photogrAPhing the aurorA – the guide

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For a lot of people, getting the opportunity to view the aurora borealis is more than enough, for some it’s been a life-long dream.

While standing there in the middle of the night with the aurora dancing overhead, you will probably want to capture the moment forever. A lot of people have tried and been sorely disappointed when the pictures turned out to be nothing but darkness and a dim, green, out of focus glow, when in fact the colorful lights were shining bright and dancing across the sky. I hope this guide will help you capture some amazing memories!

Camera

While compact point and shoot cameras have gotten much more advanced in the last few years, I wouldn’t recommend relying on one for your aurora photography. If you don’t own a DSLR, try to ask around and see if someone could perhaps lend you one.

I personally use a Nikon D800, which is full frame, but you can get amazing shots with way less. What you need is a camera where you can adjust everything manually. Forget about auto mode and auto focus! If you’ve never done night sky photography and always shoot with a pre-set program it might seem a bit daunting, but I promise you, you’ll get it in no time!

Lens

I mostly use the Nikon AF-S 14-24, f/2.8G ED which is an excellent wide angle lens, the only down side is the price tag. You can find a good lens at a much lower price if you don’t want to spend too much.

There are a few things you should consider — firstly you’ll want a fast lens (large aperture), f/3.5 or wider. It should be wide angle and as sharp as possible, as the aurora can cover almost the entire sky and you’ll want to get as much of it as possible in your frame.

Filters

If you usually have a filter on your lens (most people use a UV filter for protection), you’ll want to remove it before shooting the aurora. Don’t use any filters at all, they will mess up your photos!

Tripod

Besides a DSLR, you also need a tripod. Using one is absolutely critical since you will be doing long exposures.

Since we’re talking about the northern lights, you’ll probably be far north and it will most likely be autumn or winter when you’re out shooting. In Kiruna, Sweden, where I’m located, the temperature can drop down to below -40C so you’ll want to get a tripod with foam padding on the legs or put some on yourself. You’ll thank me when you’re out in the extreme cold having to touch it!

Cable release

A cable release or a wireless remote can come in handy to prevent camera shake and to do exposures longer than 30 seconds. Personally I never go over 30 seconds, the aurora is usually so bright and fast moving up here that the highlights will get completely burned out and the entire sky will just look like a green mess. You’ll also start getting startrails and your pictures won’t look sharp.

I rarely use a remote at all, so how do I avoid camera shake?
Here’s my tip: bring a little piece of cardboard or a plastic lid (not clear or at all transparent), or anything really, big enough to cover the front of your lens. Hold it up in front of the lens as you press the shutter release and then quickly yank it away once your hand is off the camera. Voila! No shaky photos!

Don’t forget the foreground

So you’re at the location. If you’re lucky the sky above you is on fire! Lights dancing overhead. It’s easy to get completely blown away by the incredible beauty of this phenomenon but try to quickly scope out the scene.

Look around you, what do you see? Maybe a frozen lake, pretty snow covered trees, or a little cabin.

The foreground is half the picture. I’ve been shooting the northern lights for a few years now and I’ve seen them every season of my life but I still get incredibly excited on every single shoot and often forget about the foreground completely for the first few shots.

Raw or JPEG?

I always shoot in raw and I’d suggest you do the same. There is so much more information to work with in a raw copy than a JPEG (which is processed in camera) and if you didn’t get the exposure just right you can bring a lot out afterwards.

If, for some reason, you decide to shoot in JPEG, I’d suggest you turn on long exposure noise reduction and high ISO noise reduction in your camera’s settings, otherwise make sure they’re both off. Processing software like Lightroom does a much better job at noise reduction than the camera and you have all the control.

If you don’t know how to process raw files yet and if it’s possible on your camera, you can choose to shoot in raw+JPEG. I promise you, once you learn about working with raw you’ll be glad you did.

Focus

I only got a couple of shots at this location before a moose came plunging through the water and scared me half to death.

This was one of the test shots to get the focus right (which it isn’t). I was incredibly disappointed when I came home and reviewed my few shots. It was incredibly noisy, out of focus and way too dark except for the aurora itself and it’s reflection.

