Thursday, March 8, 2012

Preparing To Shoot The Aurora Borealis



The awareness and the popularity of the aurora borealis (the northern lights) has been growing over the past few years due to the approach of Solar Maximum in 2013, and I’m lucky enough to be on the fore front of the aurora. What’s Solar Maximum you ask? It’s a period of heightened solar storms. The solar storms cause mass ejections of solar particles that may interact with our atmosphere and cause our aurora borealis and australis (the southern lights).

There are many ‘how to photograph the aurora’ articles out there...some good, some bad. I’ve found many, written a few myself, and some can really help you. This is more of an anecdotal description of what I do and how I get ready for a night when I go out to photograph the northern lights.

First, we need to find out when the aurora are going to happen. They happen most nights when you live under the auroral oval, but I go out when the forecasts are at least ‘moderate’. I use two websites religiously: http://astronomynorth.com/ and http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast . Both websites have their strengths and weaknesses and I use them together to help me make my choice of braving the northern winter nights.


When I decide to brave the cold after the forecasts for aurora and weather have been read, I start by packing a bag. I really try to pack lightly, one body, one lens, thermos of tea (or coffee for really late nights), head lamp, an extra battery, and my tripod. I pack it all into a shoulder bag and get ready to get dressed. Sadly, this takes longer than packing. Big wool socks, wool base layers, fleece mid layers then snow pants and a parka. I wear small gloves and use big mitts to keep my fingers warm when I’m not manipulating the camera.

I try to have a destination in mind before I leave and try to pre-visualize my photographs before I get there. They may not work out, but at least you have ideas in your mind. It’s great to be reactive to the lights, but it’s a good idea to anticipate them as well.

When I get to my location, I usually find one of two things happening. The aurora may be a little slow in their movements, or they may be dancing above. For the slow aurora, I like to let my shutter speed run a bit longer. This will let the aurora blur a bit longer (like running water) but their flow still shows. When they’re slow, they tend to move in a ‘stream’ with few twirls so you can afford to slow your shutter down without causing a large blur of aurora. When the aurora starts to twirl and spike above you, shorten the length of your shutter speed and increase your ISO if needed. If you take a long exposure of fast aurora, you’ll be left with a blurry mess.


We’ve all seen images of the aurora borealis now, the internet is flooded with them. So how can you make your images stand out? Personally, I try to photograph the aurora with a strong foreground. Whether it’s using still water in the autumn or using tree silhouettes in the winter, I try to use a great environment to help create a photograph.

One important thing to do while you’re out there is to just sit and enjoy them for a moment. They’re easily one of the most beautiful sights in the world. You can have pink, magenta, and green lights dancing above you. They look like you can just reach up and touch them. Legend to our Aboriginal peoples in the Northwest Territories of Canada, is if you whistle to them, you can bring the aurora closer... but be careful, if they get too close to you they can kick your head off. So, make sure not to whistle too much!

My favorite new lens to use when I photograph the aurora is the Canon 16-35mm F/2.8 L II (that I purchased from KEH!). I’ve just upgraded from the mark I and love this lens. It’s relatively fast enough to capture the lights, but the ultra wide angle really allows me to capture the aurora in its vastness. Some may prefer a faster 24mm F/1.4 lens, and which would be great to capture faster details and spikes in the aurora, but the loss of focal range is why I stick to the 16-35mm. Personally, I don’t use Fish-eye lenses because of their distortion, but they are the ultimate tool for capturing the most sky.


I’m quite lucky since I live in Hay River, Northwest Territories, and get to see the lights whenever they’re glowing (weather permitting). If you’re interested in coming this way, I suggest checking out this site http://www.myspectacularnwt.com



Contributor Bio:
Adam Hill is a nationally recognized professional nature and landscape photographer based in the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories, Canada. For almost a decade he has been sought after for his work--photos that emerge from his driving creativity and skilled technique. He's known for capturing striking images of northern landscapes, aurora borealis, nature, and wildlife. His work has been displayed publicly across the territory and country in galleries across Canada.

If you’re interested in photographing the aurora, Adam loves talking about them and helping people increase the quality of their photographs, so feel free to contact him. Also be sure to check out his portfolios and photo journal at www.adamhillstudios.com


photos © Adam Hill