Photographing Aurorae with a Night Capable Camera

Photo 1: Jupiter and diffuse, but bright aurora on our first night. f/3.5, 5 sec, ISO 4000, 20mm

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on observing and photographing an Aurora. Please read Aurora: The Bewitching Glow for background information including information about what an aurora is, when, how and where it can be seen, and photographs from Aurorae we observed near Fairbanks, Alaska.

So I Have to Get Lucky?

Before we jump into the details and the 3 keys for getting a good aurora photo, I think it is wise to set expectations about how likely you are to see a truly astounding aurora. Photo 1, above is one of the first captures I got on the first night on site (December 14). It was unexpected because the weather had been completely overcast all day. On December 17, the display was ASTOUNDING. I asked staff at Borealis Basecamp – which caters to aurora goers – as well as locals in Fairbanks, and I poured over the data to determine just how lucky we were to see the jaw dropping display we observed. The short answer is… “luck comes over time”. We used the Book and Hope method described in the first article to observe the aurora, arriving on December 14, 2023 and departing on December 18th – that is 4 nights onsite. But because we didn’t use the Monitor and Go method what we couldn’t have foreknown is how much the sun would cooperate with our aurorae dreams.

Diagram 1: M and X class solar flares in December, 2023.

Take a glance at Diagram 1, above from the archive. Fortuitously the most energetic solar flare (category X) in the preceding SIX YEARS occurred on the first day we arrived (and on New Years eve). The solar wind travels at over a million miles an hour (1.6 million kilometers per hour). But the sun is 92 million miles (147 million kilometers) away, so the effect of the flare on aurora production may occur in as little as 36 hours or as many as 4 days later. Even during a solar maximum events of this magnitude only occur infrequently. December 2023 saw two X class flares in one month – there were zero X class flares in the prior 5 months at all! The Kp Index exceeded 5 a total of 16 times in the 4 month period which means an exceptional once a week event might be a reasonable expectation during this part of the solar cycle.

Eli Fox, the chief photographer at Borealis Basecamp and the man who runs much of the Borealis Basecamp social media [Instagram] [Facebook] told me that exceptional aurora events occur on average about once a month or less.

A solid plan and good luck go hand in hand. But do not let that dissuade you. The displays we saw on two other nights were very pleasing and still produced great pictures.

Can I Get a Good Photo with ANY Camera?

Photographing aurorae is not different from the night photography we cover extensively on this site. If your camera is able to take acceptable Milky Way photos, it’s a good candidate – the aurora is generally much brighter than the brightest portions of the Milky Way.

Photo 2: Looking up. Bright fast moving aurora. Notice The big dipper at the left.
f/2.8, 2 sec, ISO 6400, 18 mm

While these articles are now starting to show their age, the principles still apply:

  1. High performing cameras (or see Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?)
  2. What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

Surprisingly, some cell phones can do a respectable job and we will cover using cellphones in the next article in the series.

For any night photography the following minimums are recommended:

It also helps to become very familiar with the settings and controls for your camera and tripod – familiar enough that you can operate them in the dark with little or no additional light. That level of familiarity comes with practice… so if you are out of the habit, we strongly suggest practicing in your back yard (or in a dark closet). Practice while wearing the gloves that you intend to use! I discovered that merino wool glove liners were sufficient to keep my dominant hand warm even when the temperature dipped to -20F – but there was no wind and I avoided allowing any snow to remain on my glove liner – preferring to use my gloved hand or jacket sleeve when brushing away snow. Snow on my glove liner would have melted due to my body heat and made me miserable. I carried a pair of outer gloves with me, in fact, I kept a glove on my non-dominant hand at all times while my dominant hand had only the glove liner. The other outer glove remained in my pocked with a chemical hand warmer activated should my hand get cold!

Additional Photo Gear for Dealing with Excessive Cold

I brought quite a lot of gear to prepare for the affects of extreme cold on my person and my camera equipment. The camera equipment I brought included:

1. Five power banks – these were used to power “dew heaters” (aka lens warmers), as well as heated clothing.
2. Four of the powerbanks also were hand-warmers, most have built in lights.
3. Pouches in which I could keep the powerbanks, chemical handwarmers, as well as cables.
4. A large sealable plastic bag that can hold the entire camera and lens.
5. Carabiners to hold the pouches to my tripod.
6. And my standard practice of affixing velcro to key places near the top of my tripod with the mating velcro on the back of my intervalometer(s). This keeps the intervalometer in a usable place and prevents it from falling or catching the wind.

The pouches had operational electric hand warmers or chemical hand warmers to keep the power bank in them warm. I thought about, but did not use external batteries for my camera. Conceptually using external batteries permits using a larger battery (or using plug-in power) as well as keeping the camera batteries warm without warming the camera. The extreme cold is GOOD for your images. Deep sky astrophotographers typically use super-cooled sensors for their work, and your camera benefits from the cold, too, in the form of less noise.

