How to photograph the aurora borealis – Part 1

21, November 21st, 2011 by Carl D
Photographing the Aurora borealis, Alaska.
Photographing the aurora borealis in September, surrounded by fall colors, Chugach Mountains, Glenn Highway, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

The aurora borealis is one of those experiences we can have that stay with us a long, long time. Not just in our minds and memories, but in our body, in our hearts, in our soul, in our very being; witnessing the aurora borealis stays with us in how we see the world around us. It’s a moving and powerful event, and I’m always grateful and humbled by the moment. It really is that incredible.

Photographing the aurora borealis, on the other hand, can be one of those frustrating and anxious experiences that similarly stay with us a long, long time; raises our blood pressure, causes depression, causes exhilaration, frostbite, tiredness, insomnia and too many other ailments to mention. It’s difficult, extremely challenging, and infuriating. It’s cold. It’s dark. The aurora borealis is often fleeting, ever changing, and virtually impossible to rigidly predict. It requires a clear, or nearly clear, sky. That means long hours of waiting, photographing, deleting, photographing, waiting, not photographing, shivering, mumbling, drinking coffee. It means fighting to stay awake, tearing your hair our wondering where is the best location to head toward, hours before even setting up a tripod. In short, it’s not easy.

This 3 part article is intended to help you plan for (and work around, best we can) some of the struggles and pitfalls that await. It’s still up to you, your camera and the gods of luck to actually bring home the images, but hopefully this article will help you with that. If you see any thing repeated in this article, figure that repetition probably suggests emphasis. Please feel free to add your own thoughts, questions, and so forth, in the comments section below.

The aurora borealis (northern lights) light up the night sky over the boreal forest in the Mentasta Mountains, boreal forest, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
A rising vapor column display of the aurora borealis (northern lights) light up the night sky over the boreal forest in the Mentasta Mountains, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

Topics

  1. Finding the Aurora Borealis
  2. Scouting
  3. Clothing
  4. Headlamps
  5. Camera Gear
  6. Photographing
  7. Composition
  8. Tips
  9. Discussion
  10. Resources

Finding the Aurora borealis

The first issue is, obviously, finding the aurora borealis. Not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve posted a number of links and some accompanying information at the end of this article that offer some great information on forecasts and predictions. The bottom line is there are no rules, only imprecise, loose guidelines with many caveats;  but there are a few indefinite recommendations that might help you (don’t hold me to any of these; the aurora, like any natural phenomena, breaks all the rules, all the time).

  • As a simple rule, come north (or south, for the aurora australis). The polar region is where you’ll most likely find the aurora borealis (though friends of mine did just happen to see the aurora in the night sky of Georgia just recently; what gives?).
  • Look for spring and fall; generally, the equinox is the time the aurora borealis is most active. Displays can happen any time of year, but Sept/Oct and March/April seem to be the most common.
  • If an aurora is forecast, look for somewhere with clear skies; clouds are not your friend when photographing the aurora borealis.
  • Get out early. I’ve taken aurora borealis photos right at sunset.
  • Stay out late (I didn’t say this is easy). The aurora borealis is most frequently active between (approximately) of 10pm, and 2am.
  • Although the aurora borealis display can occur in any part of the sky, generally the sky to the northwest all the way clockwise to the southeast is your best bet; position yourself accordingly.
  • Get out there; the phrase “light pollution” takes a whole new level of meaning when you want to see and photograph the aurora borealis. Get out of town, and keep whatever city light might interfere with your shooting to your south and far away. Then a little further away again.

Return to Topics

Next up, be prepared. Being prepared starts with one thing;

Scouting ahead

Go out during the day and find some potential locations to shoot from. Don’t wait until the sky is on fire and head out hoping to find an opening in the forest to shoot through. Realise, too, that in Alaska and most northern locales, in the winter, you don’t just pull over on the side of the road to shoot. The snow plows have been out, and the road is lined with a 3-5′ berm of packed snow; great for clambering up on and getting a little vantage point to shoot from, but not so great for trying to do a last minute 3-point turn or to pull to the side, out of the road, to shoot.

Do your homework earlier, in the light of the day, and at least have some idea of where you want to be and how you want to shoot the aurora borealis in the evening. I’ve spent too many hours driving down the road trying to navigate the icy road, looking for a place to turn around, trying to change my lenses, put on my jacket, and contorting and twisting my head outside the window so I can watch the incredible display overhead in the night sky. At 60mph, at -20F, the windchill from an open window is no fun.

