aurora

Five Questions: Light Painting Headlights, Moonrises and Sunsets, Auroras and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (When we’re not shooting. Which is why we don’t do this feature more often.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting headlights, tripods, open hours for national parks, moonrises at sunset and lens choices for aurora.

If you have any questions you would like to throw our way, please contact us anytime. Questions could be about gear, national parks or other photo locations, post-processing techniques, field etiquette, or anything else related to night photography. #SeizeTheNight!

1. Light Painting Headlights

Pickup in Nelson Ghost Town, Nevada. © Tim Cooper. Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: When light painting old cars/trucks at night, how do you get the headlights to look like they are on? I have an old tractor in a field that I would like to practice on. — Brien R.

A: We love light painting, especially old cars! Who doesn’t?

Light painting the headlights is a tricky but rewarding thing to practice.

If the headlights have the glass still intact, use a very low-power light source (e.g., a Maglite or a Coast G5). Stand about 2 to 3 feet from the headlight, but to the side so you aren’t blocking the camera. Shine the flashlight into the headlight briefly—1 to 3 seconds is generally enough. Then walk over to the next headlight and do the same.

Here’s a key to this working: Stay invisible. Be careful and use your body to block the light source (i.e., the bulb) from being seen by the camera—we want to capture only the light reflecting from the headlights. I also advise dressing all in black, including black gloves. Sometimes the light bouncing off the headlights can freeze your hand or face in the frame, and you end up being ghosted in the picture. If that is the case, you’ll need to move farther out of the scene and then snoot your flashlight with a long tube— think PVC or a paper towel core. This will give you a more precise paintbrush to place the light.

Finally practice, practice, practice! And then feel free to share your results with us. — Gabriel

2. Lance’s Tripod

Q: I’m trying to figure out which tripod Lance showed in your CreativeLive class. I went back and watched the class again and figured out that it may be a Manfrotto 190 carbon fiber with a leveling center column. Can you please confirm this? Also, for a tripod this size would you still suggest that setup or has something else come out that you like better? Finally, which ball head would you suggest for this combo? — Marc S.

A: You are correct that I was using the Manfrotto 190 with a leveling head in the video. The head is great, but only for panoramas. It’s unnecessary otherwise.

If I were to buy today, I’d go with the Manfrotto 190go! Carbon Fiber M-Series Tripod with MHXP RO-BHQ2 XPRO Ball Head RC2 Kit. I like the twist locks better than the flip locks, which can pinch if you are not careful. However, these days I’m mostly using my Gitzo Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod with Center Ball Head.

Several of us at National Parks at Night are big fans of the Acratech GP-ss Ballhead With Lever Clamp. It is designed for compact travel tripods. It’s not quite as compact as the Gitzo head, but is easier to work with and the lever clamp is awesome. — Lance

3. Hours at National Parks and Monuments

Arch Rock, Valley of Fire. © 2014 Matt Hill. Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 500.

Q: Thank you for your recent article on whether light painting is allowed in national parks. However, it seems there is an even more important issue, which is if visitors are actually allowed to enter certain parks at night. My wife and I visited a number of national parks and monuments in recent years, but in places like Valley of Fire, Hovenweep or National Bridges we were told by rangers that we’d be in trouble if we were seen out there at night. On the other hand I have seen plenty of photos taken by the National Parks at Night team or other professionals at exactly these places. Are there different rules for the average photographer? — Lambert

A: Most of the 400-plus National Park Service units are open 24 hours to all visitors—including Natural Bridges National Monument, so I’m not sure why that ranger told you otherwise. In fact, night skies are part of how Natural Bridges actively entices people to visit. It’s also a feature that Hovenweep plays up, though only some sections of the park are open at night.

All of the national parks are open 24 hours per day, except Petrified Forest, but you can get a camping permit to stay overnight, or pay for a Special Use Permit to shoot after hours. Some of the national seashores are closed at night unless you have a camping or special use permit. National wildlife refuges are mostly closed at night, but those are units of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, not the NPS.