If you use chemical hand warmers (charcoal, salt and iron filings), they need some airflow to keep generating heat – so don’t put them in a bag with no airflow. Indeed, if you want to reuse them, you can put them in as small a possible plastic bag to extend their life.

However I did keep spare batteries in my interior pockets where my body heat would keep them warm should I need to swap batteries. With the power banks, I also brought extra cables, an extension cord, and a 7 station USB charger. Of course all the regular stuff is needed, too… battery chargers for your camera batteries, cables, lens cloths and more. Another item I strongly recommend is gaffers tape which you can use to seal viewfinders, and lock down focus settings. And a large Ziplock bag. I also like to use a lens band (basically a large rubber band) to prevent focus or zoom settings from changing unexpectedly.

What Can Go Wrong?

Several aurora photographers wondered why I brought dew-heaters (lens warmers). These devices wrap around the end of the lens and via a power bank keep the lens warmer than the surrounding air to prevent dew (condensation) or frost from forming on the lens. Those with more experience than me typically did not use such devices because in the extreme cold dew is not typically a problem. BUT I did have complications I didn’t anticipate. In warmer, more humid climates, dew heaters can be the difference between getting a shot of “lens fog” and getting a great night shot.
The lens warmer is attached by cable to a power bank. More than once the pouch containing the power bank got bumped off my tripod yanking down on the lens ring which, unfortunately, altered either the zoom or the focus of the lens. In part for that reason I stopped using the lens warmer. But I did notice that more than once my breath crystalized on the outer lens surface. The take away here: in the extreme cold, keep your breath away from the camera as much as possible! And if you do use a lens warmer, find a secure way to attach it to your tripod so it can not yank on your lens.

From time to time I would use the viewfinder to frame my shot. But on my Sony Alpha 7R III camera, the frost from my breath condensed on the viewfinder resulting in two problems. The moist air from my breath froze on and made the viewfinder cloudy and I couldn’t see through it, and the sensor that turns off the back LCD when your eye is at the sensor got confused and refused to turn the LCD on. Effectively I was unable to use the LCD or the viewfinder to make adjustments. Fortunately this happened as the aurora was quiescing so I put my camera in a SEALABLE plastic bag, and brought it indoors.

Bag Your Camera! And Other Tips…

Why bag your camera? If you take your very cold camera indoors it will almost immediately form frost and condensation in the warmer more humid air – much like your iced drink glass forms condensation. Unfortunately condensation can occur INSIDE the lens and INSIDE the camera (e.g. on the sensor). Whenever I move the camera from a cold environment to a warmer one I bag and seal it and keep it in the bag until it has warmed to room temperature (about 1 to 3 hours). I can take it back out to a cold environment immediately if I wish. Keeping desiccant in the bag is not a bad idea, either! Oh, and you may find it advisable to remove your memory card and battery from the camera before bagging it so that you can examine the contents of the card or charge the battery while you have the bagged camera in a warmer environment.

Another unanticipated problem was that the extreme cold made the intervalometer cord quite stiff. It behaved more like a coat hanger than a wire. I strongly recommend using either a corded, or cordless intervalometer – you need it as a shutter release. The reason for the shutter release is to keep from adding any shake or wobble to the process of taking a photo – which occurs just by pressing the shutter button. A shutter release locked in “on mode” also allows you to take endless shots unattended which if you wish, you can assemble into a star trail like the photo below.

Photo 6: Applying Comet style star trails (with a satellite) (97) 6-second exposures. (each f/3.5, ISO 4000, 19mm) Total 9 min 42 secs.

Finally, I had difficulty adjusting the settings using the top dial on my camera – I believe also due to frost from my breath. I say “I believe” because it occurs to me that with my lightly gloved hand I may have been trying to rotate the function knob instead of the upper adjustment wheel. REMINDER: Get familiar with your camera before you get into the exciting environment where you may easily forget a step or two while gawking at the sky.

The Three Most Important Aurora Tips

Once you have all your gear, have a solid tripod (which you set up properly and securely) and are ready to begin photographing the amazing aurora… there are three very important things to NOT skimp on doing and double checking.

  1. Confirm (check) focus frequently especially after any bumps or changes in zoom.
  2. Do NOT judge the quality of the exposure by the display on the LCD. The only way to insure a good exposure is to look at the histogram (separate RGB channels is best).
  3. Adjust your exposure as needed to meet the circumstance. Aurora can go from dim to very bright and very bright to dim. They can move hardly at all, and they can dance about in the sky at a dizzying pace. So this means not only should you pay attention to those exposures, but you might want to avoid fixating on one area of the sky.