If I had been shooting in JPEG when I took this picture it would have been immediately thrown away. But because I was shooting in raw I could bring out the dark parts and get rid of the noise. Despite its flaws, this picture was actually chosen as one of the best astronomy photos of the year 2014 by Swedish astronomy magazine Populär Astronomi.

Autofocus will NOT work in the dark. There are a few different techniques for getting the focus spot on, I’ll go through them here.
First of all, turning your focus ring to infinity won’t work. I’ve tried a lot of lenses and it hasn’t worked on a single one of them.

Focus in daylight

Find a mountain or something else that’s very far away and auto focus on that, then switch over to manual focus and don’t touch it until it’s time. Or mark the spot with a little piece of tape or with a marker.

Manually focus on the brightest planet or star

Turn on live view and zoom in as much as possible. Now set the focus so the object is sharp.

My way!

After using a lens for a while you learn how to focus manually, it’s in your fingers. What I do is turn the focus ring all the way to infinity and then turn it back a tiny little bit. I know, very unscientific and easy to understand, but it works!

Do this and take a test shot, zoom in on the finished picture to see if it’s in focus, if not, repeat. I do this with every new lens I use and it only takes one or two tries to learn. Now I never have to look, it’s programmed into my fingers and much quicker than the other methods.

Settings

I’d advise you to turn down the brightness of the LCD screen on the back of your camera. The preview you get after taking a picture gives you a good indication of whether or not you got a decent exposure. But you should be aware that your picture will look a bit brighter than it actually is and you run the risk of being disappointed when viewing it on a big screen.

This is where the histogram comes in handy, it won’t lie. Here’s a helpful link if you’re interested in knowing more: the histogram explained, at LuminousLandscape.com.

Personally, I still go by trial and error and try different settings throughout the night.

Your settings will depend on whether the aurora is bright or dim, moving rapidly, or behaving more like a stationary glow. Therefore it would be impossible for me to give you a definitive list of settings that will work every time but I’ll give you some starting tips.

I always shoot in manual mode, meaning I do all the settings myself. It is however possible to sometimes shoot in aperture priority mode, where you set the aperture and ISO and your camera decides how long the exposure should be.

If you want to give this a go, set the aperture (the f-stop) at its largest opening, that is the lowest number you can get. On my lens that would be 2.8. Only do this if you have a fast lens (low f/number), try it out and see if it produces nice results. Otherwise just do as I do and always shoot in manual mode.

ISO, shutter speed, and aperture

These are the three things you will need to get familiar with.

The aperture is what is called “f” in your camera settings. The smaller the f/number, the larger the aperture. Simply put, aperture controls the amount of light traveling through the lens. For aurora photography, all night sky photography really, you’ll want to stay on the large end — the lowest numbers.

Changing the ISO is changing your camera’s sensitivity to light, the higher you go the more sensitive your sensor will be. When shooting the aurora you’ll need your camera to be very sensitive and gather as much light as possible.

ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are really the three pillars of photography, understanding how they work together is very valuable, you could even say it’s absolutely necessary.

Where to start

So we now know to use a low f/stop (usually f/2.8-4 for me) and I’ve said we need the sensor to be very sensitive to light. This does NOT, however, mean that you should set your camera to the highest ISO setting possible. Newer DSLRs go up to over ISO 12,000, in comparison you only need ISO 100-200 for daylight shots.

If you’re in a place where the aurora is bright and moving across the sky, not just a dim line on the horizon, I’d suggest you start out with these settings:

  • Shoot in raw
  • Auto white balance
  • f/2.8-f/3.5
  • ISO 800
  • 15 second exposure

You will most likely need to adjust these settings as you go. If the aurora is moving rapidly you’ll want to capture the rifts and shapes and therefore you’ll want to keep the exposure as short as possible. So why not push the ISO up to it’s absolute maximum and just fire away?

That’s when the massive downside to high ISO comes in — noise! DSLRs today typically do very well with noise even at pretty high ISO, but when you go above ISO 800 you will definitely start seeing noise and when you go higher still it will become very apparent. Processing software does a good job at getting rid of it and I sometimes do wide-field astrophotography at ISO up to 3200 or so but I really prefer staying lower.

