Aurora photography gear

Although in a previous post it was explained in general about what you need to have to be able to make photos of Aurora Borealis, here is a more specific post about the right equipment.

1. Cameras
– DSLR
– Analog (take high sensitive film – ISO 400 or up)
– Point and shoot (if suitable for long exposures and higher than ISO 200)

Cameras

2. Spare batteries for your digital cameras. The more the better as you never know with the cold. It can really drain battery power fast. One additional tip. Always the spares keep them in your clothes so they will be as warm as possible. Also the ones that will be emptied because of the cold (doesn’t mean that they are not usable until recharged) put them inside the clothes after a while at warm their energy will come back.

Batteries

3. Battery chargers – without them you can’t go out again to make photos the next night     Chargers

4. Tripod – as sturdy as possible to be resilient to wind, but as most travel by plane you need to make some weight and bulk assessments, so see what suits you best. It is always a possibility to place your camera on some self-made ground or objects near by that can act as a tripod. Please note that the plastic parts of the tripod can become very brittle under cold conditions, and may break easily.

tripod

5. Lenses – for those that will carry DSLR and analog cameras. The best is some wide angle lenses with fast aperture.

Lens

6. Memory cards – the digital cameras wont work without them. Depending on how much you plan to shoot take as much as you need. Of course there are always computers where you can transfer the photos and make free space on your cards.

Memory

7. Remote control shutter release – really useful not to move your cameras while making long exposure shots. They can come in different varieties – wireless (only for cameras that have that kind of option) or cable. Also you can have an intervalometer (the one on the right) good for making time-lapse photography as you can set the exposure timing and intervals between exposures and leave it to the camera to do the rest

Remote

Of course bring with you your good mood and a smile on your face, no matter how cold and dark it is 🙂

How to make great Aurora photos?

Here is a simple tutorial on how to make a photo of an aurora and what do you need? As for start first I have to explain the basic.

What is the Aurora?

Auroras, sometimes called the northern and southern lights are natural light displays in the sky, particularly in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere). The charged particles originate in the magnetosphere and solar wind and, on Earth, are directed by the Earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. In order to see an Aurora, one usually needs a dark sky (no bright moon, no city lights) and relatively clear weather. Auroras usually occur near the magnetic poles of the Earth and by the statistics most often during the equinoxes.  The auroral zone is typically 10° to 20° from the magnetic pole defined by the axis of the Earth’s magnetic dipole.

There are 3 most important things that you need for making photos of aurora, so I will try to stick and explain more about them, but also include other “less” important stuff that you need to take with you.

  1. Tripod;
  2. Camera (much better to have some DSLR) and mostly I will speak about this cameras;
  3. Wide angle lens.

Photo by: Remco Timmermans

Tripod

The main requirement is a tripod.  Your exposures will be at least 10 seconds but mostly even more, there is no way to hand hold the camera and get decent results without blurring the phtoo. It is preferred to have a sturdy tripod that you can easily operate and won’t make vibrations due to ground movement or wind. Of course this kind of tripods are much more difficult to transport, especially since everybody will come by plane, so the best recommendation is to have a normal tripod, but fairly stable and easy to transport in the baggage and also around where we will go to make the photos. Don’t take the small pocket tripods as they are not suitable for DSLR cameras and usually require an elevated position to put them on, so you will be able to look through the viewfinder.

Cameras

Any good DSLR that is capable of relatively low noise long exposures will work well for the task. Many other digital cameras will work as well. If you’re not sure if your camera will suffice, take it outside at night and take a few tests photos with exposures at ISO 1600 or more (if your camera has) and make an exposure of around 30 sec. Pretty much all DSLRs on the market are known to work well for long exposures.

Lenses

Wide angle lens technically refers to anything under 50mm of focal length. Essentially this is what enables you more field of view when you look through the viewfinder or LCD screen of your camera.

It is possible to work with 50mm but I recommend having a lens that has a focal length of 35mm or less. You also want to use the fastest wide angle lens you own.  Most consumer wide angle zoom lenses are f/3.5 or f/4.0. A f/2.8 or f/2.4 is much better, but not everybody has this ,let’s say, professional photo gear, so any kind of wide lens will be ok.  If you still have an old 50mm prime lens laying around, dig it out – it will probably be the fastest lens you own.  The problem with a 50mm lens is that it isn’t wide enough to capture the full band in most auroras.  Serious aurora photographers usually own at least one f/1.4 wide angle prime lens.  These can be somewhat expensive, and very specialized.

