Aurora Australis 5 - Photoshots - the web folio of Tony Stewart.

Aurora Australis 5

Credit here must go to Photo Pils for the bones of this post.

Essential Gear Checklist & Tips for Aurora Photography

Here’s a concise checklist of the equipment you’ll need for successful aurora photography:

  1. Camera. A DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of shooting in Manual mode (M), allowing you to adjust settings like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
  2. Wide angle lens. A fast, wide-angle lens (f/2.8 or wider) to capture expansive landscapes and let in enough light for the aurora.
  3. Tripod. A sturdy tripod, preventing any blur from hand movement or wind. Maybe a weight. Sometimes as carry bag that I fill with stones on site when set up.
  4. Extra batteries. Cold weather drains batteries quickly, so bring extras and keep them warm in your pockets.
  5. Memory cards. High-capacity memory cards to store all your high-resolution images without running out of space.
  6. Intervalometer / camera remote / touch screen or self timer To minimize camera shake when taking photos.
  7. Headlamp. Ideally with a red light. Or alternatively hoose 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.
  8. Lens cleaning cloth. To keep your lens free from moisture and fogging.
  9. Warm clothing and accessories. Multiple layers, gloves, hats, and boots to keep you warm during long nights outside. Maybe even a thermos of warm coffee and a seat!

 

Choosing the Best Camera for Aurora Photography

Choosing the right camera for photographing the northern lights involves understanding which features are most important for capturing this unique natural phenomenon.

Here are the key features to look for in a camera for northern lights photography:

1. Low-light performance. The camera should excel in low-light conditions, allowing you to capture the aurora borealis with minimal noise. Cameras with larger sensors, such as full-frame models, typically perform better in these conditions.

2. High ISO capability. A camera with a high ISO range offers more flexibility in adjusting sensitivity to light, enabling you to shoot in very dark environments without compromising image quality.

3. Manual mode (M). The ability to manually adjust settings like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is crucial for aurora photography, giving you complete control over how the camera captures the light show.

4. Long exposure support. Since capturing the northern lights often requires long exposure times to gather enough light, your camera should be capable of exposures of several seconds to several minutes.

5. Durability and weather sealing. Given the cold and potentially wet conditions in which you’ll be shooting, a camera that’s weather-sealed and built to withstand the elements is essential.

6. Battery life. Cold weather can drain batteries quickly, so a camera with good battery life – or the option to use an external battery pack — is important for long shooting sessions.

7. Raw format. While this might sound obvious, it’s always good to remember it. Shooting in RAW format allows you to capture all the data from your sensor, giving you more flexibility in post-processing to bring out the best in your aurora images.

 

Cheat Sheet of Best Settings for Southern Lights Photography

The aurora can vary in intensity, movement, and color, so having a starting point can be incredibly helpful.

Here’s a cheat sheet that you can adjust based on specific conditions:

1. Image format: RAW. This format captures more detail and allows you more flexibility in post-processing.

Using Manual mode (M) on your camera is crucial for northern lights photography due to the unique and variable lighting conditions you’ll encounter.

Here’s why you should use Manual mode (M) for your aurora photography:

  • Complete control. Manual mode (M) hands you full control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aurora’s brightness can fluctuate rapidly, and Manual mode allows you to respond to these changes immediately without relying on your camera’s guesswork.
  • Consistency. It helps maintain consistency across your shots. Automatic modes might produce varying exposures due to the camera’s metering getting confused by the dark sky and bright aurora. Manual settings ensure that once you find the perfect exposure, it stays consistent across your shots.
  • Creative freedom. You can decide the visual outcome of your shot. Whether you’re aiming for a perfectly exposed aurora against a dark sky or wanting to capture the landscape’s silhouette against the aurora, Manual mode (M) allows you to make these creative decisions.

By controlling every aspect of the lightness, you can adapt to the aurora’s variability and express your creative vision.

Choosing the RAW image format for souhern lights photography is a strategic decision that significantly impacts the post-processing flexibility and overall quality of your final images:

  • Unlike JPEG or other compressed formats, RAW files capture all the data from the camera’s sensor without any in-camera processing or compression.
  • The dynamic range in a RAW file is significantly higher than in a JPEG file, meaning it can store more information about shadows and highlights. This is crucial when photographing the northern lights, as you can recover more detail from dark foregrounds and bright auroral displays during post-processing.
  • You can adjust the white balance post-shooting to accurately represent the colors you saw, or creatively enhance them for artistic effect.

