needed for shooting the Aurora?
In order to have the best chances of shooting the Aurora, I would recommend the following equipment:
- DSLR or Mirrorless camera that can shoot in manual mode
- A fast wide Angle lens somewhere in the 14-24 mm range. By fast, I am referring to the aperture; an f/2.8 is what I used and it was fine, but if you have a f/1.4 or f/1.8 that should work well.
- A sturdy tripod. Nothing is worse than taking long exposure photos on a tripod that can’t stay still ruining all of your shots.
- A remote shutter release – in order to minimize camera vibration, you will want to actuate your shutter with a remote and not touch your camera at all.
- A Headlamp – It’s dark out there
- A lawn chair
- A slower runner than you if there are bears
Let’s talk about Focus
Before leaving to go to your location, you will want to Pre-Focus your lens. Once you are out in the dark, it is difficult to get proper focus, so this is very important.
By using the Photopills app, you should be able to look up the Hyperfocal length of your lens and camera combination. According to the Hyperfocal Table in the Photopills app, my 14mm wide angle will reach hyperfocal distance in approx 8 feet at f/2.8; meaning that if I focus on something 9 feet away, I my background will remain in focus.
I pick an object outside of the hyperfocal length and get tack sharp focus on it. In order to check, I look at other objects further away to make sure that they are in focus as well. Once I have my lens dialed in, I disable Autofocus and using Gaffer tape, I tape down the focus ring of the lens. Once taped, take a picture and zoom in to confirm that you are tack sharp, if not, you could end up hunting and pecking in the dark, which is no good.
Camera Settings to Start
Camera settings are going to vary given the environmental conditions, but I would say a good start would be to try to keep Shutter Speed around 4 – 6 seconds, the aperture open all the way (in my case f/2.8) and then adjust ISO accordingly to get the exposure that you want. I found that shooting around iso of 5000 was about right for me.
One Last Thing
While you are out there shooting the Aurora Borealis, don’t forget one thing – Have fun with it. It is unbelievably beautiful and it is an experience that you will never forget.