Now to explain why it is good to have a fast, wide angle lens? Auroras usually last for longer periods (minutes, hours) so even with a slower lens and longer exposures you will get it on your camera. The trick here is to catch the fine details that occur in the auroras due to the magnetic field. The faster the exposure the less blurred this details will be. Of course, sometimes also longer exposures can get the beauty out of the aurora. So don’t despair. If auroras will be on the sky and you have some DSLR camera for sure you will catch it.

Photo by: Remco Timmermans

Focusing your shots

One of the first things you need to do. Forget auto focus once you start photographing in the darkness. It is time to set your focus on ‘M’ for manual setting. The subjects you will be shooting are too dark for the auto-focus to detect them. Since you main subject will be the very distant aurora then you need to set your focus on infinity. This is done by either having lens that has a really accurate focus scale or better to focus on infinity during daylight and mark that setting on your lens with a pen.

In some cases you will have distant bright subjects visible from where you shoot such has distant farm house, the moon or some other artificial light. You can point your camera towards this light and use auto-focus to focus on it. After your camera has focused switch your lens back to manual and use this setting. Be careful not to touch your focus ring or to tilt your lens to much downwards as this can change the focus setting. After you shoot your first shots make the focus check if it is accurate on your camera preview of the image. Nothing is more frustrating than a series of great but out of focus images. Believe me about that. You do a lot of photos in the night and when you see them on the computer they are out of focus. Every astro-photographer has got this treatment at some point of his life.

Shutter Speed

The idea behind using a fast lens is to reduce the shutter speed by as much as possible.  Auroras can have lots of interesting details in their bands and rays, but these details are largely lost with exposures in excess of 30 seconds – the wonderful color is still there, but longer exposures turns the details in to blobs of colors.

Exposure

So you are almost set up: you have a tripod, lens opened all the way, ISO set high, focus at infinity – now you are ready to start shooting.  Probably should start at about a 20 second exposure and adjust from there based upon what I’m seeing on the histogram.  Exposures can really vary widely depending on the brightness of the aurora and moon. The proper value depends on your camera/lens performance and the light that it will get from the aurora, moon or any artificial light.

Moon Light

Speaking of the moon, a moon lit night can be very helpful at lighting up the surrounding countryside so it will create better composition possibilities. It is much better when you have not to many contrast in lightness between the landscape and the sky.  But the problem of the Moon is that reduces the beauty of the aurora due to the light. During our trip the Moon should not so much intervene with our aurora search since the events are set to be when the moon is in the lover fazes.

Composition

Too many Aurora images focus too much on the Aurora display itself. There are a lot of Aurora images out there so to make your image stand out you will need to add interest to it by having something interesting in the foreground. Including a mountain, tree or other subject matter can help aurora photos.  It is nice to have a reference point for scale.  Experiment, horizontal and vertical, include the moon and leave it out, including the surroundings, even shoot straight up, anything goes.

Other useful tips

Be aware that usually when you want to make photos of the aurora you need to go in the middle of the night in some frozen landscape at the far north or the far south so you will need good winter clothes. We will be in Finland in the middle of winter. Still haven’t been there, but my guess is that you can expect temperatures of -15 to -30 even -40 degrees centigrade during the night. Dressing warm is essential. And get yourself mentally prepared to wait out the night. I have spent a lot of nights under the sky, and even in summer at southern European latitudes as it is in Macedonia you are starting to get cold, so winter conditions are on the extreme. If you get cold try to move as much as possible to better your blood circulation. Good winter boots are critical. Make sure they do not fit tight. They should have a substantial base depth to them since you are often standing on cold ground in one place for long periods. In my experience the cold first gets from your feet, so the better insulation you have for your feet the better.

If you have a remote shutter for your camera it is also good to take it. Prevents camera shake and allows for exposures in excess of 30 seconds. (Some wireless remotes only offer exposure options of 30 seconds. Make sure to check the version you have if you plan on using a wireless remote).

