• Sam Kruijver

Top 10 tips to photograph an Aurora

Updated: May 6

If you are ever fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to witness an aurora and you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, then these top 10 tips will give you a solid foundation to capture the magic of the northern or southern lights in all its glory.

They are:

  1. Avoid lens flare and glare from lights shining into your lens

  2. Use a tripod or other fixed mount

  3. Use a timer delay or remote trigger for your shutter

  4. Shoot in RAW format

  5. Shoot in manual mode

  6. Limit shutter speed to maximum of 8 seconds

  7. Use the widest aperture your lens will allow

  8. Set ISO to 3200 and adjust as required

  9. Focus the lens to infinity manually

  10. Set the white balance between 3850K and 5000K

Each tip is explored more below.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of these tips by leaving a comment below. If you have had success in taking photos of the the northern or southern lights, then please share them as I, and the readers of this blog, would love to see them.

Aurora over a busy highway in Southern Tasmania
Light trails from the passing cars while an Aurora dances in the background

Pick a spot where there a no lights shining directly onto the lens

Street lights, car lights, flash lights etc, can create lens flares and also blow out the exposure and dilute the contrast and clarity of the aurora lights, especially when there are beams.

So try to avoid them by going to a dark location away from other people. If that is not an option, try to block or shield the lights.

In the photo above with the car lights, I have broken this rule. Consequently I ended up with a lot of lens flares. Luckily, I was able to remove the worst of it in Photoshop. So it's best to avoid it in the first place if you can.


Use a tripod or other fixed mount

Seems obvious, but you want to ensure that you can keep your camera as still as possible.

Using a tripod or another fixed mount like a Gorillapod, will allow the camera to remain in a fixed position to get the sharpest image while the camera shutter is open. There is nothing worse that taking a photo of some amazing once-in-a-lifetime scene only to realise later that everything is blurry due to a shaking or moving camera.

If you don't have a tripod, you could get away with resting the camera on something study like a park bench, car roof (if no one is in the car) or a rock.


Use a timer delay or remote trigger

To help further reduce any possible camera shake, try to use either an in-built shutter delay (which is set to 2 seconds or more), or use some kind of remote trigger. Even if you have have a camera mounted on a strong study tripod, the simple act of pressing the shutter button to take the photo can create a small amount of movement in the camera to blur the image.

The use of a timer delay will allow you to press the shutter button but give enough time for any movements or vibrations through the camera and the tripod to settle before the shutter opens.

Alternatively, a remote shutter does not necessarily need a timer delay (although you can incorporate it as well) as you can trigger the shutter without the need to touch the camera at all. Remote triggers can be either wired or wireless.

Depending on your brand you may be able to use your phone to connect to the camera with bluetooth via an app.


Shoot in RAW

If you want to give yourself the most chance of editing your photo to look exactly how you want then shoot in RAW format. If you shoot with JPEGs then your ability to adjust colours or pull more details out of the shadows and highlights is greatly diminished due to the compression applied to the file.


Shoot in manual mode

Manual mode allows you to take full control over the settings.

It will be dark, so your camera will try to increase the exposure as much as possible to compensate. This will likely either underexpose or overexpose the image and also result in a loss of detail in swirling shapes of the aurora lights.

Shooting in manual allows you to control the shutter speed, aperture and ISO independently.

Each is discussed further below but if you are a complete beginner, the basics are:

  • Shutter speed controls how long the sensor is exposed to capture the image. Fast shutter speeds freeze motion, but lets in less light. Conversely, a slow shutter lets in a lot more light, but anything that moves will be blurred or streaky.

  • Aperture controls how wide the diaphragm in the lens will open and is measured by it's f-stop number. The lower the f-stop, the wide the diaphragm will open. The wider the aperture, the more light will hit the sensor and will result in a shallow depth of field (ie only a small portion of the image will be in focus).

  • ISO refers to how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the ISO number, the greater the sensitivity, but at a cost of more noise. Noise makes the images grainy and pixelated.


Limit the shutter speed to a maximum of 8 seconds

4 to 6 seconds will be even better.

For fast moving and active auroras, using a slow shutter speed of more than 10 or more seconds will typically result in one large green or yellow smudge or glow. Again, any detail of beams and swirls are likely to get lost in the final image.

Depending on the quality of your gear, you might be forced to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for other limitations of the lens' aperture or the sensor's ability to limit noise at a higher ISO.

If you have any limitations, slow your shutter speed accordingly, but try to keep it as fast as your gear can handle to get an image you are happy with.

The first time I photographed an aurora I went with a 20 second shutter speed as I wanted to keep the ISO low. This was the result:

Aurora Australis from Tasmania
Aurora Australis from Mt Nelson Tasmania

I was so excited at the time of seeing it for the first time, I didn't really think about how the photo looked. But seeing all the other amazing photos from other photographers on the same night with these well defined beams and waves left me a little disappointed in the end.

Here is another example that was shot at 20 seconds. It has a bit more detail due to the beams that stayed still long enough to capture, but again the detail in the aurora itself is largely lost. It's main saving grace is the clouds that creates false detail.