I talked about shooting in raw format before and this is a situation where you’ll be so glad you did. Trying to reduce noise in a JPEG in post processing is horrible. If you do shoot in JPEG only you’ll want to turn on high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction before your shoot.

When, on the other hand, the aurora is only giving you a modest display you get the perfect opportunity to capture it with the Milky Way shining in the same frame. This is the only time I go as high as a 30 sec exposure.

Mia Stalnacke aurora

Processing

If you follow my advice and shoot in raw you’ll need software able to process those files. I prefer Adobe Lightroom but there are free alternatives.

With these programmes you’ll be able to adjust the white balance, reduce noise, brighten up the foreground, and much more.

Out of these three alternatives to Lightroom I’ve only briefly tried Nikon’s software, so I can’t say much about how well they work, but they are free.

What I always do to my photos in post is reduce the noise, lift the shadows a bit, as well as lifting the whites. Sometimes after shooting a super bright display I reduce the highlights since they get blown out. It happens that the auto white balance doesn’t quite get it right, the aurora can appear a bit yellow or the landscape is suddenly green like the sky. I like my finished pictures to look as much as what I actually saw as possible so I’ll adjust this in post processing. I also sharpen my pictures a bit and adjust the contrast.

Now you know about the key settings, it’s time to start practicing!

I told you in the beginning to forget about auto mode and I stick by that. There is however a great use for it while you’re practicing.

Put your camera in auto mode and take a few shots in different lighting conditions and observe how the settings change. Doing this was a great help to me when I first started out. I knew absolutely nothing about manual settings and it all seemed very daunting to me, but I love to learn!

After studying how the settings changed depending on the scene, things started making perfect sense to me. I never thought of looking for a guide like this because my favorite method of learning is by trial and failure. That’s exactly what I’m encouraging you to do after reading this guide! Get to know your camera, before you know it you won’t even have to think before turning those dials.

Go out at night and practice shooting the night sky, see if you can get the stars in focus, if you’re in a light pollution free zone maybe you’ll manage to get a shot of the Milky Way.

Fair warning though — once you’ve started doing this you’ll be hooked!

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Words

The first time I saw the aurora borealis, it might have been in the mid 80’s as an infant in a stroller, napping outside on a midwinter day as is common up here. Maybe it was as a toddler, curiously looking out the window one dark afternoon.

Since we can’t remember these things I’m going to say it was in the early 90’s, I would have been 6 or 7. 

My friends and I laying flat on our backs on a mountain of snow in the early afternoon. Exhausted from digging tunnels through the white gold all day. Feeling the cold air against our faces like a thousand tiny needles, hearing the squeaking and crunching of snow under boots passing by. 

We’re looking up at a starry sky between apartment buildings around us when something suddenly happens above. It’s almost as if music starts playing.

It’s not the kind of song you would hear on the radio, not a billboard hit to dance or sing along to. 

No, this is different.

This song is not heard, for this phenomenon is completely silent. This tune is experienced, felt only inside and this music is just for you.

Faint green veils flowing across the sky, building in brightness then fading again. Little patches of sky lighting up and fading, flickering, like the gentle tapping of keys by a brilliant piano player. 

It appears to take a deep breath before flaring up again, the soft green veils converge overhead and we know what’s coming.

In an instant the soft piano score turns into a symphony. The corona, spikes of pink and green electric light shooting out of the darkness overhead and I worriedly wonder if it could possibly reach us down there on top of our snow cave. 

It’s exhilarating and deeply soothing all at once.

Those are my first clear memories of seeing the aurora borealis, as a child outside playing during polar night in subarctic Kiruna, Sweden. 

I would look up in awe at the starry sky every chance I got during those childhood years, not having a clue what it was I was looking at. Not equipped to comprehend the sheer scale of it all. 

As I entered my teenage years the fascination had gradually turned to fear. 

