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Photographing the Aurora: A Quick Guide

By | January 24, 2011

The Aurora Borealis as seen September 10, 2011 from Pt. Woronzof.

With every spike in solar activity, flares are sent off from the sun and come cascading over the magnetosphere, where the energy is released in various shades of undulating greens, blues and reds we call the Aurora.

It’s always a challenge to capture these silky forms, but a few preparatory measures can ensure you get the best possible image to wow your friends and family.

There are a few preliminary steps to be done before this article will be of use to you.

  1. Is there an aurora visible in your area? The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute keeps a current outlook of auroral activity for the next several days, viewable as a map of the intensity of the displays. Another key to this step is knowing the local weather forecast. If it’s overcast, you won’t see much of anything.
  2. Do you have a camera and tripod ready to go? As I discuss later on, a tripod is essential for capturing clear images of the aurora, as the exposure times are too long for hand-held shooting. Tripods are fairly cheap, and can be found in town for around $30.
  3. Is it between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.? Though the aurora can be seen any time between dusk and dawn, the darker the sky will give you the best chance to catch the aurora around you. The images in this story were captured between 1:00 a.m. and 1:45 a.m., so be ready for a late night!

I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing your camera. What settings work for one person’s equipment will yield altogether different results on another. Ideally, your camera would be equipped with a “Manual” or “M” mode, which allows every setting to be tweaked independently of each other. However, this isn’t always possible for users of small point-and-shoot cameras. The priority then is getting the exposure time and light sensitivity (ISO) to the appropriate levels.

These images were captured at the lowest ISO setting on my camera (100) for a period of 15 seconds. At lower ISO values, the image quality will tend to be more accurate and show fewer artifacts from the camera over-processing picture. This must be balanced by an increased exposure time, necessitating the use of a tripod or other stabilizing device for the image to be clear.

Depending on the brand of your camera, reviews can detail the settings at which it performs the best. A favorite of mine is dpreview.com, which covers everything from basic controls to ISO performance and noise for cameras. Camera Labs also provides very in-depth reviews of photography equipment and its performance.

As far as the shooting goes, I’d recommend taking a “Low and Long” standard and modify from there. Low ISO (for better image quality) and a Long exposure (to absorb enough light to capture the aurora in action). Check your results between each picture and continue adjusting the exposure time until you get the pictures you want. This is a very trial-and-error process. Fortunately, the aurora’s tendency to linger for about half an hour at a time will give you plenty of time to explore the settings that work best for you.

If you so desire, you can use Windows Live Photo Gallery’s panoramic stitching feature to take several photos (rotating the tripod head) and create an expansive view of the Aurora, as seen in this image on Google’s Picasa image hosting service.

These images were captured on my first night out shooting the aurora–ever–so don’t be afraid to get out and experiment to your heart’s desire.

About Erik Judson

Erik Judson is a Journalism and Public Communications major at the University of Alaska Anchorage and current intern with APTI. A lifelong Southeast Alaskan, Erik is equally at home on the water as on the ground.

He enjoys many aspects of media production, from writing and reporting to photography, videography, and editing. Because of this broad range, journalism has been a natural fit for this pursuit of knowledge and his hopes to share that knowledge with those around him.

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