Tip 1: Checking and Setting Focus

The best way to check focus is to shoot an image and zoom in and check for the sharpness of any stars on the LCD. The best way to get focus right is to pre-focus at infinity when there is sufficient light (e.g. using a streetlight, the moon or a very bright star). While cameras can SOMETIMES successfully self focus most of the time they cannot without bright, motionless light in the distance. One way to get a good focus is to use live view, zoom in and hand adjust focus until a star is as compact as possible. But do not stop there… TURN OFF auto focus! You can set some lenses to “MF” or “Manual Focus”, but another strategy – perhaps easier – is to set your camera to do focus only when you press a separate focus button. Typically a camera is set to focus as you press the shutter – and that’s definitely NOT what you want.
If you’re not sure where to focus, we recommend either focusing on stars or if that seems difficult, you can focus on anything that is more than 50 feet away from you and that will be sufficient for wide-angle lenses.

Then take an exposure and confirm the focus is spot on. I took a whole sequence of exposures with lovely snow flocked trees in the foreground, but I made the mistake of not confirming my focus was spot on! It is also worth noting that the aurora may be diffuse and therefore not have a clear focus point… so don’t judge by the aurora! By the way, we also strongly recommend that you set a fixed White Balance (e.g. cloudy or daylight), disable long exposure noise reduction, and turn on high ISO noise reduction.

Some cameras have a “focus peaking” setting that you can enable. Focus peaking colors those areas of the image that are in focus (red is easier to distinguish in a night shot). This tip comes from Eli Fox, and is something I did not know is present on my Sony!

One last tip, focus MAY change as the lens gets colder or warmer – so do check periodically.

Tip 2: Verify Proper Exposure using the Histogram Feature

Diagram 2: An aurora photo with over exposed elements (see red pointers). The histogram (top right) shows a spike at the right – brightest end – of the range.

My modus operandi when shooting is to hand shoot a few images doing the focus check AND a histogram check before I set the camera up to take continuous exposures. I then periodically stop the exposures to double check the histogram. One additional help here is to turn on over exposure highlighting if your camera supplies it. With that feature on, over exposed areas will generally blink where there are overexposed pixels to let you know what areas are over. Overexposure is very difficult to recover from. The goal is to minimize the overexposures but get the images as “bright” as possible to capture the most information. I then usually shoot a shot with the lens cap on (or my hand covering the lens) so I can tell that I’ve changed settings or adjusted the field of view. Elements at the “bright” end of the spectrum by themselves don’t mean there are over exposures. By the way this is also why we strongly recommend you shoot your photos in RAW – or like we do RAW plus the smallest JPEGs.

Tip 3: Do Not Fixate

This tip has two parts. Do not forget to recheck at LEAST your exposure histograms periodically, and do not fail to look around in the sky. While you might have the perfect foreground, the aurora behind you or above you may be the most spectacular thing you will ever see. If you do not get a photo, it may as well have never happened! And while we are on this subject, do you notice how GREEN the snow appears in the right side of the photo below (as well as earlier photos)? They are reflecting the predominate color (557.7 nano meters wavelength) coming from the aurora. This is one of the possible problems with obtaining natural looking aurora photos.

Photo 5: The recorded color (right) gives an eerie green, but the left is hand desaturated in post processing.

As noted in Aurora: The Bewitching Glow (part one of this series), there are other colors as well. This can have the affect of making the landscape look “eerie”. Eerie landscapse can be combatted in two ways. One way is to be thankful for and take advantage of light pollution (or some moonlight), and the other is to post process the photo to desaturate the areas that look unnatural e.g. as is done above in photo 5. All the other rules of good photo composition apply as well. If the photo would look pleasing without an aurora, then it will be even better if there is an aurora. But if the scene is chaotic or not well framed, it will take an incredibly amazing aurora to save it. I think the main take away here is: experiment with different compositions, directions and settings.

One last point. The aurora can move very slowly or surprisingly rapidly. If you take a long exposure for a fast moving aurora it will “smear”. But a dim, slow moving aurora may require a longer exposure or a higher ISO or both. Consider the examples below. At the left is an approximation of one ten second, ISO-6400 exposure (f/2.8, 18 mm) created by combining 5 2-second exposures and the second is a single 2 second exposure. The “eye” of the aurora is overexposed and much of the swirly detail is lost. However even if the ISO had been dialed down or the aperture stopped down to prevent overexposure, the capture over the longer time interval would lose some of the fine detail – in much the way that a moving flashlight or a moving camera would create a smear. But do notice that more stars are visible in the longer exposure because 10 seconds is sufficiently short for an 18mm shot that the stars themselves are not smeared (much). To understand this a bit better, the best resource we know of is
described in our article: 600 Rule?

In fact, if you’d like to get an idea how fast an aurora CAN move in real time, here is a video sequence – not a timelapse – from Eli Fox

VIDEO: Real Time aurora used by permission from Eli Fox.

Well, that’s it for how to use a “night capable camera” to take aurora photos. But stay tuned, we have at least two more articles on the subject coming soon including:

How to Take Aurora Photos with a Cell Phone

All about Borealis Basecamp

As always, feel free to ask questions using the comments below. Thanks for the gift of your time reading this… and if you’ve found value in it, please do share the link with those you know who would appreciate it.

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