The Oliver Cabin is one of the many wonderful night photography subjects in Great Smoky Mountains National Parks’ Cades Cove region. Cades Cove is closed to vehicles at night, but you can walk or bike the 11-mile loop road all night if you’d like. © 2017 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D3s, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

However, note that even if a park is open at night, there’s a chance that certain features are closed. In addition to Hovenweep, this is also the case at Mesa Verde National Park, which closes access to the ruins after sundown. Another example is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (where we’re hosting a workshop this April): Cades Cove, an amazing place to shoot; it is closed to motor vehicles at night, yet remains open to foot traffic.

As for Valley of Fire, that’s a state park, and as with any state land is run under local regulations that the NPS guidelines don’t affect. For night access to Valley of Fire, you need either a permit or to be camping in the park. (Or you to be on our workshop this April, which happens to have one spot remaining.)

No matter where you’re going to shoot at night, we always recommend checking the hours and letting the rangers (or other appropriate authorities) know what you’ll be up to. Not because you necessarily need permission to engage in night photography on public lands, but because it sometimes makes their jobs easier if they know you’ll be out there. Not to mention that they might share some valuable local knowledge about the location. — Chris

4. Aurora Lenses

Aurora over Westfjords, Iceland. © 2012 Lance Keimig. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6 ISO 3200.

Q: I’ll be traveling to Iceland in March to shoot auroras. Which lens would you recommend between a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 and a Sigma 14mm f/1.8? Or is there another lens you’d recommend instead? I’m shooting with a Sony a7R III. — Jeff

A: Congrats on your Iceland trip! Our No. 1 bit of advice is to get off of the main ring road and explore the random back roads to avoid the crowds. It can be busy over there!

As for your lens question, the wider-aperture model will probably be more useful, but it’s always good to have options. If the sky really lights up, you’ll want the widest lens you can get, but the 14mm is crazy wide for general shooting. Also, you don’t necessarily need superfast lenses—with a good aurora, you will probably be stopping down a few stops anyway.

For more advice on shooting the northern lights, see our two blog posts “Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis.” and “Northern Exposure: 8 Illuminating tips for Photographing Auroras.” — Lance

5. Moonrises at Sunset

Day before full moon, Death Valley National Park. © 2005 Tim Cooper. Canon 1Ds, 16-35mm lens at 31mm. 4 seconds, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: We learned from PhotoPills that sunsets can be spectacular when the moonrise and sunset occur within an hour of each other. But the moon rises in the east and the sun sets in the west, so we’re stumped. Any ideas? — Barbara E.

A: I suggesting thinking about it this way: What will be illuminated from the west when you’re facing east, with a great view of the moon rising behind it? The idea isn’t to shoot the sun and moon together, but rather to shoot the full moon rising among beautifully sunlit scenery or among the delicate light of a just-set sun.

The other advantage to this scenario is that the brightness of sunset balances well with the moon, which equalizes the intensities to get it all in one shot (as opposed to having to HDR the scene, which is so often the need when trying to shoot the moon over a landscape).

For a crispy moon, keep those exposure times short—don’t be afraid to ramp up your ISO to keep things sharp. Ideally, you want a big ol’ moon coming just off the horizon with gentle, ruddy sunlight kissing your subjects.

Grab your phone and scout with PhotoPills! Use it to see just where that moon will peek up to be sure you will see it during that sweet spot of sunset with the moon on the horizon.

And please send us photos of your success! — Matt

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Northern Exposure: 8 Illuminating tips for Photographing Auroras

Witnessing an aurora is one of life’s truly magical experiences. Watching the pulsating light and soaking in the surreal green glow fills you with excitement, awe and wonder. As photographers, however, we’re not content to just stand by and watch. We want to capture this spectacle, share it with others, and relive it again and again.

To help you do that even better, Lance, Gabe and I put together eight killer tips for seizing the northern (or southern!) lights.

(For a primer on this topic, read Lance Keimig’s February blog post Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis.”)

15 seconds, f/3.3, ISO 3200. Shot with Nikon D750 and 24mm lens. © Lance Keimig.

