The art of the Aurora: Shooting tips for the world's best light show
As I sit here on the plane taking off from Australia enroute to the Arctic Circle to teach our next photography workshop, I reflect on all the amazing moments my partner Karlie and I have captured, and the priceless experiences that have accompanied that.
Over the past decade shooting landscapes around the world, I’ve discovered when it comes to challenging me as a photographer, there are two things that stand out above all the rest. Aurora and storms (you may remember an article I wrote on storm chasing last year).
But why you might ask? It’s the thrill of the chase that gets the blood pumping and the small window of opportunity that pressures you to really think about your composition and framing on the spur of the moment.
In this article I will try to explore some of the reasons I chase the aurora and provide insight into the science behind the magnificent auroras we see near our poles. This will help you be a better ”Aurora Chaser”.
So what is an aurora?
The aurora is nature’s best light show! The northern lights are called the ‘Borealis’ and the southern are called the ‘Australis’. Auroras are visible only when it is dark but they can even occur immediately after sunset or blue hour.
They occur when charged particles from the sun interact with our atmosphere and cause the gasses in our atmosphere to be ‘excited’ and to emit light. These charged particles are called the solar winds. The particles are always leaving the sun and arriving on earth, but they vary in strength and density depending on what is happening on the surface of the sun.
The ‘solar wind’ that comes from the sun is key, and can be measured here on earth. We can measure the speed and density of the solar wind using instruments on earth and using near-earth satellites to see how this wind is impacting on the earth’s magnetic field. The higher the speed of the solar wind and the denser the particles in the solar wind, the higher the Kp index, and, the stronger the aurora.
I like to use websites like SWPC to gauge this information. Eruptions on the sun (typically from sunspot regions) can also cause sudden bursts of energy to explode from the surface of the sun, which excite our atmosphere when they arrive and can also produce very strong auroras.
When hunting the aurora you need to be mobile! Always try to find a place with un-obscured views North (Aurora Borealis) or South (Aurora Australis) and as far away from light pollution as possible.
Often weak aurora can be located towards the poles, so for maximum chances of viewing, a dark site and some elevation without obstructions can be very important. And then of course, find an interesting foreground or a midground interest to help compliment the aurora. The secret is to think of the aurora as the icing on the cake. Make your image more so about the location or subject matter as much as the aurora itself.
Be sure to check local weather forecasts and cloud coverage. I love to use yr.no for cloud coverage in Scandinavia and surrounding countries. Check low, middle and high levels of cloud to ensure the area you’ll be shooting at isn’t obscured and you have a clear vision of the sky that evening.
Try to adapt your eyes to the dark as much as possible. Don’t look at anything bright, use red-light torches when you can. It can take almost an hour for your eyes to properly adjust to the dark. If you need to check live statistics or Kp values on your phone, make sure the brightness is as low as possible.
Also something to note is the moon. Unlike Astrophotography, I’ve personally found it to be your best friend. A crescent or gibbous moon can provide ambient light to the landscape. That will greatly help by allowing lower ISO’s & shorter shutter speeds.
Where to go
While the southern lights are visible from Tasmania & New Zealand, typically a few times a month, you have to head to the arctic circle to experience the best the aurora has to offer. Countries like Iceland, northern Norway, northern Sweden, Russia and Alaska are perfectly positioned to see the lights even during periods of low activity.
I typically chase in Iceland and northern Norway, as well as Finland, due to the access to beautiful destinations, surreal landscapes and the ease of getting around by car, even during winter. September-April is the best to see them in the northern hemisphere as the other months there isn’t enough twilight as the sun often doesn’t set for long periods in the warmer months.
You may have heard it’s just a high Kp index you need right? Well, the answer to that question is mostly yes, but I will try to explain it a little bit to help you understand.
A K-index is a way of quantifying disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field. These types of disturbances are usually the catalysts for auroras. K values range from 0 to 9 and are calculated by the horizontal disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field over a three hour period.
A K index of 0 is near zero disturbance and a K index of 9 is a very large disturbance. A K value of 5 or higher means we are in the geomagnetic storm range. The disturbances are monitored at locations all around the world using magnometers or magnetic field measuring stations.
The planetary (Kp) index is an average value determined from a K index of 13 different magnetic observatories located in the United Kingdom, Canada, Alaska, Germany, Denmark, England, Sweden, USA, New Zealand and Australia. So Kp is really just an average. Even still, the higher the Kp number climbs, normally the closer the aurora visibility moves towards the equator.
So in summary Kp and the forecast Kp are useful tools in determining when to head out to shoot the aurora, just don’t rely on just them, especially when you are in the arctic. The Kp value does not define a perfect boundary as many maps lead you to believe. Auroras may be visible at high latitudes any time, even when the Kp index is 0.