This choice is particularly advantageous for the challenging lighting conditions and dynamic range found in aurora borealis scenes.

2. Stabilization: Off. Turn off any image stabilization when using a tripod to avoid unintended blurring.

Image stabilization, whether optical (OIS) or sensor-shift (IBIS), is designed to compensate for camera shake, making it invaluable for handheld shooting. However, when your camera is securely mounted on a tripod, keeping stabilization activated can inadvertently introduce blur.

That’s why turning off any form of image stabilization (IS) when your camera is mounted on a tripod is a nuanced yet essential practice in aurora photography.

3. Camera mode: Manual (M). This gives you complete control over all settings.

4. Aperture: f/2.8 to f/4. Use the widest aperture (lowest f-number) your lens allows to capture as much light as possible.

When it comes to photographing the northern lights, your primary objective is to capture as much of the elusive aurora glow as possible.

Achieving this begins with one critical camera setting: your aperture. The aperture controls the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor, and in the dim conditions of night sky photography, every photon counts.

To maximize light intake, set your lens to its widest aperture. Fast lenses, those with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or wider, are ideal for aurora photography.

However, wide apertures come with a shallow depth of field, which can leave elements of your foreground out of focus if they’re too close to the lens. In such cases, consider employing techniques like focus stacking, where you combine in post-processing multiple images at different focus points to achieve a uniformly sharp scene from foreground to stars.

If your lens doesn’t open up to f/2.8 or wider, don’t worry. Open it to the widest aperture available, and adjust your ISO and shutter speed accordingly to compensate for the reduced light intake.

Remember, the goal is to let in as much light as possible without compromising the quality of your image with excessive noise.

5. Focus: Manual, set to the hyperfocal. Autofocus can struggle in the dark. Focus manually on a distant light before the shoot located a bit further away from the hyperfocal distanceWatch a video that will help you focus to the hyperfocal distance in the dark.

Note: If the main subject is at a greater distance than the hyperfocal distance, you should focus directly on the subject. You will lose some depth of field in the foreground but everything that is at infinity will remain focused and the subject will be tack sharp.

You can calculate the hyperfocal distance very easily with the PhotoPills depth of field calculator.

If your camera has a live view feature, use it to focus manually. Do as I teach you in the previous video and:

  1. Aim at a bright star or distant light.
  2. Zoom in using the live view’s digital zoom feature.
  3. Adjust the focus until the star or light is as small and sharp as possible.

Setting the focus to infinity is especially effective when you want everything from the foreground to the aurora itself in sharp focus, maximizing the depth of field and capturing the expansive nature of the landscape under the night sky.

If you have interesting foreground elements you wish to include and they are not at infinity, consider using a technique called focus stacking. Take multiple images with different focus points—from the foreground to the aurora—and blend them in post-processing to achieve an image that’s sharp throughout.

Sometimes you may wish to take a photo with any foreground subject focused, to allow choice stacking your focus later in post production.

6. Shutter speed: 

You need to be careful with your shutter. Both to gain a good exposure, but to minimise star blur, and to preserve any aurora pillars. In essence you need to keep as short as feasible. Shorten for more intense auroras or to capture finer details and lengthen for fainter auroras. The reality is your shutter will still be long – between 5-30sec.

  • Faint and static aurora. For auroras that are barely visible and relatively stationary, a longer exposure, closer to the 25-30 second mark, can help gather enough light to make these subtle displays visible in your photos.
  • Vibrant auroras. When the aurora is clearly visible and showing moderate movement, aim for a shutter speed between 8 and 15 seconds. This range strikes a balance between capturing the movement of the aurora and keeping the stars as sharp points of light.
  • Intensely active aurora. For those moments when the aurora is dancing rapidly across the sky, a fast shutter speed of 1-10 seconds is key. This setting helps freeze the motion of the aurora, capturing the intricate details and preventing the lights from blending into a shapeless glow.