Lance Keimig

1. Aurora Exposures

The correct exposure for an aurora can vary dramatically depending on both its intensity and movement. Sometimes there may be a relatively stable band of light in the sky that grows in intensity over time. This is easy to photograph, and usually does not change the exposure from what the normal landscape exposure would be.

For a static aurora, typical exposures are equivalent to landscape exposures based on corresponding moonlight or artificial light.

If you’re lucky, the band will grow into the magical dancing lights that can become so bright as to illuminate the landscape with green. To photograph a dancing aurora, it is important to keep the shutter speed as short as possible to prevent the crazy shapes from blending into electric pea soup.

For a rapidly changing aurora, try to keep exposures in the neighborhood of about 2 to 10 seconds. I recommend setting the ISO based on the ambient landscape light—i.e., not factoring the aurora into your exposure determination. So, for new moon conditions, shoot at ISO 1600 to 6400, and for full moon conditions, shoot at 400 to 800. From there, pick a wide aperture that gives adequate depth of field for the scene, usually stopping down 1 or 1 1/2 stops from wide-open, depending on the focal length and quality of your glass. Lastly, vary the shutter speed as needed to get a balance between a decent exposure and stopping the movement of the dancing lights.

6 seconds, f/3.3, ISO 3200. Shot with Nikon D750 and 14mm lens. © Lance Keimig.

6 seconds, f/3.3, ISO 3200. Shot with Nikon D750 and 14mm lens. © Lance Keimig.

2. Finding the Aurora: What the Camera sees Versus what You See

Because human eyes lose sensitivity to color in low light, an aurora may sometimes fool you into thinking it is just a cloud. The show often begins as a faint glow in one location in the sky, and it may not be very impressive. If there is a high probability of auroras, it’s a good idea to take test images of different parts of the sky while you are waiting in case there is something that your eyes don’t pick up.

If you live in—or will be traveling to—extreme northern or southern latitudes where auroras are commonly seen, it’s a good idea to have an app like Aurora Forecast (Apple, Android) or Aurora Alerts (Apple, Android) on your phone, and set notifications for specific activity levels. Auroral strength is measured on a scale of 0 to 9 Kp. In high latitudes like Alaska or Iceland, a Kp of 4 or higher indicates a high probability of photographable auroras. In middle latitudes like New England or the Pacific Northwest, a Kp of 5 means that you just might see something on the northern horizon. In mid-latitudes, a Kp of 6 or higher makes it worthwhile to seek out the lights.

In high latitudes, auroras may appear in any part of the sky. In middle latitudes, they are generally seen only as a faint green glow on the northern horizon.

Four-frame panorama shot at 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Nikon D750 with a 24mm lens. © Lance Keimig.

Gabriel Biderman

3. Keep Clicking and Make a Time-lapse

Bring two rigs and set up one for a time-lapse. If the auroras are really active, this is a great way to show off how much they dance in the sky. Once you figure out your exposure, use an intervalometer to make sure the camera keeps firing for at least 30 minutes. The longer you let it rip, the longer the “movie” will be.

Here’s a time-lapse I did of aurora in Iceland:

4. Look for Interesting Foreground and Subjects

When chasing after an aurora, look for interesting foregrounds to play against the dancing green lights. Trees, mountains and other landscape elements are common subject matter—so look for dramatic compositions to include them.

On our last workshop in Iceland, we were fortunate enough to have the ruins of an old herring factory, old boats and other striking buildings beautifully collide with the auroras. And on our recent workshop in Olympic National Park, Matt, Chris and the participants were able to photograph an aurora alongside a massive sea stack.

10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Nikon D750 with a 14mm lens. © Gabriel Biderman.

5. Create an Aurora Portrait

Try to capture your experience under the northern/southern lights. There is such a sense of wonder and amazement when you are experiencing an aurora, so take a portrait of yourself or your friends under the night sky! A flash can be your friend for freezing the portrait with one pop, as your shutter speeds will generally be 2 to 4 seconds.

We had an amazing time taking our Iceland participants’ portraits during a night when the auroras just wouldn’t stop! My base exposure was 4 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400, so we just needed 1/64 power from the flash to make the night portrait complete.