Learning about the almost incomprehensible size of stars when we see them as the tiniest points of light in the sky, that scared me half to death. Trying to imagine the scale of the entire universe weighed heavy on my shoulders, who are we and what’s the point of us? Where does it all end, is there even an end? I knew that no one could answer these questions so they went unasked. They were kept deep inside in a little locked chest until that chest grew into a black hole that devoured me. I stopped looking at the night sky, my eyes were fixed on the ground when I had to be outside after dark.

A whole decade and plenty of therapy later, my eyes finally dared look up again and that childlike sense of wonder and fascination came right back. This time in a body better equipped to tackle the existential dread that had destroyed that little girl. This time with tools readily available for learning about all the things we see. Nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, meteors, the aurora – they were no longer frightening to me, with an understanding of the processes at work they became even more beautiful. 

I fell in love with the night sky all over again. 

Looking up at the aurora now, I know I’m watching our planet’s defense system at work. Our magnetic field, this invisible shield all around us, protecting us from the high energy particles in the solar wind beating down on our planet. As those particles travel along the magnetic field lines to the poles where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, we see the light show that is the aurora.

Without this invisible shield, we would be subject to a much, much higher rate of radiation down here on earth so what was once frightening is now comforting. 

The fear of the unknown has turned into relief, the starry sky into a weighted blanket. It’s ok not knowing everything, it’s even freeing. I no longer feel a need to know what our greater purpose is, for I don’t believe there is one. I now think it’s ok to be content with the thought that maybe it’s all just random. Perfectly chaotic but ordered by the laws of physics, everything continues to evolve whether there is a greater purpose or not. That’s the beauty of it all, this stunningly beautiful universe doesn’t care. 

There is nothing like watching the aurora dance against a backdrop of a million stars to put things in perspective. Our lives down here on earth are but dust in the wind but at the same time they are everything we’ll ever have. 

Many years have passed since I got the help I needed to let go of some of that existential dread. It was a long process of accepting that no one needs to know everything, I don’t need to know exactly when our universe will end. Knowing would not put me at ease or make me happier. I don’t need to search for a greater purpose of our existence, just like we don’t typically obsess over what the greater purpose of a slug might be.

The universe is vast, it’s unimaginably humongous, we will never see it all but the bits we zwei can see are mind blowing so why not spend as much time as possible enjoying the view. 

I still take the time to lay down on my back to watch the starry sky when I’m out photographing. It’s easy to be somewhat removed from the scene when you spend the whole time working with a camera. That’s why I make it a point to spend at least the same amount of time just enjoying the show as I do using my camera to capture it. 

These days I take every chance I get to stargaze, feeling like I need to make up for the years I missed. 

I started taking pictures of the night sky to preserve those memories forever, because every single night spent under the stars is special. I missed a decade of northern lights, I don’t want to miss any more, not a single display.

Living up here far north of the arctic circle is a luxury when it comes to that. Up here we don’t really need apps or forecasts to tell us if there will be aurora that night, we simply turn our lights off and look out the window. One might think that this commonality would desensitise a person to the wonder of the aurora but in my experience it’s quite the opposite. What I’ve learnt from so intensely watching the aurora for the last seven or so years is that it is ever changing. It’s never ever boring. Yes, the various shapes and structures of the aurora are well known, we know that we will probably see an arch of green or those flowing veils but that arch and those veils will never be the same as the ones we’ve seen before. 

It will never cease to amaze me when the sky above looks like a celestial ocean. Waves of green flowing overhead and you can see the stars through them like tiny organisms under the surface.

I’m afraid of the dark but the allure of the aurora draws me out alone into the night, once there I don’t feel alone. The aurora becomes a companion, it walks with you, talks with you. It fills you up, sometimes puts a tear in your eye from its beauty alone. A religious person would probably call it a spiritual experience, I call it a moment of the purest joy, true excitement, overflowing with childlike wonder, love. 

I wish I could give that back to the terrified teenager who was afraid to ask questions.

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Photoshopped!

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Brilliant aurora on a winter night

Can we ditch the term “photoshopped”?
What most people mean when they toss that word around is “manipulated”, an image far from what the photographer saw at the time, an image with elements removed or added in the editing process.