I’ve been driving down the road on a dark moonless night, seen the aurora start up, then mercifully found a nearby place to pull over, jump out, setup my gear and shoot. Shoot what looked like, at night, a perfect location, a clearing (probably a frozen lake) right off the road that extended away to a spruce forest. Awesome foreground! Click. A nice long exposure to balance the aurora borealis with the dark foreground and one perfect photo of the aurora borealis and boreal forest; complete with a near perfect powerline and set of cables running smack through the center of the frame. I had no idea they were there, but my camera sure saw them just fine. So back in the car and on down the road to find a more workable location. Scout ahead.

Being prepared means being comfortable. Given that there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be photographing the aurora borealis in polar regions of the world, in the middle of a clear, cloudless night in winter months, the temperature will probably be cold. Maybe extremely cold. Possibly even really &@*#^$% cold. So bundle up. Below are my thoughts on dressing for aurora borealis photography.

Return to Topics

Clothing

  • we’ll start at the head (though I usually don’t, when I’m getting dressed): a  good insulating hat, wool or fleece, is essential. Preferably one that covers your ears.
  • a neck gaiter or “turtle”. Some kind of fleece or wool (scarf equivalent) neck band = Indispensable.
  • “dress in layers” goes out the window here; you’re not (probably) going to be having to layer up and layer back down. Instead, you’re going to be layered up and that’s about it, as you likely won’t be moving around too much. Warmth is a function (mostly) of insulation. Don’t worry about countless polypro baselayers and fleece tops and whatnot stacked on top of one another; you want something puffy, like a down jacket, or synthetic fill equivalent. Puffy, bloat yourself up. You want to look like . I basically go with a wool underlayer, maybe another shirt, and then the fattest, warmest downfilled jacket I own. Being warm is good. A windproof shell is handy to add if needed. Usually just the puffy works fine.
  • Long underwear (I like wool) and fleece or down-filled pants; with a windproof layer over that.
  • Thick warm socks.
  • Insulated winter boots. Something with plenty of insulation around and UNDER your foot. Add an extra innersole if you need to. You’re probably standing on ice/snow. It’s cold, sometimes extremely cold. Make sure the boot fit is NOT too tight, compression is your enemy here.
  • Liner gloves, with heavy winter mittens, work best, for me, w/ chemical heater packs as well. I keep those inside the mittens, and remove the mittens as needed to shoot, adjust my tripod, etc. Keeping my hands warm in winter shooting conditions is a mission, with no real easy solution. They get cold. My job is to minimize that best I can.

I sum all this up with the Golden Rule of the Three L’s; “Loft, Loose, and Lots” of it. Loft insulates, loose = no compression, and lots of it means don’t skimp. Here are some of the items I wear when the temperature drops; but realize much of this stuff is contextual and subjective. There are plenty of great options, and you’ll need to find what clothes work best for you; the same is true of camera gear. So let’s move on to the camera gear topic.

Return to Topics

A headlamp

Now that you’re warm, you’ll need to be able to see. Bring a headlamp; choose one that has a dimmer function, so you can lower the brightness of it. Too bright and your eyes have a hard time adjusting back and forth from the bright light to the dark night. You’ll need your night vision for shooting. Many headlamps have a “red option”; a red light that is a little friendlier to your night vision. Similarly, turn down the lcd brightness of your camera. Keep your night eyes up.

A word of warning; the cold eats batteries. Load some fresh batteries, and bring extra batteries with you. Lithium batteries will work better if the forecast is for extreme cold, but unless it’s super cold, regular alkaline AA or AAAs are fine. I’m also a sucker for an extra lamp, either in my camera bag or at least inside my (hopefully) nearby vehicle. Headlamps have a way of either being lost, or broken, en route. I use a Black Diamond Storm headlamp that can throw out 100 lumens, which is insanely bright, but I can also switch it to “red” or use the dimmer function and bring the light way down when I need to. It’s more headlamp than most photo situations call for, but I also use it for night skiing, etc, which it’s fantastic for.

Return to Topics

Page 1

divider

PS: I have now edited a copy of this entire 3-part article, updated it, added a ton more photos, and generally made it way cooler, PLUS made it available as a free downloadable eBook.

You can access a downloadable pdf or an iBooks version here 

free ebook about photographing the northern lights by Carl Donohue and Expeditions Alaska.

Expeditions Alaska
Visit the wild