To ensure you dont blur star trails, you can use either :

– the 500 rule to work out what shutter speed. The 500 rule works by dividing 500 by your focal length (ie 15mm lens), so 500/15 = 33.33. This means when using a 15mm lens on a full-frame camera, you can use a shutter speed of 33 seconds before getting blurry stars.

or

– You can use the PhotoPills Spot Stars pill to avoid star trailing. For calculating the necessary exposure time, use the PhotoPills Spot Stars calculator by following these steps:

  • Open the PhotoPills app and navigate to the Spot Stars calculator.
  • Enter your camera model, the lens focal length, the aperture setting, the minimum declination of the stars you’re capturing, and select the accuracy mode (with the default usually being sufficient).

If you’re unsure of the stars’ minimum declination, use the AR feature in PhotoPills. Point your phone in the direction you’re planning to shoot, and let the app calculate the exposure time for you. If in doubt, you can default the declination to 0º. PhotoPills > Spot Stars > AR. Tap the AR button, point your smartphone where you’re framing the camera and read the maximum exposure time you need to use.

7. ISO: 1600 to 8000. Start with ISO 2000-3200 as a baseline. Increase for weaker auroras or decrease for stronger ones. Here’s a detailed look at how to effectively use this ISO range:

1. Enhanced lightness. A high ISO allows a good lightness from a small exposure, which is crucial in dark environments where the aurora is visible. This allows you to capture the faint colors and details of the aurora that might not be visible at lower ISOs.

2. Faster shutter speeds. Using a higher ISO you can set faster shutter speeds. This is beneficial for capturing the dynamic, fast-moving shapes of the aurora with less blur, preserving the details and structures of the lights.

3. Compensate for dim conditions. In situations where the aurora is faint or you’re shooting in particularly dark locations without much ambient light, raising the ISO helps you achieve a balanced lightness without overly a long exposure that can lead to motion blur from the moving lights.

Before your aurora shooting session, test your camera’s performance at ISO 3200 to 8000 in low light conditions to understand its limitations and optimal settings.

While starting in the 3200 to 8000 range is a good baseline, constantly monitor your results and adjust as necessary:

  • If the aurora becomes brighter, you might lower the ISO to reduce noise.
  • Conversely, if the aurora is faint or you’re aiming to freeze its motion more sharply, you may need to push the ISO higher.

The optimal ISO setting also depends on your camera’s capabilities:

  • High-end cameras. Advanced models, especially those with full-frame sensors, can handle higher ISO settings (6400 to 12800) with less noise, allowing for clearer, more detailed shots even in low light.
  • Low-end cameras. Cameras with crop sensors or lower light sensitivity may produce noticeable noise at higher ISO levels. For these cameras, keeping the ISO at 6400 or below is advisable to maintain image quality.

Additionally, environmental factors will affect your ISO setting:

  • Moonlight. A bright Moon can illuminate the landscape, enabling you to lower your ISO and still capture well-exposed images.
  • Artificial light. In areas with street or house lights, a lower ISO can help avoid overexposure and maintain the natural colors of the aurora. Though potentially leading to colour casts.

The goal is to capture as much detail and color in-camera by choosing the most suitable ISO for the scene before you. Remember that higher ISOs come with the trade-off of increased noise or grain in your images. Cameras with larger sensors (like full frame sensors) generally handle high ISO noise better than those with smaller sensors.Butv these days software like Topaz DeNoise / AI goes a long way to help in post production.

8. White Balance: Daylight or 4300K. Dont use auto! I often use Daylight and adjust the colour temperature in post production. But Fluorescent (around 4300K) can help maintain the natural colors of the aurora.

9. Shutter delay: 2s (optional). You’ll avoid any possible vibrations when you press the shutter button. This is only necessary if you won’t be using an intervalometer.

For very clear photos, make sure your camera is on a firm tripod. Use a 2-second timer to stop blur when you click the button. If it’s windy, use a 5-second timer instead to keep the camera still when you press the button.

You can also use an intervalometer. But when taking pictures of the northern lights and moving around to follow them, it’s easier to just use the camera’s timer.

10. Keep your batteries warm

Remember, the goal is to maximize your time under the aurora borealis.

Unfortunately, the cold, enchanting nights under the aurora can be harsh on your camera’s batteries…

Cold temperatures reduce battery life, often at the most unexpected moments during your shoot. To prevent this, an essential strategy is to keep your batteries warm, ensuring they retain their charge for as long as possible.

Always carry spare batteries and store them in a place where they can benefit from your body heat. A practical method is to keep them in a zip-lock bag tucked inside an inner pocket of your jacket, close to your body. This warmth can significantly slow down the rate at which your batteries deplete.