Lance under an Icelandic aurora. 4 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Nikon D750 with a 14mm lens. © Gabriel Biderman.

Tim Cooper

We should always strive to get the perfect picture in-camera, and shooting the auroral lights is no different. Composition and exposure (f-stop and shutter speed) are crucial. Severe cropping and exposure changes will damage your photo, and fixing shutter speed or depth of field is impossible after the fact.

That being said, there are several things that can be altered in post-production that have no bearing on the initial capture. In fact, some of these things you can’t even accomplish in-camera.

6. Change Your White Balance

White balance can and should be set correctly for the initial capture. While it’s difficult to give an exact white balance setting for all situations, it’s safe to say that you’ll probably want to run a bit cooler than a typical Daylight (direct sun) setting. In the comparison below, the first image was made with a Daylight white balance, while the second was made at 4200 K. (Both images shot at 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 1600 with a 14mm lens.) Notice how the cooler white balance setting of 4200 K separates the color and makes the image feel more dynamic.

Experiment while out in the field to find the best look. If you find your images are too warm when back in Lightroom, slide the Temp slider toward the blue end.

7. Add Whites

It would seem odd to address the Whites slider in Lightroom’s Basic panel while working aurora images, but it really works! This has to do with the underlying algorithm of the tool itself. Moving the slider to the right has the effect of increasing overall contrast, thereby adding more snap and pop to your images. In the comparison below, the first image (10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600 with a 14mm lens) is as shot, while the second has been adjusted in Lightroom with Whites at +49, and therefore has more pop.

8. Add Dehaze

The Dehaze slider is the night photographer’s secret weapon. It increases contrast and saturation in the low-contrast portions of the image. Be careful here. This slider can be seductive. Adding too much can make your image look really fake. Start slow and add small increments at a time. Continue to compare your adjustments with the original by clicking on the before-and-after view (circled below).

We hope some of these tips will help make your aurora photographs even more stellar!

Are there any tips or techniques you’d like to share? How about some amazing aurora images? Feel free to post in the Comments section below!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Five Questions: Offering Answers on Gear, Techniques and Etiquette

As you might imagine, we get emails from time to time asking us questions about night photography. We’re always happy to respond personally to those questions. However, there’s also the (largely correct) theory that for every person who asks a question, there are a hundred others who want to know the same thing but didn’t ask.

Therefore, we have decided that from time to time we will collect five of the questions that have recently been asked of us, and share them, along with our answers, with all of our blog readers. We hereby commence this “Five Questions” series today.

Our first foray into shedding some light on night photography conundrums includes some excellent questions on gear, techniques and etiquette.

1. SharpStar2 and the Nikon 14-24mm

Q: I have the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. I have just finished reading about the SharpStar2. In my very limited experience with photographing stars, I have yet to obtain anything close to a sharp focus on them. Thus I’m intrigued by the SharpStar2. Can this be used with the lens I’ve mentioned? I’m assuming I would have to purchase the appropriate square filter holder and the appropriate size SharpStar 2 filter. Could you tell me what size to order, and which filter holder you’d recommend? — Liela N.

A: Although the Nikon 14-24mm is one of the best lenses for night photography, it’s actually not one I can recommend for combining with the SharpStar2. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a way to get it to work at all. The issue is that lens has the bulbous front element, which means a flat filter can’t be used without retrofitting a holder. There’s a great article on Naturescapes titled “Adapting Filters to Fit the Nikon 14-24mm Lens” that explains why and offers a DIY solution, but it requires a 150mm filter, and the largest that SharpStar2 comes in is 100mm.

