Tips on how to chase and photograph Aurora Lights

Aurora Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights dance across the sky is a truly unforgettable experience, but it’s important to remember that it is not a guaranteed occurrence. 

How to prepare

To increase your chances of seeing this natural wonder, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Pick the right location: The Northern Lights are most visible in areas near the Earth’s poles, such as Norway, Canada, Russia, and Iceland. It is sometimes possible to see it in Denmark and even Poland, but that rarely happens.
  2. Plan your trip around peak viewing times: The Northern Lights are most active during the equinoxes, which occur around September and March but also happens throughout the winter.
  3. Check the forecast: Use an aurora forecast app or website to check the level of geomagnetic activity, which can indicate the likelihood of an aurora display. The higher the KP index, the better. The index ranges from 0 for low activity to 9, which means an intense geomagnetic storm is underway. But you might be lucky to see them when the index is already 4 or greater. My aurora forecast app is called “My Aurora Forecast Pro“. The high KPI is not the only indicator, and you might be able to see aurora even with a low KPI. We need a couple of other things to come together: Solar wind (preferably over 400 km/sec), Density (preferably over 20 p/cm3), and Interplanetary Magnetic Field (preferably over Bt 6 nT). In addition, we need a southerly magnetic field (around -5 Nt). Lastly, we need a clear sky! To check those stats, head to: https://www.spaceweatherlive.com
  4. Avoid light pollution: The Northern Lights are best viewed in areas with low light pollution, so try to find a location away from city lights.
  5. Be patient: The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and can be unpredictable. It may take some time for the aurora to appear, and no one can say how long it will last, so be patient and enjoy the experience.
  6. Dress warmly and be prepared to spend time outside: The Northern Lights are best viewed in the open, and you may have to be out for a while in the cold weather. I use portable hand warmers, thermal underwear, and skiing pants with a skiing jacket. Bring some warm tea with you and something to sit on.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can increase your chances of experiencing the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. But always keep in mind that it’s a natural occurrence, and even if you don’t see it, you could be able to experience other beautiful things in nature and have a great time.

Taking pictures with a phone

Capturing the Northern Lights on a mobile phone is possible, but the results can vary depending on the strength of the aurora and the quality of your phone’s camera. Keep in mind that the results may not be as good as a professional camera.

To increase your chances of getting a good shot, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Use the night mode: Most modern smartphones have a night mode feature that allows you to take photos with prolonged exposure. This will help to capture more light, making it easier to photograph the Northern Lights.
  2. Use a tripod or other stabilizer: Taking pictures of the Northern Lights with a handheld phone can be difficult due to the low light conditions and the need for a longer exposure time. A tripod or other stabilizer will help to keep your phone steady and reduce camera shake. That being said, my boyfriend was taking pictures handheld, and they looked good enough for a phone picture.
  3. Use manual focus: If your autofocus has trouble focusing in low light conditions, switch to manual focus to ensure sharp images. T
  4. Experiment with different camera settings: Many smartphones have a manual camera mode that allows you to adjust the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. Try different settings and see what works best for your phone.
  5. Take multiple shots: The Northern Lights are constantly changing, so be sure to take numerous photos to increase your chances of capturing the perfect image.

PS. Pictures were taken by my boyfriend on his OnePlus 8Pro phone

Taking pictures with a camera

For breathtaking images of the aurora borealis, use a camera with a good lens. The right equipment can make all the difference in capturing the northern lights’ vibrant colors and ethereal beauty. 

When shooting at night, don’t forget the importance of a lens with a low f-stop. A lower f-stop number indicates a wider aperture, allowing more light to enter the camera and capture the scene more clearly. This is particularly crucial for night photography, where lighting conditions can be challenging.

The setup I had when I was taking the pictures: 📷 Nikon 750, 🔎 Tamron 24-70 f2.8, 🔭 PeakDesign Travel Tripod with ISO: 400-1000, F: 2.8,⏱️ 20”-25”

Here are some tips for taking pictures of the Northern Lights:

  1. Use a tripod: The Northern Lights are best captured when using a long exposure, which means you’ll need a stable base to keep your camera steady. Make sure your tripod is standing stable, and the wind will not blow it away with your camera (Not fun when your camera crashes on a rock:P )
  2. Set a low ISO: For crisp, noise-free images, set your camera’s ISO to the lowest setting possible. Aim as low as possible, and if necessary, increase it only to the minimum required to achieve a well-exposed image. Ideally, you want to avoid going beyond ISO 3200, as this is where noise in your photos becomes more noticeable.
  3. Use manual focus: Autofocus may have trouble focusing in low light conditions, so it’s best to use manual focus to ensure sharp images. The tricky part is to manually set a lens to take a sharp picture when it is dark outside, and your eyesight is not perfect (and you left your glasses somewhere). I have marked my lens in a spot where I can achieve a sharp image. If I am lucky and can spot a light source in the distance (bright star, moon, street light), I try to automatically focus on that spot and then turn focus to manual.
  4. Use a wide aperture: A wide aperture (low f-stop number) will allow more light into your camera and help you capture the aurora in all its glory. My lens goes to 2.8, which is passable, but I would like to buy one that goes below 2 at some point. 
  5. Experiment with different shutter speeds: Shutter speed plays a significant role in capturing the Northern Lights, so try experimenting with different speeds to find the best settings for your camera. The longer shutter is open; the more motion is captured. Sometimes you might want to have a shorter shutter speed and higher ISO instead.
  6. Use a cable release or self-timer: To avoid a camera shake, use a cable release or self-timer to trigger the camera’s shutter. The slight movement when you press the button to take a picture might be enough to ruin your shot. 
  7. Avoid camera shake: If you have a slide/leash on your camera, take it off. If it is windy, the leash might make the camera shake. I have a removable slide from PeakDesign that allows me to detach it in seconds. Shield the camera with your body if the wind is strong.
  8. Try to capture foreground elements: To add depth and interest to your photos, try including foreground elements such as trees or buildings in your shots.
  9. Take multiple shots: Since the Northern Lights are constantly changing, be sure to take multiple photos to increase your chances of capturing the perfect shot.
  10. Bring a headlamp: It will be dark, and you will try to change settings a lot. It is way easier to do if you have a headlamp.
  11. Don’t shine light if you see other photographers around: There is nothing more irritating than having your shot ruined after a couple of hours of standing in a cold, freezing place because someone didn’t turn off the light. Trust me 😛

Night photography and aurora require a bit of patience, so be prepared to spend some time experimenting with different settings and compositions before getting the perfect shot. I still need to improve at it, but at the same time, I have a lot of fun sitting and stargazing while waiting for the camera to take a picture!

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