Shooting the northern lights

 Svolvear Aurora - Sony A7R2, 15mm Laowa f2, ISO 640, 8seconds

Svolvear Aurora - Sony A7R2, 15mm Laowa f2, ISO 640, 8seconds

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.

 

Milky Way

Exposure length.

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.

 

Aurora

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”.

 When the Aurora is peaking and moving in curtains, 30 seconds will blend and blur the definition and form. 

When the Aurora is peaking and moving in curtains, 30 seconds will blend and blur the definition and form. 

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.

 

White Balance

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. 

Foregrounds

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. 

 

Post Production

Raw conversion

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. 

 

   
  
   
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    Pull the highlights down a little to control the hot points

Pull the highlights down a little to control the hot points

 Add about 10 points of contrast.

Add about 10 points of contrast.

   
  
   
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    Boost the whites between around 35 – 55 points.

Boost the whites between around 35 – 55 points.

   
  
   
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    Add additional clarity (12 – 20).

Add additional clarity (12 – 20).

 Add additional vibrancy (5-10).

Add additional vibrancy (5-10).

   
  
   
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  Add luminance with the Green, Aqua and Blue HSL sliders.

Add luminance with the Green, Aqua and Blue HSL sliders.

   
  
   
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   EN-GB 
   X-NONE 
   X-NONE 
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
  
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
  
   
 
 /* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
	mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
	mso-style-noshow:yes;
	mso-style-priority:99;
	mso-style-parent:"";
	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
	mso-para-margin:0cm;
	mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
	mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
	font-size:12.0pt;
	font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif;
	mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-fareast-language:EN-US;}
 
  Add a Dehaze adjustment of around 6-8 points.

Add a Dehaze adjustment of around 6-8 points.

   
  
   
   96 
  
    
  
   Normal 
   0 
   
   
   
   
   false 
   false 
   false 
   
   EN-GB 
   X-NONE 
   X-NONE 
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
  
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
  
   
 
 /* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
	mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
	mso-style-noshow:yes;
	mso-style-priority:99;
	mso-style-parent:"";
	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
	mso-para-margin:0cm;
	mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
	mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
	font-size:12.0pt;
	font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif;
	mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-fareast-language:EN-US;}
 
    Use the adjustment brush to pull back the whites on any hot points of the aurora curtain (the exposure can vary greatly). Try to pull back the white level before pulling back the highlight as the highlights will results in an uneven look with the rest of the wave. 

Use the adjustment brush to pull back the whites on any hot points of the aurora curtain (the exposure can vary greatly). Try to pull back the white level before pulling back the highlight as the highlights will results in an uneven look with the rest of the wave. 

Photoshop

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.