Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Hi there Friends!
This tutorial will be about night photography in general but in biggest focus on Aurora Borealis shooting.
All the advices and recomendations are based on my experience, since 6 years I am living in Norway and every autumn and winter I am hunting for these magical lights.
Hope You will find the informations useful for You and You will enjoy the presented works.
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Photo Camera – here the thing is simple – if You want to get the best quality of images, You have to think about Full Frame (FF) camera. Quick explanation – in night photography we have to use high ISO values to catch all the available light. Higher ISO value is generating image distraction called "noise". Because in compact cameras physical sensor size is much smaller than 35mm, it generates much more noise in the process than FF cameras. It is possible to catch Aurora with all the cameras, but the quality will not be the best... or even won't be good. Every camera with Manual Settings of exposition can do the trick, but about settings- in other part of the Tutorial.
Lenses – main rules is – the brighter, the better. Lower values means that the lens is able to send more light inside the camera body on the sensor. Brighter lens means that we can use shorter time of exposure, lower ISO value and catch more details on the sky – overall, quality is going up like crazy ;). The problem is the price – but the money is quite individual matter so I won't talk much about it.
Other aspect we have to focus on is focal length of the lens. For the northern lights, which sometimes appear on the whole sky at once – wider = better. BUT in my opinion all "fish eye" type lenses gives very unnatural distortions and personally I do not reccomend it for photography – always better to shoot panoramas than this, it is only my opinion and if You like this kind of images – You have right to do so ;).
Examples of perfect lenses :
for Canon – Canon Lens 16-35mm f2,8 would be perfect
for Nikon – Nikkor 14-24mm f2,8 even better!
Most important thing is a Tripod! Without it, You have almost no chances of shooting Aurora. You can use the ground, rocks, bushes, backpack to stabilize the camera but believe me, after coming back home and checking the photos on big screen – 99% of them will be soft and moved. I know, because I had some situations where I founs myself in the middle of Aurora show without proper Tripod. Really big pain.
About Tripod – must be stable! So heavy tripod or the ones we can make havier by hanging on backpacks below – are the best. Shooting Aurora means shooting outdoor, many times by the sea or lake, in the mountains, where You will experience all kinds of weather. When You use exposure time like a few seconds – even the weak wind and movement can destroy the sharpness of stars. All kinds of Tripods can do the trick when use properly.
Another thing which is not maybe necessary, but gives You more comfort when shooting is remote shutter release for the camera. The one with the cable is enough. If You want to invest more money – You can buy better stuff with electronic screen, timer and many other settings. BUT remeber- electronic needs battery, if You are shooting in winter time, be prepared and always have buckup batteries in Your pockets. I am using remote electronic shutter release and as a backup always have my old cable remote ready.
EXTRA TIPS: If You are going out for night shooting always remember about light source – all the head lights are the most handy. Always have extra batteries – for the camera, Your light source and shutter relaser if used. I won't even mention about proper clothes, extra rain cover and spikes on shoes – because there is nothing worse than dropping the gear and fall to the sea during night shooting, believe me (and NO, this never happend to me ;)). Just one more – something tasty and hot in thermos and You are ready to go!
All the settings in the camera we should make at home, or a car, before we go out on the dark, windy, cold outside. One reason is that we won't waste our time and we won't forget about details which can destroy Your hard work, when Aurora is starting to dance – all You want to do is to start shooting, not thinking about picking the right buttons and choosing the right settings. Other reason of that is a fact, that some settings of the camera are very universal for night shooting. If we are back from day time outdoor trip, before we go out, some things simply must be done!
Preparation of the camera:
Be sure that Your batteries are fully loaded. Long time exposures and working outside in low temperatures will eat the energy fast!
Put Your best lens already on the camera, or, If You prefer to transport camera without lens mounted to body, make sure it is ready, clean and TAKE OFF all the filters from your lens. The only filter You can use in that conditions are UV filters to safe the lens glass from scratching or getting too wet. It is much easier to clean the UV filter than to clean and dry out lens glass.
Be sure You have Tripod ready. If You are going to shoot from slippy rocks or frozen lake – spikes for the tripod legs and on Your shoes can save Your equipment and Your life maybe...
Check Your lens buttons – set to Manual Focus, set Stabilization to OFF – You will shoot from a tripod so it won't help You (in long time exposures, stabilization can destroy the sharpness, I am not sure why it is happening, but in my case, I had bad experiences with this, so now I just put all stabilizations to OFF and have no more problems.)
Let's get back to the point of the post, Settings of the camera You can choose at home:
All settings should be MANUAL – White Balance, ISO, Exposure Time, Aperture, Focus on Lens. Set the image mode shooting to RAW (much more options in post production to remove the noise, taken out details from shadows etc etc)
WHITE BALANCE (WB) – set it to around 3200K – north lights can have a lot of different colours in it, so this should be re-checked on place, comparing to what You see in real life. For myself, I always try to catch the colours like they are in real – WB is one of the most important setting for this purpose. AUTO WB can do the good job ....sometimes... so You can face the situation that in one photo You will have nice and natural colours, on the other shot they will be very cold and unnatural, because Auto WB will try to choose it depending of the situation, and believe me, the situation on the sky when Aurora is shining, changing sometimes very fast. Also remember, that if You are shooting in RAW, You will have possibility to work with white balance during post processing in CameraRaw software for example.
ISO – With this setting You will have to work also on place, depending of how bright the Aurora will be, depending of how long You will want to expose Your shot. You can set the ISO to 2000 at the beginning. In real life shooting I am using various ISO settings – from 1000 – which gives a nice quality of the image (low noise) but demand longer exposure times, to ISO 5000 – to catch the Milky Way shapes or details of fast moving lights.
Exposure Time – The second main setting we will work with on the place, depending of the situation or desired effect. During night shooting I am working on times from 2-3 seconds for fast moving lights up to 30 sec. To catch the Milky Way or weak Auroras. Now important question – why not to use 40 seconds, or maybe 2 minutes of exposure? Well, If You want to see the stars as a short lines – do so, but If You have the stars as a dots, like in real life – Use maximum 30 seconds of exposure (for a 16mm lens) or even shorter times if You have lenses like 24mm or 35mm. There is a calculation You can make to learn the maximum exposure time for Your focal length, but I never used the calculations, I dont like to calculate being outdoors, I like to experience ;).
APERTURE – here the rule is simple, always use lowest possible value, which means Your lens will be opened as wide as it can. As I already tell in previous part of the tutorial – the brighter lens, the better quality and details. F4.0 – I am using this one with good results as You can see on the photos. F2.8 – f1,8 – crazy good!
Focus on lens – always set manual to infinity – but it doesnt mean that You have to set the macimum value. With f4.0 this can be little closer than infinity, best way to check how Your lens is working with that – try to set the sharpness on brightest possible object – can be the star, can be the moon, can be some distant lights. And If You dont have posibility to block the correct setting – check it many times during night shooting as it could changed during moving the camera or by accident. Good TIP – You can use sticky tape (duct tape) to block the focal ring of Your lens – can do the trick!
Hope these few tricks and a pack of advices will help You to improve the night photography and, if You will go somewhere north - in Aurora Borealis shooting.
I am organizing photographic workshops in Norway, where one of the subject is Aurora hunting in Lofoten Islands and Senja - if You wan't to experience live hunting for Northern Lights - let me know or check the list of nearest workshops.
Hope We can meet personally in future and shoot some green light together!
Thanks for reading and have a great day!
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