Northern Lights, getting exposed in the dark
January 16, 2014
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - One of the great opportunities of living in Alaska is to see, first-hand, the aurora borealis, or northern lights. It's definitely something to write home about or even better, to show family and friends online. Here are a few tips that may help get you within the proverbial, celestial ballpark of night-sky photography.
First, you must be able to create a motionless photograph; while a long exposure is taking place, the camera should not move.
Handheld night photography is best with flash and close objects.
A tripod is a must, but even if you don't have one don't let that stop you. A bag of dried beans or rice stuffed inside in an extra stocking cap or sock will work great as a camera stabilizer. Set a bean-filled bag on any stable surface, such as a car hood, lawn chair or mailbox, anything that won't move or sway during an exposure will work.
It is best if the camera can be manually set. The ability to set the shutter speed, aperture, focusing and ISO settings provides the best results for capturing low-light scenes.
Some newer automatic cameras have programmed low-light settings which could allow for a successful aurora photo, so it wouldn't hurt to give it a try and experiment with a camera's automatic shooting programs.
Once the camera is securely fixed atop a tripod or safely nestled on a bag of beans, try a starting exposure at 30 seconds, 5.6 or 8 f stop (aperture) and an ISO of 400 or higher. From that setting, depending on the intensity of the aurora's glow and movement, adjustments can be made to the speed or aperture to brighten or darken the next image captured.
Check the LCD screen. If the image is too dark and the aurora doesn't show very well, try a longer exposure (shutter setting) or lower aperture number.
If the image is too light or lacks vivid colors, shorten the exposure time or raise the aperture number.
Lastly, if the images are still too dark, the ISO number can be raised in increments. Note that the higher the ISO number, the "grainier" the images may become.
When shooting the aurora, find an area to shoot from that is out of the direct light from street lights, passing cars or building lights.
Every aurora is different in size, intensity, movement and color. Starting out with a basic setting allows quick changes in a timely manner. The northern lights can change slowly and the camera's settings may work for many exposures, but as the intensity of the lights may grow or diminish, exposure settings may have to be changed often.
Reviewing captured images frequently in the LCD viewer will help in determining exposure changes.
A good practice is to have a notebook to jot down observations of the scene to compare how the images turn out with different camera settings. This will help you better understand what to expect the next time. Also take into consideration that digital cameras save various types of information with image files, not only time and date, but also information about apertures, shutter speeds, ISOs and other camera settings.
Keep in mind that the aurora happens hundreds of miles above the earth, so where to direct your focus is important. Some of the best aurora shots are made with interesting foregrounds in them: cabins, trees, lakes and even people. It's a hard decision to make on just where to focus in your scene and autofocus usually can't or incorrectly determines the focus point -- manual is the way to go.
Being out with the right equipment, at the right time, and photographing the aurora is to be considered luck. But as to not always count on luck, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute's aurora activity forecast webpage is an excellent source to gauge when the possibilities are good for an aurora opportunity. The web page can be found at www.gedds.alaska.edu/auroraforecast/.
Alaska scenery is a photographer's paradise, especially when the lights are out.