But I would definitely hold on to that lens for night photography! If you’d like to work on other techniques for focusing in darkness, I’ll offer three suggestions:

  1. Use Live View. It’s infinitely easier than trying to focus through your viewfinder.
  2. Try presetting your lens to infinity during daylight, then turn off autofocus and tape down the focus ring.
  3. Use hyperfocal distance.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in purchasing the SharpStar2 for other lenses, we have a discount code we can share with you. Use “NPAN10” to receive 10 percent off the SharpStar2 on LonelySpeck.com. — Chris

2. Stack-a-Matic

Q: I use Photoshop/Lightroom CS6. I am a new user to Photoshop so obviously still learning. I tried to download your recommended Stack-A-Matic but I get an error that says I need Photoshop 12 or higher. What is a good stacking program that goes with CS6? — Sue W.

A: Stack-a-Matic works with CS5 thru CC (latest). Did you download it from my website, and use the manual installation instructions? Sometimes it’s a little bit finicky, but it does work. You might have to do a restart, or possibly walk through the installation twice, but it’s worth it.

I’m sorry that I can’t offer more tech support than this for Stack-a-Matic; I’m just hosting it for Russell Brown. Alternatively, you can try StarStax for Mac, and Startrails.exe for PC. — Lance

3. Light painting in Arches National Park

Arches National Park. © 2016 Tim Cooper.

Arches National Park. © 2016 Tim Cooper.

Q: I heard/read that Arches National Park has closed the permits for night photography. Does this mean for workshops or personal? — Juan Aguilera

A: Yes, Arches (and Canyonlands National Park) did institute a rule change this year, but it applies only to instructor-led groups using an official CUA (Commercial Use Authorization) permit, and for the moment it applies only to light painting.

If you go on your own as a photographer, there are no restrictions—for now. But if photographers don’t collectively respect that environment (i.e., behave ourselves), who knows what might change? While we don’t agree with a blanket rule change in Arches, we do understand why it was implemented. We always talk about the etiquette of doing night photography in a way that doesn’t negatively affect others who are enjoying the same dark skies that we’re photographing. (See the early sections of the “Night Photography in National Parks” presentation Lance and Chris did at the B&H Event Space a few months ago.)

However, it’s also good to note that if you’re planning to shoot in Arches in 2017, the park will be closed at night every Sunday through Thursday due to road construction. So you can do night photography only on Fridays and Saturdays, until the expected November completion date. — Matt

4. Aurora in New England?

Q: Is there any chance of seeing aurora in New England? And is there a good app that you use for potential activity? HersheyArtImages

A: The aurora can occasionally be seen in southern New England, but it is usually just a little bit of green near the horizon in the northern sky, when seen from a dark beach with a view to the north. In the northern parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, it is seen a little more frequently.

We use an app called Aurora Forecast, which is available for both iOS and Android. Once you download it, you can customize the settings to send you an alert for a kp (the unit of measurement of auroral activity) of 6 or higher in the middle latitudes. If the activity is much less than that, you are not likely to see anything.

You will never see aurora from a light-polluted area so far south. Really strong displays can sometimes be viewed right in the center of Reykjavik –– but that is a much smaller city, with much smaller suburbs. — Lance

5. Dealing with light pollution

In this photo from Everglades National Park, light pollution from distant Miami builds up in a 30-second exposure to provide depth to the scene. © 2013 Chris Nicholson.

In this photo from Everglades National Park, light pollution from distant Miami builds up in a 30-second exposure to provide depth to the scene. © 2013 Chris Nicholson.

Q: I am struggling with processing wide-field astrophotography images (starscapes, Milky Way, etc.). In particular, with how to remove light pollution, which is an unfortunate fact of life for those of us living in the eastern part of the country. For wide-field photographs, the light pollution is usually graduated over the image, being brightest at the horizon and diminishing at you go higher. I would very much appreciate any tips you might have in this area. — David T.

A: Honestly, I generally don’t do anything to try to rid light pollution from my night photos, but rather try to use that extraneous light creatively. Specifically, I use the distant light to create silhouettes of mountains, for example, or to light clouds in the sky. Both of those tactics can provide depth to otherwise pitch-dark scenes.

