Collin J Örthner – Photographer

January 20, 2012

Aurora Borealis (and how to capture them)

Filed under: Documentary, Movement, Nature, Night, Skyscape, Storms, Trees — Tags: — collin j örthner @ 6:21 am

Well, you could use a jar, but the effort and expense necessary sort of negates ones goals. Butterfly nets are OK too, but again usually only for small insects fluttering around within about the first 3m or so of terra firma. So how do we capture the aurora borealis then which occur just slightly higher than 3m in elevation?  I like to use a camera! Not only do I capture them, but I can enjoy them over and over again by simply making a nice print and hanging it on my wall. This is especially great when, after  the 11 year sun cycle is at a low, and the chances of experiencing them first hand is rather remote. So, what sorts of things do we need to know in order to go out and capture these amazing displays?

Lets start off with your camera. Ideally you want a camera that has very good high ISO performance. Typically these are the full-frame SLR’s such as the Canon 5DmkII or Nikon D700 etc. The reason for this is that each pixel is much larger than with a camera with maybe the same amount of pixels which must cram them into a smaller sensor. Because each pixel needs power and a certain percentage of each pixel site must be dedicated to delivering power to that pixel, there just isn’t enough space left to capture light and we end up with far “noisier” or “grainier” images. I will be talking about the 5DmkII as that is the camera I am using. Keep in mind that just because your camera has a smaller sensor that you can’t capture images of aurora, you can, it’s just there are some limitations. I say go out and try, and if nothing else you will have enjoyed seeing one of the most spectacular natural phenomena’s nature has to provide!

OK, so we know which camera to bring along. What do we do with it to best capture these amazing lights? Because the aurora, at least when the storm is near it’s peak, are moving and pulsing very rapidly, it is necessary to use as short an exposure as is possible in order to record the fine wisps and curtains being observed without blurring them together, which makes them look like a solid curtain of colour. This is caused by the sensor capturing all the movement during your exposure and doesn’t show off your experience to it’s fullest.

Use as high an ISO as you can and still retain a decent quality in your images. I was using ISO 2000 for these images. If you shoot in RAW it is quite simple to remove the noise, although I find that leaving a bit of the noise in my images keeps an aesthetically pleasing reality to them. Anyways, thats me and not you, Use your luminance slider in your RAW converter to your hearts content! High ISO is only part of what’s important. You will also require a fast lens, and when I say fast, I mean really fast, as in the smallest f-number you can afford, such as F1.4, f2.0, even up to f2.8. That said I would only use a “slow” lens like f2.8 if I can shoot it wide open and still retain great quality right into the corners. Many(most) lenses don’t perform all that well  wide open let alone off into the far reaches of the corners of your images! I use the Zeiss ZE 21mm f2.8 which is likely one of the best super-wide angle lenses you can get, just be prepared for the sticker shock as it is not inexpensive. But, it can be used wide open. Sigma also makes some fine wide and super-wide lenses like the 20mm, 24mm and 28mm all with an incredibly fast  f1.8 aperture. Remember what I just said about how some lenses aren’t great wide open – you need to stop these down a couple stops to f2.8 to get your corners sharp. The reason I keep talking about wide and super-wide lenses is just that you need them to capture the huge spectacle that the aurora are. They can easily cover the sky from horizon to horizon as the following image shows. This is a multi image stitch that covers 180 degrees of sky!

Both Canon and Nikon also make high speed prime lenses, such as their 24mm f1.4 lenses. I haven’t mentioned tripod yet, but obviously this type of photography will be impossible without one. You will also be wise to bring a remote so you don’t induce any vibrations in your images from the force used to press the shutter release. You can get around this if your camera has no remote capabilities quite easily. All you need to do is use your self timer which will give you anywhere from 2-10 seconds of delay after pressing the shutter release before the shutter fires.

Your autofocus will not be able to handle this situation, and don’t assume that by racking the focus ring as far as it goes in the direction of the infinity mark that you will in fact be focused at infinity. In fact you most likely will not, and the way to fix the problem is to use the liveview function on your camera. By using this function you can see exactly what your camera is seeing. If your camera has the capability, zoom the preview while in the liveview mode as far as you can and focus on a bright light of a distant farmyard or the moon or a planet if your camera can pick one up. Then be extremely careful not to bump the focus ring and by all means don’t leave your camera in AF as it will just lose your hard earned focus point as soon as you touch the shutter button.

Do your best to find a spot 15-20 km away from any major light sources so the sky is plenty dark. All the images above were made on a night with a very bright moon and so the foreground was well lit which showed up well in the photographs. Of course your foregrounds will not show up this way if the moon is in sliver phase(I’m sure there is a proper term for this phase, but you know what I mean). On a night without much moonlight keep your images interesting by incorporating something to silhouette against the sky and aurora. A road sign, tree, windmill, whatever you happen to have close at hand. Don’t hesitate to shoot when the show is on as sometimes it is very short lived. All the above images were made in under ten minutes and the show was over.

I think that covers most of the photography parts of capturing aurora borealis images, but there is still more to think about before you head out. Usually the aurora occur in and around the spring and fall equinox’s, but can occur almost anytime. Unless you are in the middle of summer and it’s warm out, you will want to prepare for cooler temperatures. In fact, many of the best times to photograph aurora occur in winter which comes along with a decidedly cooler bent to the weather. This means you need to dress appropriately! By appropriately, I mean dress in layers and lots of them. You will mostly be standing still and your body will cool down very quickly when not active. Proper foot ware and something warm to cover your head are extremely important and not to be ignored. It wouldn’t hurt to carry along a foamy and some heavy duty sleeping bags if you want to just spread them out and lay down to simply enjoy the show. A few snacks and plenty of hot coffee or hot chocolate would make the whole experience far more tolerable. A small flashlight will come in super handy and better yet bring one that has a red gel in front of the lens so your night vision isn’t compromised. And lastly some duct tape, no real reason, but the stuff is handy and you never know when you might need some.

Go with a friend or two and be sure you have a cell phone just in case. Enjoy the show!

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