I shoot in RAW, as I’m certain a lot if not most photographers do.
When you shoot in RAW you get an unfinished picture. It will be lacking in contrast, saturation etc. It is up to you to process/edit it to get the final result you desire. This is often done in Lightroom or Photoshop with Camera RAW.
This is when you can make sure your final image reflects what your eyes saw or you can go crazy and create a true work of art nothing like what it really looked like.
Or anything in between.
This is entirely up to you and there are no rights or wrongs in art.

However…

If you’re producing journalistic photos you need to keep it real and true.
If you’re calling your work “nature photography”, well then you need to keep it natural. Don’t merge images taken at different locations at different times and call it a photograph.

Those of you who shoot in jpeg get a finished picture straight out of the camera but guess what? Those edits I mentioned are still made but they’re done in camera and decided for you by the people who made that camera.

When you choose one of the different “shooting styles” that many entry level cameras have, your camera sets everything for you. Doing this can produce pictures that are much more “unreal” than any RAW file heavily processed in Lightroom. (yes I’ve tried).
Many photographers will say “it’s natural, straight out of camera, not photoshopped!” when in fact your camera has done the “photoshopping” for you, basically slapped a filter on the picture and given you zero control over the final product.

You can manipulate the scene in camera when you shoot in RAW as well, of course.
Change the white balance to get weird colors, underexpose, overexpose, create motion blur, zoom in or out during the exposure etc.
Are those pictures entirely natural just because they came out of the camera like that?

GalaxySmallI created this starburst effect by slowly zooming in during a 30 second exposure.

And what is “natural”?
When you stand in a beautiful landscape watching the sunset, is the landscape in front of you pitch black? No?
Well if you take a photo and expose for the sky it will be.
Is that natural? Or is it a more natural result if you pull up the shadows in your RAW-file to show the foreground as you saw it. Or if you take three exposures of different lengths and merge them into an HDR image to show a much higher dynamic range, more in line with what your eyes actually saw.

2019-01-03_12-21-16sunset photo with the shadows pulled up in Lightroom

And then there’s those of us who also do astrophotography. Long exposures of the starry sky.
Our eyes will never see the bright colors in the Orion Nebula or the subtle colors of the Milky Way but our cameras do!
The information is there and our cameras capture it.

2018-09-04_02-32-20Single exposure of the Orion Nebula

A long exposure of the starry sky in a dark location will show many more stars than your eyes can see, straight out of camera with no editing at all. Is that “natural”?
To get a good photo of the Milky Way you absolutely have to do a lot of processing.

I just get so tired of seeing the phrase “photoshopped” thrown around when 90% of the time the person saying it doesn’t have a grasp of the meaning of it or the process.

If you really mean “manipulated” then say that and ask the photographer (politely) about their process. Any honest photographer would gladly answer. 🙂

If there’s any interest I’ll write a post about how I process my aurora photos!

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Aurora season coming to an end

67sThe dark skies of the arctic winter are gone, we are now moving fast into a long period of 24/7 daylight. This means that although the aurora still dances above, we can’t see it.

There will only be one single star visible in the arctic night sky all spring and summer, our sun. For us here in Kiruna the sun will stay above the horizon from late May until mid July. For a month or so before and after the midnight sun period, the sun does set but it stays too close to the horizon for us to get any darkness at night.

The midnight sun does make for some beautiful scenery though. The sun rolls over the horizon through the night before rising higher in the morning. This gives us that beautiful soft light for hours. Here it is shining over the mountain range as seen from the hill Luossavaara here in Kiruna.

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At the end of August we will finally be able to see a starry sky again! And those first nights of proper darkness are usually spectacular.

Autumn is generally a great time for aurora hunting. September/October come with pitch black night skies full of stars and dancing lights. This is the perfect time to capture the aurora over open water, before everything freezes over.

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That’s it for this Sunday morning!

I will try to update this blog every now and then with new photos and some info on how I captured them. I’ll also share some processing tips and maybe my favorite locations for aurora hunting up here around Kiruna.

Have an amazing day!