If you do want to negate the color effect of light pollution in the night sky, a tech option is to try one of the new filters for eliminating the color cast in the sky that can be caused by light pollution. Our friends at Lonely Speck recently released the PureNight filter, which is made from a special didymium glass that reduces the transmission of light from sodium vapor lamps. We have yet to try it, but they know their stuff, so it’s likely an excellent solution. We also just heard about the NiSi Natural Night Filter from Ikan, but again, we haven’t had the pleasure of trying it yet. — Chris

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis

I recently led a few photo tours to Iceland to photograph the northern lights, and our groups each had the good fortune to experience several nights of clear skies and brilliant displays of aurora.

It's an amazing experience, both to photograph and simply to see. One of the high seasons for aurora is nearly upon us, so I chose to write a primer on how to tackle this exciting genre of night photography.

Where and When to Find Aurora

The aurora borealis, as the northern lights are also known, occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun are carried by solar wind toward Earth and collide with gases in the upper atmosphere. Those gas particles—most commonly oxygen (green aurora) and nitrogen (pink aurora)—are “excited” by the collisions, and release photons of light.

Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of the solar particles, but that field is weakest at the poles. This is why the aurora is mainly seen near the polar regions. (Toward the South Pole, they're called the aurora australis, or southern lights.) In general, the chances of viewing the aurora in the Northern Hemisphere are best at latitudes above 55° N, and between the months of September and March. Historically, March and October are the best months for aurora viewing.

There are a number of apps to help locate the aurora. The one we at NPAN have used the most is Aurora Forecast. Some of the newer apps seem to have more favorable reviews, and may be worth trying. Whichever app you choose, set the preferences to send you an alert for a Kp rating of 5 or higher, for middle latitudes if you live at or below 55° N latitude, and high latitudes above 55° N. Kp is the unit of measurement for geomagnetic conditions responsible for the aurora.

Aurora and sodium-vapor, Reykjavik, Iceland. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 2500.

Aurora and sodium-vapor, Reykjavik, Iceland. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 2500.

The frequency of clear skies is also a big a factor in seeing the aurora, but broken cloud cover can add a lot of visual interest in aurora photographs. The phenomenon can appear at any time when the sky is dark, but the best viewing times are typically from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Solar activity peaks and falls on an 11-year cycle. The winter of 2012-13 was the peak of the current cycle, which was theoretically the best chance to see auroral activity for the next decade. Luckily for us though, there has been plenty of auroral activity every winter since 2012.

Iceland lies between 64° and 66° N, and is ideally suited for viewing and photographing the aurora. Despite being so far north, its position on the Gulf Stream keeps the winters relatively mild compared to other good aurora-viewing places such as Scandinavia and Alaska. During my two Iceland tours in 2015, we had good viewing conditions and good sightings for nine out of 17 nights, and really spectacular displays on three of those nights.

Photographing the aurora is relatively straight-forward once you understand the basics. The remainder of this article is intended to provide the basic information required for aurora photography.

Prepare for the Cold

It’s obvious that you’ll be photographing in cold weather conditions, and there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and your equipment from the cold.

Warming hut. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

Warming hut. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

Dress in layers, making sure that your innermost layer is synthetic rather than cotton. Synthetic fibers wick moisture away from the body, keeping you warm and dry. Dress as if it will be colder than it really will be. Standing around for hours on end will make you feel much colder than if you were active or if you were outside for only a short while.

Your best options are:

  • heavyweight merino wool and synthetic-blend socks
  • insulated boots with wool or sheepskin liners
  • long underwear
  • lined pants, wind pants or long underwear with ski pants

Make sure your neck is covered, and find just the right hat. The best bet for your hands is flip-top mittens with chemical hand warmers and potentially thin, form-fitting glove liners. (We particularly like the Trigger Mitt by our friends at Vallerret.) If you’re going to Alaska, or somewhere frigid, extreme cold weather clothing can be expensive, but is essential.

Camera gear for Aurora Photography

Photographing the aurora tests the limits of our gear, so this is a case where using the best equipment really makes a difference in the quality of your images.

Cameras and Lenses

Cameras with full-frame sensors are ideal, as are fast, ultrawide-angle lenses. Cameras such as the or D750, Pentax K1, Sony A7R2 or A7S2, and Canon EOS 6D or EOS 5D Mark IV are particularly well-suited to this work. The next best option is an APS-C camera, such as the Nikon D500. But if you will be using an APS-C camera, I recommend sticking with newer models that perform better at high ISOs.