11. Fight condensation

One of the trickier aspects of southern lights photography is managing the transition between the biting cold outdoors and the warm indoors without causing condensation on your camera. This phenomenon not only obscures your lens but can also seep into your camera and lens, potentially damaging the internal mechanisms over time.

The key to preventing this is to control the temperature change your equipment experiences. Looking at weather reports especially establishing fog / dew point can help. You may need a special astro dew heater (think heated lens straps run off a battery).

How to Photograph the Southern Lights with your iPhone

You’re probably wondering if you can take aurora photos with your iPhone.

Well, the short answer is… Yes!I’m serious. Your iPhone offers you a quick way to photograph the northern lights.

However, in order to shoot the northern lights you would need any iPhone model starting with iPhone 11. That’s because Night mode is only available on iPhone 11 and above models.

In low-light conditions Night Mode will automatically turn on. The Night Mode icon will appear in the top left corner of your phone. This feature keeps the camera sensor open for a longer amount of time in order to get more light in, and therefore capture more detail in the image.Oh. It’s super easy.

  1. Open the camera app on your iPhone.
  2. Your iPhones will automatically switch to Night Mode when it detects low light in the scene. If it doesn’t, set the camera app to Night Mode.
  3. By default, depending on how dark the environment is, the exposure in iPhone’s Night Mode is somewhere between 1 and 3 seconds. If you need more than that you can change the exposure time to the maximum possible.
  4. There’s a hidden settings menu in the iPhone’s camera app. Open this menu using the top arrow.
  5. Look for the Night mode icon and tap on it.
  6. A slider will appear that allows you to adjust the exposure time.
  7. Slide it all the way to the right at Max.
  8. Point the phone where you want to take your aurora photo.
  9. Hold the phone with both hands and tap the shutter button.
  10. Stand still until the iPhone has finished capturing the photo.

 

 

Creating Aurora Panoramas

Creating a panoramic image of the southern lights involves stitching together multiple photographs to form a single, wide-view picture. This technique allows you to capture the vastness of the aurora australis and the surrounding landscape in great detail.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a panoramic image of the Aurora

1. Equipment that you need
  • Camera: Any camera that allows manual control of settings.
  • Lens: A wide-angle lens is preferred for its broader field of view.
  • Tripod: Essential for keeping your camera stable and aligned during the shoot.
  • Panoramic head (optional): For precise alignment and rotation. Though not mandatory, it helps in matching the nodal point of the lens, reducing parallax errors.
2. Camera settings
  • Set your camera to Manual mode (M) to have a consistent lightness across all shots.
  • Set your lens to manual focus and adjust it to infinity or to the hyperfocal distance to ensure the stars and aurora are sharp.
  • ISO, aperture, and shutter speed should be set according to the intensity of the aurora and the desired lightness
3. Composition and framing
  • Plan your panorama: Visualize or sketch the entire scene you intend to capture, identifying key elements you want to include.
  • Start from one end of the scene and decide on the overlap between images. A 30-50% overlap between consecutive shots is ideal for effective stitching.
4. Shooting the panorama
  • Shoot in a consistent direction. Choose either left-to-right or right-to-left and stick with it.
  • Keep the camera level to avoid uneven horizons. A tripod with a built-in level or a hot shoe bubble level can assist with this.
  • Take multiple series if you’re unsure about the overlap or lightness. It’s better to have more images than you need than to miss a part of the panorama.
5. Post-processing
  • Import your images into a photo editing software that supports panorama stitching (LightroomPhotoshop, or a dedicated panorama software like PTGui).
  • Select the images for your panorama and use the software’s “Merge/stitch to Panorama” function. Adjust settings according to the software’s options to blend the images seamlessly.
  • Fine-tune the panorama: Adjust exposure, color balance, and crop the image as needed to create a cohesive final image.
Additional tips
  • Practice shooting panoramas during the day to get comfortable with the process and your equipment.
  • Consider the movement of the aurora. Fast-moving auroras may require quicker shooting between frames to maintain continuity in the panorama.
  • Experiment with vertical panoramas (portrait orientation) for a different perspective, especially when the aurora is directly overhead.

Credit https://www.photopills.com/articles/northern-lights-photography-guide