How To Photograph The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a trending topic among travelers these days. I count myself lucky to have grown up seeing these gorgeous, shimmering lights spreading across the nighttime horizon.

Created from the collision of charged particles with molecules high in the atmosphere, the Northern Lights (or aurora borealis) put on a stunning natural light show near the Earth’s northern poles. Those of us who live in the Upper Midwest and Canada are lucky enough to be able to see the aurora flickering in vivid colors acorns the sky at night.

Catching this elusive natural phenomenon is tricky. Photographing it is even harder.

So I enlisted the help of Zachary Hargrove, a talented night sky photographer who also happens to be a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, North Dakota. He’s been kind enough to share his tips for spotting and photographing the Northern Lights as well as some of his favorite viewing spots. (This interview starts with general questions and moves on to more specific photography tips at the end.)

Find Zachary’s gorgeous Instagram photos here or follow his Furious Skies Photography page. Here’s Zachary!

Alicia

All photos in this post are provided by Zachary Hargrove and his page, Furious Skies Photography

What features are required of a good aurora borealis viewing spot?
Get out of town! Even if you live in a very small town, the ambient light is still likely enough to mute quite a bit of the colors. Try to find a place somewhat off of any main road so car lights are not constantly bothering you, and make sure you have a clear view north with no clouds. Its usually best to wait until at least an hour after sunset.

Are there any other details about timing that we should take note of?
If it’s not supposed to be a dramatic show, avoid full or almost full moons. The moonlight will drown out most of the interesting features.

What are your favorite spots close to home in North Dakota to see the Northern Lights?
Oh lordy, I have quite a few. I enjoy shooting in front of any abandoned structures. My two favorite are the church in the ghost town of Arena, ND and an abandoned house in the ghost town of Sims, ND.

If you are going to shoot near abandoned structures, please be respectful and be careful. Sometimes open wells are common in the overgrown grasses, and rusty nails can be plentiful.

Double Ditch, north of Bismarck is a nice close spot with some nice views. Sweetbriar Lake, McDowell Dam, and Long Lake Nature Preserve are all fantastic areas as well. If you are able to travel, it is hard to beat either unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park or the Lake Metigoshe area.

Why do you keep coming back to photographing the Northern Lights?
I’m a meteorologist so I love anything unique the atmosphere can throw at me. But there’s something about the Northern Lights that just talks to my soul. I’ve been out by myself in the middle of nowhere before during amazing shows. I know no one’s looking, so I’m usually jumping up and down and screaming at the top of my lungs. I think I’ve even cried tears of joy during some of the more dramatic shows.

I love coming home and editing the pictures because it always at least brings a small piece of that feeling back. Severe weather and the aurora are my drugs. I’m an atmospheric junkie and I’m always waiting for that next big high.

Does your day job give you any insight into this phenomenon?
Certainly. While the aurora has no effect on sensible everyday weather as we know it, it is still considered Space Weather. I’m a full time meteorologist, and in my office, I am considered the Space Weather focal point.

A focal point is usually a specialist in a National Weather Service office. I am always looking out for the next chance for geomagnetic storms (aurora potential) and I try to let all of my colleagues, close friends, and family know if I feel confident in a coming event. It is very exciting that I get to study this as part of my profession.

What are your tips for photographing aurora borealis?
There are two must haves when photographing the aurora. A sturdy tripod is imperative, because you are typically taking long exposures in the range of anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds. A fancy camera is not required, but you will need to be able to shoot in manual mode, picking your f stop/aperture, picking your shutter speed, and picking your ISO.

Basically your f stop (or aperture) gets smaller as the number gets larger, so its a bit opposite of what you may think. For an example, an f/15 is only going to let a tiny pinhole of light in. Conversely, small numbers will open the aperture much larger, enabling more light to reach the camera sensor. The lowest number of your lens’ f stop is going to be the best option for the Northern Lights.

I shoot with a wide angle lens with an f/2.8. A 2.8 can get pricey, but its worth it if you are serious about nocturnal photography. Most standard kit lenses and basic point and shoot cameras usually start at f/3.5. This will be plenty sufficient for a bright aurora show. Some professional and very expensive lenses can go all the way down to f/1.8 or f/1.4.

I would also recommend the most wide angle lens/setting you can use. I shoot with a Nikon d610 and usually shoot all of my aurora shows at 14mm on a full frame sensor. This allows me to get the most sky possible.

Any other basic (or not so basic) tips we should know?
Shutter speed is the easiest. One should set this setting for how long they would like the shutter open to properly expose the image. Every lights show is different, so you may need to play around with this setting depending on how bring the aurora is.

One important thing to note is that as you increase focal length, you will have much less shutter time to work with before star trails begin. With my 14mm wide angle lens, I can use a 30 second exposure before I start seeing star trails. This is a great feature for Milky Way photography. One way around this challenge is to by a star tracking mount for your camera, but these can get very expensive.

Finally, ISO is the last major piece to the manual shooting equation. ISO helps compensate for low light. The higher your ISO, the brighter the image. However, there is a trade off. The higher the ISO, the more image noise appear in the image. Basic point and shoot cameras and entry level DSLRs cannot shoot at very high ISOs before extreme noise is evident.

When I used to shoot with a Nikon 3000, I could barely shoot at ISO 1000 before the noise was too unbearable for me. With my full frame d610, I can shoot in the 1600-3200 ISO range and still get very usable images. Using a higher ISO also allows you to not use as long of an exposure, so you can catch more detail if the aurora is dancing. I know that was alot to throw at you, but these are the most important things to think about when planning a Northern Lights photo shoot.

What’s the most common mistake new photographers make when taking photos of the northern lights?
When I was beginning, I cranked my ISO up way too high for many of my images. On the back of the camera they didn’t look bad, but when I’d get them up on my computer monitor they would look horrendous.

Another common mistake is focusing. Many lenses (especially the kit lenses) do not have a a symbol to focus on infinity. It is important you find infinity focus on your camera. What I would recommend is using the live view display and zoom in on the most distant light you can find. Adjust the focus until that light looks like a sharp pin prick. Go ahead and try a test shot and see how that light looks. If it looks great, put some tape on the focus ring so it doesn’t get knocked.

Another trick that doesn’t always work is to turn your focus ring as far as it can go (to the left), and then adjust it back right slightly. Typically, the lens will be close to infinity there. Also be aware that if your lens does has an infinity symbol on the focus ring, it is not always 100% accurate.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add?
One very small piece of advice. We can forecast aurora potential fairly well one to three days out, but we cannot ever know if it will ever actually produce a geomagnetic storm until the plasma cloud from the sun arrives to our outer atmosphere. If you want to be an aurora chaser, be prepared to have more disappointments than successes.

I have stayed out from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. before with zero to show for it. Make the best of it; practice other night photography, search for other interesting foregrounds for future images, bring your phone to listen to music or a podcast. Northern Lights watching/photography requires tons of patience. But I promise you, it is worth it.

If the event busts, just get over the disappointment quickly and try again next time! For more space weather education, check out www.spaceweatherlive.com and the NWS Space Weather Prediction Center (www.swpc.noaa.gov).

What about you?
Where have you experienced the Northern Lights?
How did witnessing this phenomenon make you feel?
What are your favorite aurora viewing spots?
Where do you want to see the Northern Lights next?
What aurora borealis (or night sky) photography tips would you add?

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