Fast, wide to ultrawide angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range are the most useful for full-frame cameras, and those manufactured by Samyang under the brand names of Samyang, Bower and Rokinon offer a great value for about one-third the price of the comparable Canon and Nikon lenses, and they suffer less from coma at wide apertures. It’s recommended to test these lenses thoroughly after purchase, as quality control is notoriously inconsistent.

The best zoom lenses for this type of photography are the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. A lens hood is helpful not only for preventing flare, but also for protecting the front element from frost and condensation.

Wellhead and aurora. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 3200.

Wellhead and aurora. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 3200.

Tripods

A sturdy tripod is essential of course, and those with three leg sections are generally more stable than those with four or five. One exception to the three-section leg rule is the Gitzo Series One Traveler. This is one of our favorite travel tripods, as it packs small and is incredibly sturdy. A more economical alternative is the Manfrotto 190Go! Carbon Fiber Tripod Kit with Ball Head.

Insulated leg sections are easier to handle, especially on aluminum tripods. Ball heads are better suited for this work than traditional pan-tilt heads because they can be adjusted quickly to track quickly changing aurora.

Miscellaneous Gear

Since exposures are generally 30 seconds or less, a remote release or intervalometer is helpful, though not required. In fact, the cables can freeze and break in extremely cold weather, so if the temperature is below zero F, you’re better off without one. If you are working without a remote release of some sort, be sure to use the 2-second delay on the self-timer to avoid camera movement when depressing the shutter button.

The only other equipment you’ll need is an extra camera battery or two. You’ll want to keep your extra batteries close to your body in an inner pocket, as they will not last as long in the cold. You can also consider connecting to an external power supply with the Tether Tools Case Relay Camera Power System.

Remove any filters from your lenses, and be sure to use your lens hoods, which will help minimize frost or condensation buildup on the front element. A neoprene beer/soda cozy with the end cut off can be used to hold one or two chemical warmers to your lens, which also can prevent the lens from fogging over.

Lastly, you'll want some flashlights. We recommend carrying at least two: a dim or preferably red one (such as Coast's FL75 headlamp) for finding things in your bag or making adjustments to your camera, and a very bright flashlight to use as a focusing aid or for light painting. (As usual, we can't recommend the Coast HP7R enough. Use the coupon code “parksatnight” for 25 percent off of all merchandise at CoastPortland.com.)

Ambient Light and Aurora Photography

Ambient light from towns and cities will obscure all but the brightest aurora displays, so make sure you are well away from urban areas. That said, the distant glow from streetlights or the last glow of a fading sunset on the horizon can add another element of color to your photographs. Sodium-vapor streetlights reflecting off of low clouds is another possibility to add contrasting color to aurora photos.

Aurora and sodium-vapor clouds. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200.

Aurora and sodium-vapor clouds. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 3200.

Lunar phase and lunar elevation in the sky both have a profound impact on night photography in general, and on aurora photography in particular. Photographing without any moonlight will mean primarily silhouetted foregrounds, and longer exposures at higher ISOs. Photographing under a full moon will mean much brighter foregrounds (especially if there is snow on the ground), shorter exposures at lower ISOs and fainter aurora in your photographs.

You can photograph the aurora at all phases of the lunar cycle, and the results will vary fairly dramatically; it’s just a matter of what kind of images you are looking for. My preference is to photograph between the first quarter and waxing gibbous phases, as there is sufficient moonlight to illuminate the landscape without overpowering the aurora. The first-quarter moon rises around noon, sets around midnight, and then rises about 45 minutes later each day until it is full. The full moon rises at about sunset and sets at about sunrise.

If you include interesting foreground elements, you may want to add light painting, especially when there is little or no moonlight present.

Camera Settings and Exposure for Aurora Photography

Aurora photography pushes the limits of even today’s best DSLR cameras. Because of the low light levels, and the need to keep exposures relatively short due to the moving nature of the aurora, you’ll be photographing at the highest usable ISO of your camera and the widest aperture that will yield sufficient sharpness and depth of field.