As an example of this, one of my favourite auroras I have ever shot was during a Kp 1 event in Levi, Lapland, Finland. My wife Karlie and I had almost lost hope after six hours of shooting in minus 45 degrees Celsius. At this stage you start to lose feeling in your hands & feet, and frostbite can quickly set in if you’re not careful.
You then start to question yourself with “why am I doing this?!”, but my good friend and fellow Aurora Chaser, David Metcalf kept my hopes up from back home in Australia, reassuring me that a sub-storm was probably coming to my location. Sure enough, a massive aurora (Kp 7) turned up right on cue..
This leads me to the two key ingredients to getting that elusive shot; Patience and Persistence. If it was easy, everyone would do it right? So give yourself plenty of time if you’re heading abroad and keep at it. Anyway, enough of the technical stuff, let me tell you a little bit about myself and Karlie and our experiences in chasing auroras in some of the most beautiful countries in the world.
My partner Karlie and I met a decade ago and both loved landscape photography. Travelling abroad chasing aurora was at number one on our bucket list, and the first time we witnessed it in Iceland we just stood there like a kangaroos in the headlights.
We were hooked! Many years later in 2017 I surprised Karlie with an engagement proposal under a Kp 6 in Norway. And then, after years of being told we’d never have children and some very difficult years of trying, while chasing the Northern Lights earlier last year, a miracle happened. Our first child Mia Aurora Sharpe was a much welcome surprise with her birth in September 2018.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but use a digital SLR or a mirrorless camera with manual controls if possible. These will give you a much greater ability to control the in camera settings (ISO, aperture and shutter speed) and hence the ability to balance light and dynamic range in your images. My choice of camera for aurora photography is the Nikon D850.
Also, always pack a tripod! Auroras are photographed in low light conditions. Using a tripod will allow you greater flexibility to increase exposure time without compromising the balance and sharpness of your foreground interest. Make sure you get a sturdy one too. These colder climates are known for extreme temps and winds. My tripod of choice is the Sirui W-1204.
When you are in the arctic you will be surprised how quickly the aurora can move. Auroras are dynamic and when they really ramp up they move quickly. Most of our best aurora photos are shot in the range of one to four seconds.
Capturing the ribbons and textures is important. I have previously shot auroras as fast as 0.5” at f/1.4 in order to keep the detail in the aurora pin point sharp. My typical settings for an aurora photo can range from 0.5” - 10s” That will depend greatly on intensity of the aurora & the moon’s illumination too.
Aperture should be at its widest, usually f/1.4-2.8 is ideal and set your lens’ focus to infinity. ISO will vary, just like your shutter speed, based on the aurora strength and light from the moon. I’d start with a low ISO (around 2500) and work my way up to 8000 if necessary.
There are two main things to think about when it comes to choosing a lens for aurora photography, width and speed. If money wasn’t a factor I’d suggest the lowest f-stop possible, and the widest rectilinear lens possible.
Most of my aurora photographs are taken with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 & the Nikon 24mm f/1.4. I do prefer a zoom lens over a prime lens. I know, I know, but hear me out first! I personally love the flexibility of being able to tightly compress the frame if I need to, or shoot super wide based on foreground/midground compositions and the distance of the aurora being overhead or on the horizon.
With aurora in the north being best from September – April, it’s going to be cold. VERY cold. Karlie and I would go to a store and often their response was “oh this jacket is good for the cold etc”. But what you have to remember is these salespeople don’t often understand what photographing aurora entails.
It’s long nights standing still in sub-freezing temperatures. Layers and thermals are a must. Good quality snow, wind resistant, weather and water proof jackets and snow pants are a must.
You can always tell the person who skimped on this in a group. They are the ones often shivering and needing to go back inside. Arcteryx, Patagonia and Marmot I’ve found to be exceptional and in really cold temps my partner and I wear Canada Goose jackets. They keep you warm and insulated especially when you aren’t very mobile. Fingerless gloves layered with snow gloves are great for shooting (to quickly access your camera buttons), and woollen beanies are a must. For boots I recommend Sorrels as they are waterproof and insulated.
I’ve found it hard over the years to get all the gear in Australia as these brands either don’t ship here or they don’t see a market to stock them. Wild Earth I’ve found to stock most of these, as well as those important base layers, and are really helpful. Their website is www.wildearth.com.au.
It’s important to understand that you need a sound knowledge in weather and how the aurora actually works, as well the terms used to forecast and predict it’s occurrence. Be prepared with the right clothing and allow plenty of time. Take a note of the settings but know they will fluctuate so change them to suit the circumstances. Plan ahead with weather and the location you want to shoot and have a composition already in mind, and be patient.
And most of all, if you do get lucky to see it, be prepared to have your mind blown. The Aurora is easily the most incredible and awe inspiring moment you’ll experience. It’s changed my life and hopefully it touches yours like it did mine. Happy snapping! ❂
About the author: Along with his partner Karlie, Dale Sharpe has emerged as one of our most talented and well travelled landscape, wedding and event photographers. You can see more of his work here.