I’ve had a few messages recently asking for tips or advice on photographing the northern lights and thought this would make for a helpful blog.
I’ve had a lot of experience photographing the milky way and wrongly assumed it’d be a lift and shift for photographing the aurora so let’s begin there.
When photographing the milky way, we need to keep our exposure length controlled to avoid star trailing (ie 30” @ 15mm, 25” @20mm etc). Star trailing isn’t a concern for the aurora but exposure length is. I’ll explain below.
Aperture and ISO
The Milky way is usually dark and I find that an ISO from 1600 – 3200 is usually needed at a wide aperture of say f2.8.
The need for speed
The speed and adaptiveness needed for the aurora really caught me off guard. The aurora can change in an instant from a subtle green glow to giant super bright curtains dancing through the sky. I was shooting with the new Laowa 15mm f2 and chose the widest aperture to keep my ISO low.
Things began at f2, ISO 1600 and 30” but as the intensity of the aurora lifted I found my exposures were actually blowing out (crazy to think that could happen at night). At one point, I was at f2, ISO 200 (yes 200) and 20”.
Later that night I got the files onto the computer and realised my errors. Because I had ruled out the concern of star trailing I figured I could hold onto a longer shutter speed (30”) to keep my ISO nice and low. Unfortunately, when the aurora was at its best was when it was dancing through the sky and 20” – 30” was just too long to capture the form and shape of the curtains. Everything just blended in.
The next night started off much the same. A dim green glow which, in an instant would change to bright green curtains. This time, I kept my aperture at f2 but would roll between ISO 640 and ISO 800 to keep my exposure length at just a few seconds. This returned a far better shot with much more definition and form to the amazing shapes of the aurora.
Of-course this can all be changed in post but I do like to get an accurate idea of how things are looking in the field. I found a temperature of 2900k – 3200k worked really nicely.
In a few shots I found my foregrounds were out of focus or soft due to my wide aperture (f2). In these instances (and when time permitted) I would shoot a longer 3 - 5 minute exposure at around f5 and blend with the sky in post production.
Given the magnificence of the aurora is already so impressive I didn’t need to work on the shots in post much to get them to a point I was happy with. None-the-less I did play around a little and here’s a basic work flow that I found fairly effective.
I process my RAWS in ACR but this will be the same for those working in Lightroom or another similar raw converter.
In Photoshop I’d add additional cyan but that’s a personal choice. You’ll notice my aurora shots aren’t as green as others, that’s from this adjustment.
I would also add additional contrast.
Finally, in some images I noticed the aurora to be particularly bright in one part of the sky and non-existent in another. In these instances that resulted in the dark starry parts of the sky having a blue tinge from the white balance and Cyan adjustments applied for the aurora. To address this, I would add another adjustment layer, desaturate the entire image and mask back in the aurora, leaving the dark sky nice and dark / black.