Aurora over Taroona Beach in Southern Tasmania
Aurora over Taroona Beach in Southern Tasmania

Shoot at the widest aperture that your lens will allow

Depending on how much money you have to splash on camera gear, you want to open the lens to its widest aperture to let the most amount of light in. The more light you can let in, the lower you can keep the ISO to reduce the amount of noise (grain) that will be in the final image. It will also allow for a faster shutter speed.

People who are cashed up, or were until they bought their camera gear, might be using a prime lens that may have super-wide apertures with an f-stop number of f/1.4 or f/1.8. For those that don't own a prime lens, you might be able to get to an f-stop of f/2.8 on a quality zoom lens. Whilst the beginner, might only have the kit lens that came with the camera. They might only be f/3.5 or f/4.

Whatever your gear, lower the f-stop to the lowest number you can and let that light in.

One downside is the shallow depth of field.

An aurora photo will typically be regarded as a landscape photo. This genre will normally have have everything in focus, being the foreground, mid-ground and objects off in the distance (i.e. the sky). Unless you are going to used advanced techniques of photo-stacking multiple images together, you will need to pick what to focus on. Consequently a single image will more than likely have some part of the image that is out of focus.

More often than not it will be the foreground or other objects close to the camera that will need to be out of focus. For the most part this won't matter. And if you don't have a foreground then it definitely won’t be an issue at all.

How to focus is covered further below.


Set ISO to 3200 as a starting point

To keep the shutter speed as quick as possible increase the ISO to 3200 as a starting point. You can adjust upwards or downwards depending on your gear and the overall exposure you are getting.

For some cameras you may be able to increase it to 6400 and still be able to produce a relatively clean image when using noise reduction tools in editing software like Lightroom.

Increasing the ISO to 6400 should really allow you to speed up the shutter to be closer to the 4 to 6 second speed, which would super handy if you are lucky enough to be witnessing a really active aurora with fast moving beams and waves. While others with the "kit lens" that doesn't allow for a wide aperture may be forced to the higher ISO even with an 8 second shutter speed.

If there is a some moonlight shining down while you are photographing and aurora you may need to reduce the ISO to compensate for the additional ambient light.

The below image what shot with a Nikon D850 with and ISO of 2500 at 6 seconds.

Mt Nelson Signal Station under the Southern Aurora Lights
Mt Nelson Signal Station under the Southern Aurora Lights

I was able to utilise a lower ISO as there was reasonable amount of ambient light from the Mt Nelson Signal Station. Plus I also used the light on my phone to light the plant and rocks in the foreground to add a little extra detail in the foreground. The 6 second shutter allowed for some of the detail in the aurora to pop in the image.


Focus the lens to infinity with manual focus

As a general rule you will need to focus your lens to infinity in order to have the night sky and the aurora in focus.

To do this you should disable autofocus so that you focus the lens manually. Some lenses will have a dial with the focusing distance marked on them which can be used as a starting point. Again, the cheap kit lens for some brands may not have a marking to help you.

In either, case I suggest you ignore the markings on the lens and use the live view on the camera's LCD screen. This will give you greater control over the focus to get the sky perfectly in sharp.

When you are in live view, zoom in as far as the LCD screen can on a bright star in the sky. Then twist the focus ring on the lens until that star looks as sharp as possible.

You should now be able capture multiple shots of the night sky in focus every time. If you move the camera, make sure you repeat this process again.

As mentioned before, a more advanced technique is to use photo-stacking. The process involves taking multiple photos by adjusting the focus with each image. That way, the camera can get a photo of objects close the camera or foreground, another of the mid-ground, and another of the sky all separately in focus. You then need to use software like Photoshop to blend all the images together by combining the sharpest 'in focus' parts for each one to give a new single image that is nice and sharp from front to back.

Simply do a search on Google for focus staking and you will find heaps of tutorials on how to do it.


Set the camera white balance between 3850K and 5000K

White balance is more of a stylistic choice that largely appeals to you as an individual. However, as a guide you should look to set it to a specific Kelvin value between 3850 and 5000. This will give the initial RAW file a bluish tint to it. The lower the number, the more blue it will initially appear and the greens in the aurora will appear much a richer emerald green colour.

But, if you follow my advice and shoot in RAW format, you will be able to change the white balance to whatever you like if you so desire.


Quick Recap

In summary, you should:

  1. Avoid lens flare and glare from lights shining into your lens

  2. Use a tripod or other fixed mount

  3. Use a timer delay or remote trigger for your shutter

  4. Shoot in RAW format

  5. Shoot in manual mode

  6. Limit shutter speed to maximum of 8 seconds

  7. Use the widest aperture you lens will allow

  8. Set ISO to 3200 and adjust as required

  9. Focus the lens to infinity manually

  10. Set the white balance between 3850K and 5000K

Again, please let me know if you found these tips helpful, if you disagree with them, or if you have any tips of your own you'd like to share. You can do so by leaving a comment below. And if you have your own aurora photos you'd like to share, then please leave a link to your work so we can all check them out.

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