Determining your highest usable ISO is simply a matter of testing your camera by making a series of low-light exposures at increasing ISOs, and then scrutinizing the shadow areas of each exposure, preferably by making final-size prints of the images. (See Matt Hill’s post, “Keep the Noise Down: How to Take an ISO Test with your Camera.”) For me, 1600 is the highest ISO I use for print-quality images and 6400 for web-quality with my 5D Mark II.

Similarly, you’ll want to test your lenses for coma at wide apertures. A form of optical distortion, coma causes stars to appear as if they have “tails” like a comet, or sometimes like a bird in flight. Test your lenses by shooting starry skies at maximum aperture and then stopping down in half- or third-stop increments until you get to f/5.6, and then looking at the resulting images at full magnification for signs of coma. It’s generally found near the edges of the frame in images shot at or near maximum aperture. The Canon and Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lenses both suffer from fairly severe coma problems. (Coma is another topic we will discuss in more detail in the future.)

Aurora photography pushes the limits of even today’s best DSLR cameras.

Exposures for aurora photography range from approximately 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 for faint to average aurora on a moonless night, to 4 seconds, f/4, ISO 800 for bright coronal aurora on a full-moon night. The intensity of the aurora can vary dramatically—sometimes it’s barely visible to the naked eye but shows up nicely in photographs, and sometimes it can be so bright as to illuminate the landscape.

Determining exposure is accomplished by viewing a combination of the RGB histogram and the blinking highlight indicator. At a minimum, you should have a histogram that shows no shadow clipping—it can be a left-biased histogram, but the histogram should not be touching the left edge of the graph. Images with more exposure will have cleaner shadows with less noise. Ideally, you should not have to lighten your image in post-processing. Use the blinking highlight indicator to make sure that you are not overexposing the aurora or any highlights created by light painting. Use the LCD image preview primarily for confirming composition and focus.

Key camera settings

Here’s a rundown of the camera settings most important to photographing aurora, and my recommendations for how to set them.

  • Set file quality to RAW.
  • Use your camera’s highest usable ISO setting, hopefully between 1600 and 6400.
  • Set white balance to between 3700 K and 4100 K when shooting under moonlight, or between 4000 K and 5500 K when there is no moon.
  • Set your camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) to Auto (if available) or on.
  • Enable your camera’s RGB histogram to use as the primary exposure determinant in natural light.
  • Enable the blinking highlight indicator to ensure that you do not clip the aurora.
  • Set the LCD brightness to “auto” or reduce it manually to almost the lowest setting.
  • Set exposure mode to Manual.
  • Set focus to Manual.
  • Turn off IS/VR lens functions
  • For focusing, use magnified Live View with the assistance of a flashlight to illuminate your focal subject, or use conservative, well-executed hyperfocal distance.

For more information and a complete list of camera settings, download my PDF “Basic Camera Settings for Milky Way and Aurora Photography.”

Getting Out There

As with any type of photography, you’ll get better results with experience and practice. It’s very helpful to have a basic understanding of night photography, and to be completely familiar with your equipment before departing toward one of the poles. Simply working in the cold and darkness complicates photography exponentially, so do your homework, and be prepared. Don’t expect to get perfect results on your first attempt.

Taking a moment to enjoy the aurora.

Taking a moment to enjoy the aurora.

Photographing the northern lights can be like photographing a close friend or family member’s wedding: You’re so focused on the task at hand that before you know it, the event is over and you’ve completely missed out on the experience! Make sure that you take some time to simply step back, look up, and enjoy the magnificence of this special phenomenon.

Note: National Parks at Night's 2017 Westfjords, Iceland, Photo Tour is sold out, but there are at least a half a dozen U.S. national parks with opportunities to photograph aurora borealis, (and a few national parks in Iceland that we won't get to on this year's trip). To get early notifications of our 2018 workshops and tours, be sure that you are signed up for our mailing list.

Lance Keimig has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT