Discharged particles penetrating earth’s magnetic shield may, in fact, sound like a jumble of scientific terms, but when the Northern Lights dance across the night sky, the effect is both science and art. The aurora borealis is an incredible phenomenon — and it makes incredible photos. But, like other night sky photography, capturing the Northern Lights can be tricky without the right gear, some planning and finishing touches with Lightroom or Photoshop.
Are you ready to turn a scientific phenomenon into art? Here are the ten tips to shooting and editing the Aurora Borealis.
Plan the time (and location) around solar flares and light pollution
The Northern Lights, as the name suggests are more likely to be spotted the farther north you are — between 68 and 74 degrees latitude tend to be the best spots for viewing the lights, which includes parts of Canada, Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
Another similar phenomenon, the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights, can often be viewed from southern Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. You can use an online calculator to see the likelihood of seeing the lights on a certain date at a particular location.
Booking a trip to a northern town still isn’t a guarantee to get a good glimpse at the lights, however. In the summer, areas that are far north has very short time frame where it’s actually dark enough while winter and spring leave the most darkness. You’ll also want to avoid light pollution, both the artificial kind from cities and the natural kind from a full moon.
Bring a tripod and remote trigger
Like any night sky photography, never leave your tripod at home. You’ll need a longer shutter speed to get the exposure right, making that tripod a must. To further avoid camera shake, you’ll also want to use a camera remotely (or the self-timer if you don’t have one) so that your hands aren’t introducing any additional shake. If your camera has a mirror lock-up mode, this is a good scenario to use that as well.
Keep yourself (and your batteries) warm
The problem with shooting the Northern Lights in the winter is that, well, you’re going north in the winter — bring plenty of warm winter gear. Along with keeping yourself warm, though, you’ll need to keep your camera warm, or you’ll get everything set up only to find that your camera is too cold and isn’t responding.
One of the simplest ways to keep your camera warm is to keep the battery in an inner pocket, so your body heat helps keep the battery from reaching the threshold where it will no longer function. Bringing a second battery and always keeping one warm inside a pocket is a good idea.
Use wide angle (and wide aperture) lens
Capturing the impressive lights swirling in the skies is best done with a wide angle lens to show the expanse of the Northern Lights. Bring your widest lens along with you, and if you’re planning a trip specifically to capture the Northern Lights, you may want to invest in a good wide angle lens if you don’t have one already, something around the 14-24mm range.
But, for shooting a night sky, both wide angle and wide aperture is a good idea. Wide apertures are helpful in low light, and while you’ll have a tripod to keep the camera steady since the lights and the stars are actually moving, you can’t extend that shutter speed out too long, so a wide aperture is sometimes a must.
Autofocus is afraid of the dark. Don’t mess with the motor searching in and out for a focal point and instead use manual focus. In most instances, you can focus at infinity, but just make sure to check your LCD since some lenses need to be drawn back just a bit from infinity to get a sharp sky.
Don’t forget your foreground
The Northern Lights undoubtedly make for an impressive sky — but look for an interesting landscape too. Including parts of the landscape or even a foreground element helps give the image a sense of scale. Shooting only the aurora borealis results in an almost abstract image, while including the surroundings show off just how impressive that natural phenomenon is.
Slow your shutter — but not too slow
Since you’re shooting in the dark and hopefully away from light pollution, you’ll need a long shutter speed — but there is such thing as too long. The Northern Lights actually dance across the sky, and you don’t want to blur that movement too much.
The stars will start to turn into streaks around 20 to 30 seconds of exposure, so try to stick with an exposure around 10 to 15 seconds instead. If you need to, turn up that ISO to get the right exposure with that shutter speed.
Error on the side of underexposure
Getting the exposure perfect in the camera can be tricky, but you want to avoid overexposure, or you’ll lose some of the detail in what you actually went out to shoot in the first place — the lights. If you’re familiar with the histogram, pull it up and make sure you’re not clipping that graph off at any edges. If you’re not quite sure, it’s better to underexpose than to overexpose when photographing the Northern Lights.
Play with color temperature and tint.
Once you have your images inside Light room or Photoshop services , along with tweaking any minor exposure errors, you’ll want to take a look at the color temperature and tint sliders. The aurora borealis varies in color but tends to be green and purple — if your photos don’t quite look as dazzling as in real life, try using the green and purple tint slider in Lightroom to get them closer to what you saw in person.
Add contrast with the curves sliders.
Northern Light photos also often need a bit of a contrast boost to get close to just how impressive they are in person. Avoid using the contrast slider, though — instead, using the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders in Lightroom or the curve adjustments in Photoshop. This method gives you more control over the contrast rather than creating it with one slider. The blacks slider can be a big help for getting the lights to really pop against that night sky. Just can’t get the shots to look quite right? Try using a professional photo editing service for only a few bucks per photo — you’ll save both time and a headache.
The aurora borealis is an incredible phenomenon — and it makes incredible photos. But, night sky photography is tricky. Before heading out to photograph the Northern Lights, make sure you have a few tricks to get the shot right, from shoot to edit.
Isabella Foreman is a content writer by profession and enjoys writing on Wedding, Travel, Photography, Photo Editing Services, Career Improvement, and cooking. She spends her off-work time with family and travel to explore new places! . She intends to educate and keep audience abreast of the latest trends in the world of Photography and Photo editing. Presently, she is associated with Smart Photo Editors – a services company that is engaged in Photo editing and wedding photo editing.