Batteries. Your camera will be out in the cold. Cold reduces the battery capacity by few times. Have a few batteries at your disposal. Keep on warm inside your pocket the spare ones. Not to drain out the batteries a good practice is to have at least 2 and to switch them once you see the one you are using gets to the low levels. During you are shooting with the other one warm the other as much as possible.

Almost every DSLR has a built in noise reduction setting. Should you use it? My recommendation is not. There are some nice programs that can get the noise level really down on your long exposure files. What does the noise reduction setting do, is taking another exposure with the same time as your previous with just the curtain down. During this time you can miss some interesting detail in the Aurora. Also you can make dark frames before or after you finish shooting with the same exposure as your light (aurora) photos and after use them to take the noise out. Also try to shoot in RAW (uncompressed file) as will give you more opportunities to process the photos later.

Suggested Camera Settings (as mentioned before this can vary a lot)

RAW mode
Daylight White Balance
ISO 800
Lowest F value you have. If F/4.0, 30-40 seconds or F/2.8, 10-15 seconds
Histogram enabled
Low LCD brightness

Of course this are some predetermined good values, but there can be lots of variables that can change so you will have to readjust the camera values. Today’s cameras have one advantage than the old SLR (analog) cameras that you can see the photo just after you take it and if you are not satisfied with the results you can adjust the settings and take another shot.

Photo by: Remco Timmermans

Note about the point and shoot cameras

While it is not impossible to photograph the aurora with a little point and shoot digital camera, it is challenging indeed. The models are constantly changing, and perhaps in the near future it will become easier. A few of the basic limitations of most point and shoot cameras are:

If you have camera with some advanced features, read your manual and see if it looks usable for aurora. You want:

400 ISO, preferably 800 or higher
Bulb mode
Manual focus option
Self timer release
Wide angle lens

Hope this will help you to prepare your photo gear for the trip to Finland. Of course there will be additional photo lectures and at the spot practice to make sure that you will get the best possible results of your aurora shots with the camera gear you have.

If you have any additional questions or some uncertainties you can contact me on martincco@gmail.com – @martincco on Twitter
or Remco on aurora@expeditionfactory.com – @TimmermansR on Twitter

The thrill of Aurora watching

Have you ever been to Santa’s land? Have you ever seen a giant frozen lake in the middle of winter? Have you ever experienced long winter night under a clear night sky? Have you ever wished to see an Aurora? Here is your chance to have a completely unforgetting experience of the dark night sky.

Everybody has seen a lot of pictures from a “strange” light that overwhelms the sky from time to time, but not a lot of people have a chance to view it in person from the place of the event. Why is that? Because Auroras (polar lights) are usually happening around the Earth’s poles, areas that are not so populated, due to the harsh and cold weather or to the ocean that is there. For the Auroras (Borealis – the Northers polar lights and Australis – the Southern polar lights) to be visible from a more populated places the energy and radiation coming from the Sun has to be enormus when it hits the Earth’s magnetic field.

Poster of aurora borealis images. Source; Wikipedia

Auroras are the result of charged particles of the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s upper atmosphere – the ionosphere. The charged particles from the Sun interact with the atmospheric particles and are funneled down and accelerated along the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Usually the Auroras turn to be green due to the interaction with the Oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere, but they can get pink, red, yellow and blue.

Because it is usually occurring at very high latitudes you have to be either from the few lucky people that leave near the Polar circles or to go on purpose to some very Northern or Southern latitudes to be able to observe it. People that have seen Auroras are always amazed by the shows they create. When you see on the night sky something else besides clouds, stars, Moon and the planets (the common objects out there) you tend to get different emotions, since it looks that something strange and unnatural is happening.

2013 can be the year that the Auroras will be the best in years. Solar activity is getting to its maximum, so the chance to observe an Aurora are much greater. The greater the Solar activity is the more striking and beautiful the Aurora shows are. Anyway just to be out there in the Arctic circle in the middle of winter, seeing all those snowy landscapes, experience really long nights and be with a lot of astronomy and space enthusiasts is a gift on its own.

I’ve seen a Solar Eclipse and was one of the best things I have witnessed in my life. I know that the Aurora sighting experience can cope with that. It can be just a great adventure waiting to happen.

Aurora from Space

The Aurora this year have been making spectacular shows. See how the residents of the International Space Station enjoy it and document it. During the video you will get more information about this amazing phenomenon.